Fusion Food : Birth of a Nation’s Cuisine : Food History: The adapting of ingredients and dishes from other cultures is nothing new in American cooking. In fact, it’s as old as macaroni and cheese and chili con “cana.”
Fusion Cuisine may be the culinary buzzword of the ‘90s. We’ve tried Thai, finished French and been inundated by Italian. Sometimes it seems the only culinary frontiers left are a mix of multiethnic themes.
But Fusion Cuisine has really been going on forever. Every nationality borrows foreign food ideas, changing them in the process. When American cooks turned the pizza into the deep-dish pizza and the enchilada into the enchilada pie, they were adapting those dishes to their own taste the same way they’d already adapted the English fruit pie--downplaying the doughy part and expanding the filling. (And as for the original English fruit pie, the French already thought of it as a tarte gone wrong.)
Now put yourself in the shoes of an American cook back in the wood-burning stove days, 100 or 150 years ago. Most Americans cooked a traditional cuisine based on English-style stews, puddings and pies, rounded out with Indian touches such as hominy and succotash and a few wafts of German or Dutch influence. Cookbooks were rare, and rarer still were people who could afford to visit foreign countries.
But as people get beyond the level of hand-to-mouth existence, they begin to ask more of food than whether it’s filling. They want variety; they want sophistication--which in the 19th Century meant French cuisine, or whatever people thought was French. During the 19th Century, American cooks (following in the footsteps of English cooks) took to putting white sauce in an awful lot of dishes in order to make them more elegant.
French influence didn’t mean a radical departure from the English tradition, though. Partly this is because our knowledge of French cookery was filtered through cookbooks written in England, and partly it’s because English cuisine is an old-fashioned, backwoodsy cousin of French cuisine to begin with. In our language we can’t talk about food without using French-based words such as boil, fry and sauce.
With that sort of culinary background, what would you have thought, 100 or 150 years ago, of the fresh herbs and lightly cooked vegetables of today’s Italian cuisine, or that wide range of pastas in highly flavored sauces? What would you have made of Mexican cuisine with its aggressive spicing and unfamiliar uses of corn? And what about the fresh tomato sauces that Italians and Mexicans made? To Americans, ripe tomatoes were mostly for putting up as a (not necessarily sweet) condiment called ketchup.
Probably you’d do what people always seem to do when they have a slight contact with another cuisine. You’d adapt the foreign flavors you liked to the techniques you knew. And maybe you’d pick up some pretty strange ideas about what those peculiar foreigners eat.
Americans learned of Italian food first; for most of the 19th Century, we considered pasta dishes sophisticated and European, and only the rich ate them. (Even in the Middle Ages, the English had known something about Italian food, though they spelled macaroni as macrowes and lasagna as lozenys. ) Then, toward the end of the century, as Italian markets sprang up in every city to accommodate the flood of Italian immigrants, non-Italians began to see pasta in a whole new way--as an early version of Hamburger Helper, a thrifty extender for expensive ingredients such as meat.
One thing is clear from the old cookbooks: Pasta was always cooked well past the al dente stage. Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife” (1824) gave a recipe called mock macaroni--for the times you didn’t have (or couldn’t afford) real macaroni--which was essentially macaroni and cheese with crackers soaked in milk in place of the pasta. In “Mrs. Rorer’s New Cookbook” (1895), a best-seller of its day, Sarah Tyson Rorer decried the careless cooking that turned macaroni into “a mass of heavy paste.” But her own method was to boil the pasta for 30 minutes, blanch it in cold water for another 30 and then cook it 20 minutes more with a sauce.
Some early recipes call for adding vermicelli or macaroni to soup, but the favorite pasta dish in this country has always been macaroni and cheese--Thomas Jefferson served it at the White House in 1802. The idea of baking pasta with cheese and white sauce is certainly Italian. Of course, when the cheese is Cheddar, rather than mozzarella, the result is delectably American.
