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Writing about Food Memories

Monday, October 12, 2009
Food professionals are concerned with everything about the food itself, its preparation and its service -- food writers are concerned with those things as subject material, but their writing is about the larger place of food in our lives. When we eat, the physical nutrients that we swallow are only the smallest part of the meal, perhaps 5% -- the rest is emotional and intellectual.

That's the part that food writers need to capture when we write about the past. There are many ways to accomplish that end. They are like different recipes for the same dish.

Here are just a few of the possibilities:

The most obvious is narrated by an all-knowing person who lives in the present, but is describing the past. For example:

I don't know why I thought that Campbell's Tomato Soup was the best food ever invented, but I did. There was something about its smooth texture and rich red color that spoke deeply to my five-year-old's sensibilities.

Another way is to narrate the past as if it was happening right now, as an adult watching a child:

Running inside, the child stops suddenly at the edge of the table. There sits a bowl full of fire-engine colored soup, a spoon so big it needs to be gripped in an entire fist, and -- just off to the side -- four delightfully fragile Saltine crackers.

Another way is to let the child you once were do the talking:

I'd just come in from the snow, and my ears were as red as the soup in the bowl. There was a smell of wet wool from my mittens on the radiator by the window, steaming a little, like the soup. Best of all there were Saltines, just waiting to be smooshed on top, and a gigantic spoon to shove the pieces of cracker down into the soup.

Each "recipe" has its advantages and weaknesses, and each gives the writer a different opportunity to shape the reader's experience, just as a cook can vary the seasoning of a dish to make it bland and comforting, or spicy and exotic. A simple potato salad could become intriguing by adding a lot of fresh dill, or raise eyebrows (and temperatures) with a bit of hot Madras curry powder.

Same dish, different effects.

Food Sites for October 2009

Friday, October 2, 2009

October has arrived, the last chance for fresh local produce here in the so-called "temperate" northern hemisphere. Soon frost will be on the punkin (and everything else). Those of us who have been wasting our time in struggling to get our tomato plants to produce anything at all can now return to our normal struggles (in which we try to trim our over-burdened sentences to reasonably-lean form, devoid of the ever-so-tempting digressions that are keeping this sentence from achieving its loftiest ambitions).

Subscribers to our updates newsletter receive only these updates from our blog, Just Served, in their e-mailboxes. The rest of our little non-update screeds still go into the blog, but they no longer intrude themselves in our subscribers' mailboxes.

For those rare individuals who receive these updates and might actually want to read more, we'll provide links to newly-added pieces here, in the update headnotes, such as:

"What Memory Tells Us" is an essay about memoirs, memory and speculation about what made this food writer a food writer.

"Parmigiano-Reggiano" provides a little history of the success story -- some of which is a bit contentious -- of the "undisputed king of cheeses."

True gluttons for punishment should visit A Quiet Little Table in the Corner, a page that provides an ever-changing master index of any other web places that carry our stuff. It's hosted by Marty Martindale's Food Site of the Day, and you should check out some of the goodies she's got posted while you're there.

Here are two very different French "ifs," soon to be added to On the Table's quote pages:

"If a lump of soot falls into the soup and you cannot conveniently get it out, stir it well in and it will give the soup a French taste." Jonathan Swift

"If I compared my life to a cake, the sojourns in Paris would represent the chocolate filling and everything else would be plain English cake." A.J. Liebling

October, 2009

PS: If you encounter broken links, changed URLs -- or know of wonderful sites we've missed -- please drop us a line. It helps to keep this resource as useful as possible for all of us. To those of you who have suggested sites -- thanks, and keep them coming!

PPS: If you wish to change the e-mail address at which you receive these newsletters, or otherwise modify the way you receive our postings, go here.

PPPS: If you've received this newsletter by mistake, and/or don't wish to receive future issues, you have our sincere apology and can have your e-mail address deleted from the list immediately. We're happy (and continuously amazed) that so few people have decided to leave the list -- but, should you choose to be one of them, let us know and we'll see that your in-box is never afflicted by these updates again. You can unsubscribe here.

