The dedicated chefs at ItChefs have declared this Sunday, January 17, to be the International Day of Italian Cuisine and the honored dish this year is tagliatelle al Ragu al Bolognese. One of the missions of the organization is to preserve and uphold the quality of Italian cuisine. Fair enough, although the rest of their mission involves getting paid for their work and was started by an Italian chef in Bali so I’ll let you work that out for yourself.
I see their point. Italian food in the States is usually Americanized Italian and a far cry from what is served in Italy. But, in authentic Italian tradition, of course its more complicated than that and as soon as you start to learn about Italian cooking, you begin to realize that the term “Italian cooking” is too generic to mean anything. A few basic things you need to know: Italy didn’t become a unified country until around 1860 and even though they do have a national anthem, they are deeply ambivalent about having a ‘national’ identity. First you belong to your family, then your town, then your commune, then your region, then Italy, so by the time you get to Italy, you have identify fatigue. In terms of cooking, it means: you make it like nonna, you share the same soil and weather with your town, you argue about recipes with the neighbors on the next block and all mention of “Italian cuisine” is reserved for the international press.
The ItChefs have declared war on “Italian cooking” by trying to raise awareness of the regional differences and they strive for accuracy in terminology. For example: spaghetti Bolognese, that dish enjoyed everywhere in the world, doesn’t exist in the city of Bologna. That’s because the region is known for fresh egg pasta like tagliatelle and dried spaghetti style pasta is a southern Italy food product. That’s just the noodle and that’s fairly easy to explain. The ragu or sauce is where there are true fighting words. Should the sauce be beef only, just beef flank, can it include pork and do you get drummed out of the corps altogether if you use veal? It took the Accademia della Italiana Cucina 38 years (!!!) to agree on a definition of this dish. I am giving you fair warning, unless you have 38 years to devote to the conversation, be careful about starting any conversation about the authentic version of a treasured recipe because it will be a long night. Over the years, I’ve learned to seal my mouth, look momentarily engaged and then wander off whenever the conversation turns to the ‘right’ way to make a dish.