By the 1880s, when tomatoes were available year-round in cans, Americans had also become aware that Italians often combine pasta with tomato sauce. Since the usual American sauces (brown sauce, made with meat juices, and white sauce, made with milk) were thickened with flour, American cooks instinctively thickened tomato sauce the same way, rather than cooking it down. This made a thickish sauce, but not a very tomato-y one.
“In almost all the Italian shops one can buy tomato ‘conserve’ in small cans, for 10 cents each,” noted Rorer in 1895. This concentrate could have made a stronger tomato sauce possible, but not the way Rorer used it--adding a teaspoon to a cup of water and three tablespoons of cream. Her “brown tomato sauce” was a cup of stock colored with a half a teaspoon of Kitchen Bouquet, plus a tablespoon of tomato paste mixed with a little Worcestershire sauce . . . or just a tablespoon of ketchup. (In the original, 1896 edition of Fannie Farmer’s “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” macaroni a l’Italianne was served with a flour-thickened tomato sauce and cheese; by adding six mushrooms and two slices of smoked tongue you could make it into macaroni a la Milanaise.)
There are evident, if remote, Italian roots for these dishes, but American cooks soon began inventing new dishes using pasta. In the 19th Century, we find macaroni rarebit (cooked in a chafing dish) and chili mac, originally known as Spanish macaroni; in the 20th, molded aspic with spaghetti in it and an omelet stuffed with chopped-up pasta (clearly an economy dish). An Italian reading the 1930 edition of “The Boston Cooking School Cook Book” would have been mystified not only by the continued practice of thickening tomato sauce with flour but the suggestion of serving macaroni with creamed chipped beef sauce . . . or peanut butter sauce.
Not just pasta but other Italian starches such as polenta, risotto and gnocchi were thought of as cheese-flavored. “The Virginia Housewife” explained that polenta is simply corn meal mush mixed with cheese. Americans long understood risotto to be plain boiled rice--perhaps thickened with flour!--mixed with cheese. (To be fair, a supplement to the 1904 edition of “The Century Cook Book” gave a respectably authentic risotto alla Milanesa recipe, with saffron-flavored stock being stirred into the rice as it cooks, though at the end you mixed in either Parmesan or Swiss cheese.)
In the post-Julia Child age, foodies were to fall in love with light, poached balls of dough, usually containing some potato, called gnocchi. The Boston Cooking School Magazine gave a recipe for that sort of gnocchi (well, made with hominy) in 1902, but it was a false start. In 1915 (and again in 1917 and 1930) the magazine’s successor, American Cookery, gave variations of the recipe for gnocchi (technically, this version is called gnocchi gratinati ) that had been in Fannie Farmer since 1896, where flour is boiled in a saucepan, mixed with cheese, cooled, sliced and browned in the oven, with or without more cheese and tomato sauce. Cheese had won again.
Ravioli came late to the cookbooks. The recipes usually called for a spinach filling, and an article in the March, 1933, issue of American Cookery reminded the reader, “Proper ravioli, we are told, contains no meat.” The writer was apologizing for having suggested putting anything you want in ravioli, which is actually closer to the Italian practice.
And then there were “cannelons.” Sometimes these were cannoli, which are cylinders of baked pastry served cold with a sweet filling, though one recipe calls for strawberries to be rolled up in puff pastry and deep-fried. Usually, however, a cannelon was a cylindrical meatloaf flavored with lemon zest that continued to appear in “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” for many years. Rarely, if ever, were recipes talking about canneloni, the large tubular pasta baked with a filling.
Not surprisingly, the first efforts to assimilate Mexican cuisine took place in California and the Southwest: In 1908, The Times published a cookbook that began with a section of 100 “Spanish Dishes.” But Rorer, who ran a cooking school in Philadelphia, had already included a seven-page chapter of “Spanish Dishes” in her 1902 book (showing that the confusion between Mexican and Spanish was not limited to California). Mexican food was beginning to be known around the country. By the turn of the century, chili parlors and street vendors were selling hot tamales in many cities and towns.