PPPPS: Leitesculinaria has been redesigned -- and it still contains some of the best food writing and recipes around. So far, it contains only a few of our own articles -- but, eventually, they'll all be here.

----the new sites----

Baking for Chefs Who Hate to Bake

(newsletter, with recipes, from Mark J. Kraft, author of the book of the same name)

Column: Arbor Vinous

(article about Dan and Jan Longone -- and how they got involved in food history in Ann Arbor, MI)

Edible Hawaiian Islands

(online version of the print magazine)

Encyclopedia of Food & Culture

(the entire text of Scribner's encyclopedia, arranged alphabetically)

Krauter und Heilpflanzen

(table of herb names in German, Latin, English; compiled by Lyn M. Parkinson)

Menus Collection

(from the "...Puget Sound area's most famous restaurants and dining facilities in the years between 1889 and 2003;" part of University of Washington Digital Collections)

Mycological Society of America, The

(site of "a scientific society dedicated to advancing the science of mycology -- the study of fungi of all kinds including mushrooms, molds, truffles, yeasts, lichens, plant pathogens, and medically important fungi")

Newspaper Food Sections and Columns Online

(searchable by day of the week or by state; plus cooking articles, a culinary dictionary, diet & health, food history, herbs & spices, menus, recipes, regional foods, and restaurant reviews)

Oriental Cook Book, The

("Wholesome, Dainty and Economical Dishes of the Orient, Especially Adapted to American Tastes and Methods of Preparation;" Ardashes H. Keoleian's 1913 book)

Sabrina Welserin's Cookbook

(sixteenth century German recipes)

Tasting Dirt

(Anne Zimmerman finally gets "the continuity of terroir, first-hand")

Women, Men, and Food: Putting Gender on the Table

(videos from the 2007 gender conference at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study)

----changed URLs----

Core Historical Literature of Agriculture, The (CHLA)

National Center for Home Food Preservation

----still more blogs----

Butcher's Info Blog, The

Cooking Down Under

Crispy on the Outside


One Hungry Chef

Pleasures of Cooking for One: Judith Jones

U.S. Food Policy

----that's all for now----

Except, of course, for the usual legal mumbo-jumbo and commercial flim-flam:

Your privacy is important to us. We will not give, sell or share your e-mail address with anyone, for any purpose -- ever.

Nonetheless, we will expose you to the following irredeemably brazen plugs:

Our books, The Resource Guide for Food Writers, The Herbalist in the Kitchen, The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food And Drink Industries, and Human Cuisine can be ordered through the Libro-Emporium.

Here endeth the sales pitch(es)...

...for the moment, anyway.

"The Resource Guide for Food Writers, Update #108" is protected by copyright, and is provided at no cost, for your personal use only. It may not be copied or retransmitted unless this notice remains affixed. Any other form of republication -- unless with the author's prior written permission -- is strictly prohibited.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Gary Allen.

Parmigiano Reggiano Redux

Thursday, October 1, 2009
When we write for print media, invariably we find that we left something out, made a factual error, or otherwise screwed-up -- after it's gone to print, when there's nothing we can do about it. However, when we write for the web, we get a chance to make corrections. The following article is an an example of previously-posted writing that has a chance to be improved through the help of others (much more knowledgeable others).

"The undisputed king of cheeses."
Mario Batali

Several years ago, as I emerged from the airport in Naples and stepped for the first time onto an Italian street, I saw, just a few yards away, my first Italian billboard. It said, simply -- and, I thought, eloquently -- "Parmigiano Reggiano." "Now this," I thought, "is a civilized country; a place that has all its values in place." Naples is a long way from Parma -- and while Italy is a country of regional foods (so much so that foods from a nearby village are often considered to be "foreign "), Parmigiano Reggiano can be found everywhere.