This is why Rorer gave a recipe for “chile con-cana,” and it’s partly why there were so many more recipes for tamales than for enchiladas. There was another reason for the relative unpopularity of enchiladas. Enchiladas only require dipping tortillas in a sauce and rolling them up around a filling, so we think of them as easier to make than tamales, which involve making masa , wrapping the filling in corn husks and steaming it. But that’s because we can easily get tortillas.
At the turn of the century, though, tortillas were not available in stores. Recipes in The Times cookbook explained how to roll out flour dough “the size of a dinner plate” and fry it (or even deep-fry it) to make tortillas. One of the tortilla recipes actually makes a crepe, and this idea was also on Rorer’s mind. Her recipe began: “Enchilades. This is a typical Spanish dish, and is made in two ways; in Mexico, the paste is made from cornmeal, while in Spain they prefer the ordinary thin, French pancake batter.” This would have been news to the Spanish.
Altogether quite a few ingredients we take for granted were unavailable. Ground chile, for instance; most recipes required soaking whole dried chiles and scraping the flesh from the skin. Oregano was not widely known--several recipes call for sage instead. Cumin, though known, was hardly ever called for in the recipes. However, chili powder (containing cumin and cinnamon) was already on the market, expressly for flavoring chili con carne.
The tamale recipes tended to call for a filling of chile-spiced chicken, or a mixture of olives and raisins--or both. Tamale steamers were apparently not available--the principle of steaming the husk-wrapped tamales was not always perfectly grasped. Most recipes say to put bones in the bottom of a pot and rest the tamales on top of them to steam, but several say to cover the tamales with water and boil them. In 1930, American Cookery offered a way around the whole steaming process: Bake cornmeal biscuits, hollow them out and put the cooked stuffing in them.
Nearly all the chile con carne recipes included beans (a 1918 American Cookery recipe calls for dried, canned or even green beans). A surprising number used chicken instead of beef, and one from The Times cookbook said, “I often omit beef, using instead 2 tablespoons butter and 2 quarts milk.”
This kind of arbitrary adaptation of a recipe flourishes when people have only slight acquaintance with a different cuisine, so with the passing of time, the recipes that appear in cookbooks and newspapers have become more and more authentic. The New York World’s Fair of 1939 brought a flurry of authentic recipes to cookery pages. Then came World War II, which took many Americans abroad, and then the biggest change of all: affordable jet travel and the subsequent growth of foodyism.
Foodies understandably disdain the halfway measures of the older recipes. For one thing, they want more distinctive flavors; they tend to be bored by the sweet and mild flavors, the avoidance of loud aromatics and the soft textures that characterize traditional American taste.
That’s their right. But to look down on these old dishes just because they are inauthentic is a little peculiar. There’s no law that a dish has to be made a certain way. If there were, the jails would be overflowing even in Italy and Mexico, because all cooks adapt dishes to their own taste. And when restaurant chefs adapt foreign culinary ideas, we don’t say they’re watering them down--we call it Fusion Cuisine.
A couple of decades from now, Fusion Cuisine will likely be taking place on a scale we can’t imagine. At the same time, we’ll probably look back on today’s cookbooks and realize that a lot of the recipes we thought of as hyper-authentic in 1993 had actually been subtly adapted to our own kitchens and our own tastes. We may even find we prefer a nice big slice of enchilada pie.
An early recipe for macaroni served with a sauce, rather than baked. From “Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook” (1884), by Maria Parloa.
MACARONI A L’ITALIENNE 1 cup milk 1 tablespoon flour 2 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon salt Freshly ground pepper Dash cayenne 2 tablespoons whipping cream 4 ounces Cheddar cheese, shredded 1 tablespoon ground mustard, optional 1/4 pound macaroni
Scald milk in double boiler. In bowl rub flour and butter together and whisk into milk. Stir over heat until thickened. Stir in salt, pepper to taste, cayenne, cream, cheese and mustard. (This can also be done in saucepan, if watched carefully.)