Without doubt, Parmigiano Reggiano is a wonderful cheese. It has had that reputation in Italy for nearly 800 years (even if that name didn't yet exist). Boccaccio's Decameron -- written in the mid-fourteenth century -- describes Bengodi, a mythical happy valley, not unlike the valleys in which Parmigiano Reggiano is produced, where:

"...they bind the vines with sausages, and a denier will buy a goose and a gosling into the bargain; and on a mountain, all of grated Parmesan cheese, dwell folk that do nought else but make macaroni and ravioli, and boil them in capon's broth, and then throw them down to be scrambled for; and hard by flows a rivulet of Vernaccia, the best that ever was drunk, and never a drop of water therein."

Boccaccio's little culinary flourish -- cooking pasta in capon broth -- has a Bolognese refinement about it. Today's Bolognese cooking is still reminiscent of that described by Boccaccio -- although, tomatoes from the New World (not available in Boccaccio's time) are required to make the famous Ragu Bolognese.

The quality of Parmigiano Reggiano is no accident. After it is produced and aged for one year, it is inspected by a battitore (expert cheese taster), and sorted into three grades. Two that meet the Consorzio's quality standards can be called Parmigiano Reggiano after the fire-brand certification mark is applied. The third is cheese that doesn't meet the standards and is declassified. It can only be labeled as ordinary grana, and is reserved for industrial uses, such as the manufacture of processed foods. Of the two certified qualities of Parmigiano Reggiano, Mezzano is best eaten young, before eighteen months and Classico is aged for an additional six to twelve months. Very little Mezzano is sold in the US, 'though it less expensive. Some Classico, after additional inspections, can achieve a top-of-class certification and is marked "extra" or "export" ('though the latter term is gradually being phased out).

Rob Kaufelt, the proprietor of Murray's Cheese Shop -- in New York City's Greenwich Village -- says that Parmigiano Reggiano is one of his three top-selling cheeses (along with Brie and "the entire Cheddar family"). Granted, Kaufelt's customers are among the most educated consumers of cheese, but a craving for Parmigiano Reggiano has been awakened in average American consumers as well -- people who have, only in the past decade or so, learned that grated cheese can be much more than that dried-out powder on the counter in pizza parlors.

Silvestro Silvestori, who runs a cooking school in Lecce, Italy -- Awaiting Table -- has noticed that many of his American students "pride themselves on only using Parmigiano Reggiano." One would think that Italians, if given the choice, would abandon all other hard grating cheeses (such as Grana Padano -- which also comes from the Po Valley, its name means "Grana from the Po Valley" -- and Pecorino Romano) for this one cheese from the Emilia Romagna.

Italians do not restrict themselves to Parmigiano Reggiano anymore than Indians eat only curries, or all Mexican foods contain chiles The notion is so simplistic that it borders on the ridiculous -- and this from people who pride themselves on their gourmet bona-fides (whether they actually possess them or not).

Certainly, it was only a matter of time before a great cheese, like Parmigiano Reggiano, was "discovered" by American foodies -- and once discovered, it's not at all surprising that its fame spread in food-loving circles. The only question, then, is how did Americans first learn that it was so much more than the pre-grated stuff they were used to getting at the grocery store? Those of us who live in areas where great imported foods, and high-quality ingredients, are easy to find, may be disappointed when traveling to remote regions. I recently searched, in vain, for Parmigiano Reggiano in a large grocery store in upstate New York. When I asked an employee, I was directed to the dried pasta aisle where the store's only grated cheese sat on a shelf -- and, just like the powdery substance of the 1950s, it apparently had no need of refrigeration. No doubt the green foil was all the protection it needed.

In 1979, Burton Wolf spent two weeks at Marcella Hazan's cooking school in Bologna -- trying to assemble "a checklist of Italian cooking equipment." When he came back, he wrote up his findings for an article in the Washington Post (August 12, 1979). One of the items on that list was a cheese gouger, the sturdy dagger-like blade used for breaking off ragged chunks of hard cheeses. Along with his description of the cheese gouger, he wrote, casually,

"One of the most commonly used cheeses in Italian cooking is Parmigiano Reggiano, and it's very hard."