Cook macaroni according to package directions. Drain well and arrange in serving dish. Stir in sauce and serve. Makes 2 servings.
Each serving contains about:
642 calories; 1,716 mg sodium; 110 mg cholesterol; 36 grams fat; 53 grams carbohydrates; 26 grams protein; 0.20 gram fiber.
Rather suspiciously, this dish was also known as fried chicken a la Mexicaine. The old-fashioned tomato sauce does not taste much like the tomato sauces we know today; it’s tart and works better as a condiment on the side than as a sauce to be poured over (though it is exactly the sort of tomato sauce that was served on pasta 100 years ago). Serve with peas and mashed potatoes. From “The Original White House Cookbook” (1887), by Hugo Ziemann & Mrs. F.L. Gillette.
FRIED CHICKEN A L’ITALIENNE 1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces Tomato Batter 1/4 cup butter 1/4 cup oil Tomato Sauce
Dip chicken pieces in Tomato Batter. In large skillet melt butter with oil. Add chicken pieces 2 at time and fry until brown (more than 2 pieces at time can be fried as long as pieces are not crowded). Serve, passing hot Tomato Sauce. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
789 calories; 952 mg sodium; 217 mg cholesterol; 57 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 42 grams protein; 1.46 grams fiber. Tomato Batter 1/2 cup flour 1/2 cup milk 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes, well drained 1/2 onion, chopped 2 sprigs parsley, minced 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
In bowl beat flour and milk into smooth batter. Mix in tomatoes, onion, parsley, salt and pepper. Makes enough to coat 1 chicken.
Tomato Sauce 1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes 1 slice onion 2 cloves Dash black pepper Dash salt 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon flour
In saucepan cook tomatoes with onion, cloves, pepper and salt 20 minutes. Remove onion and cloves. Push tomato through strainer with back of wooden spoon, or puree in food processor.
Melt butter in saucepan. Stir in flour and continue stirring until golden and frothing. Stir in tomato pulp and bring to boil. Keep warm until ready to serve.
Here is what Americans long thought risotto meant: rice mixed with a little cheese. The simple, unthickened sauce was rather sophisticated for its day, calling for dried porcini mushrooms, but basically this recipe has the plain, homey quality of old-fashioned American cookery. We have increased the amount of water in the sauce from 3 tablespoons to 1/2 cup--perhaps correcting an error in the original text, perhaps unconsciously indulging in some fusion cuisine of our own. The recipe is identified as “Mrs. Maspero’s recipe” in “The Century Cook Book” (1895), by Mrs. August Foote Arnold. (The 1904 edition’s supplement contained a much more authentic risotto, with the word risotto correctly spelled.)
“RISSOTTO” 1 1/2 cups short-grain rice 4 cups water 1/2 cup Swiss cheese, shredded 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated “Rissotto” Sauce
In saucepan add rice to boiling water and simmer, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes. Cover and cook 10 minutes longer. Stir in Swiss and Parmesan cheeses and toss together. Top with “Rissotto” Sauce. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
397 calories; 235 mg sodium; 28 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 63 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 0.40 gram fiber. “Rissotto” Sauce 1 1/2 tablespoons butter 1 onion, chopped 1/2 clove garlic 1/2 cup water 1 teaspoon beef extract 3 to 4 dried porcini mushrooms, soaked
Melt butter in skillet. Brown onion and garlic. Add water, beef extract and mushrooms. Simmer 5 minutes.
This utterly American recipe appeared in the 1930 edition of “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook,” and cheese-flavored versions survived in “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” as late as 1979. (When macaroni with cheese and tomato sauce was enriched with chipped beef, the result was known as “Tuscany macaroni” in the 1920s.)
BAKED MACARONI WITH CHIPPED BEEF 1/2 pound elbow macaroni 1 quart water Chipped Beef Gravy
In saucepan boil macaroni in water until cooked. Drain well. Toss with Chipped Beef Gravy. Ladle into baking pan and bake at 325 degrees 10 minutes. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
485 calories; 1,020 mg sodium; 65 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 57 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 0.19 gram fiber. *
Chipped Beef Gravy 4 ounces chipped beef 1/4 cup butter 1/4 cup flour 3 cups milk Salt, pepper
In bowl soak chipped beef in hot water until softened, then drain.
Melt butter in saucepan, add flour and stir until blended. Whisk in milk and stir over medium heat until thickened, about 2 minutes. Add chipped beef and season to taste with salt and pepper.
The original recipe from Mrs. Robert Y. McBride, which appeared in “The Los Angeles Times Cookbook Number Three” (1908), included instructions for making tortillas--flour, rather than corn, tortillas--because they weren’t yet available in stores. The olive-and-raisin filling and the use of Gouda, instead of Mexican cheese, were common at the time. “Chilisalya” was clearly a misreading of a handwritten recipe for chile salsa. Notice the use of tarragon vinegar, a seemingly modern, though not particularly Mexican, idea.
ENCHILADAS, CIRCA 1908 4 cups pitted green or black olives, roughly chopped 3 cups raisins 12 large flour tortillas Chilisalya 1 pound Gouda cheese, shreded
Mix olives and raisins in bowl. In bowl dip 1 tortilla in Chilisalya and place on work surface. Put 1/12 of olive-raisin mixture on tortilla, add 1 tablespoon Chilisalya and some cheese. Roll tortilla up and place in baking dish. Repeat with remaining tortillas.
Pour remaining Chilisalya on tortillas in baking dish and sprinkle enchiladas with remaining cheese. Bake at 325 degrees 10 to 15 minutes. Makes 12 enchiladas, or 6 to 12 servings.
Each enchilada contains about:
416 calories; 798 mg sodium; 48 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 52 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 1.31 grams fiber.
* Chilisalya 2 tablespoons butter 2 onions, chopped 2 cloves garlic, sliced 2 tablespoons flour 1 (14-ounce) can tomatoes 1/4 cup ground ancho or pasilla chile 1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar 1 tablespoon dried oregano 1 tablespoon brown sugar, packed
Melt butter in skillet. Brown onions and garlic. Stir in flour and add tomatoes, ground chile, vinegar, oregano and brown sugar. Simmer 15 minutes.
An early stage in the development of the deep-dish tamale pie, with the real turn-of-the-century flavor. Recipe by Mrs. Bertha S. Morris, from “The Los Angeles Times Cookbook Number Three” (1908).
BAKED TAMALES 2 pounds ground beef 1 (14-ounce) can tomatoes 2 tablespoons chili powder or 5 teaspoons ground ancho (pasilla) chile plus 1 teaspoon cumin and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup black olives Corn Meal Dough
In skillet saute beef in pan until brown. Add tomatoes, chili powder, garlic, salt and olives. Cook 15 minutes.
Grease 9x13-inch baking dish and line bottom with 1/2 Corn Meal Dough. Add meat mixture and cover with remaining 1/2 Corn Meal Dough. Bake 20 minutes at 325 degrees or until browned. Makes 8 servings.
Each serving contains about:
578 calories; 1,213 mg sodium; 132 mg cholesterol; 28 grams fat; 57 grams carbohydrates; 23 grams protein; 1.24 grams fiber. *
Corn Meal Dough 4 cups corn meal 2 teaspoons salt 8 cups water 2 eggs, well beaten 4 tablespoons butter
Add corn meal and salt to water in pot. Bring to boil and cook over medium heat until thick, 5 to 10 minutes. Add eggs and butter. Stir well.