It was the earliest mention that I've been able to find, in US print media (using Lexis-Nexis, that only goes back to 1970), of the "undisputed king of cheeses." Waverley Root had written an article about the cheese for The International Herald Tribune six years earlier, and Business Week had mentioned the cheese in a 1969 article, but more Americans would have read their first account of Parmigiano Reggiano in Wolf's article. Given its centuries-old existence in Italy, it's not surprising that it was "commonly used" there, but that it took average American cooks (unlike the sophisticated customers of Murray's Cheese) so long to place it on its culinary throne is odd.

Serious cooks, the kind that would have sought out cookbooks by Marcella Hazan, would have known, as she wrote in 1973, that "There is no more magnificent table cheese than a piece of aged, genuine parmigiano reggiano, when it has not been allowed to dry out and it is a glistening, pale straw color." However, average American cooks would have had little exposure to the name in main-stream media. The following graph shows the number of articles mentioning Parmigiano Reggiano -- as found in a Lexis-Nexis search -- in US magazines, journals, and major newspapers.

(click on graph for larger, clearer image)

Obviously, something happened shortly after 1990. A little background information, about the years leading up to that 1990-2005 surge, might help here.

In 1955, the name "Parmigiano Reggiano" was formally registered in Italian law, and defined both by time of year (originally, between April first and November eleventh – but, since 1984, year-round) and the provinces in which it could be produced (according to the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, "Parmigiano Reggiano is strictly bound to its place of origin. Both the production of milk and its transformation into cheese take place in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the west of the Reno River and Mantua to the east of the Po River."). It merged the old names "Parmigiano" and "Reggiano," eliminating any distinction between the two cheeses. The quality of Parmigiano Reggiano is maintained and protected, for the last 75 years, by a group of local producers: the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano (known, before 1955, as the Voluntary Interprovince Consortium between producers of typical grana).

One of the reasons the cheese's popularity has grown, well beyond the relatively small number of serious foodies was because of a small but very successful food-marketing campaign, and the establishment -- in 1986 -- of a US Information Office to promote American awareness of the cheese. Building on two decades of references in cookbooks, an effort was made to reach Americans through the consumer press (by bringing a few select journalists to Italy each fall), and its success is reflected in the graph.

The timing was fortuitous, as Americans were becoming food-conscious on a scale that had never existed before (the term "gourmet," which had suggested elitism, was about to be replaced by "foodie" -- which was much more casual, and could be assumed by anyone without fear of appearing pompous).

Having educated us to recognize Parmigiano Reggiano as the apotheosis of cheeses, the consortium is fighting a great battle to protect its status. First, the name itself has to be protected: unfortunately, in the US, "parmesan" is incorrectly used on domestically-produced hard grating cheese with no connection to the original cheese coming from the area around Parma. Second, Germany has, for some time, been producing cheeses they call "parmesan" that were meant to confuse consumers and cut into Parmigiano Reggiano's market (the European Union has protected the name "Parmigiano Reggiano" since 1996, and ruled in February 2008 that only cheeses made in Italy can be called "parmesan" (on the grounds that "parmesan" is only a translation of "Parmigiano Reggiano"). The situation is similar to that of "Champagne," which, in Europe refers to sparkling wine onlyfrom a specific region of France, but is a meaningless commercial term in the US). Third, at least one big American company is pushing to lower the standards for production of domestic "parmesan." In 2005, Kraft petitioned the FDA to reduce the required aging period from ten to six months (by Italian law, Parmigiano Reggiano must be aged a minimum of twelve months; in addition, the "extra" certified cheeses are marked by red, silver and gold seals, that are aged, respectively, for 18, 22, and 30 months).

The consorzio that has protected Parmigiana Reggiano for so long has its work cut out -- but it's good work in service of a great cheese. It's serious business -- but it's also got a lighter side. If you don't believe me, just pay a visit to their delightful advertising campaign site: Pubblicita completa Parmigiano Reggiano.

Be warned, however: once you've been there, you will annoy all your friends and relatives by singing -- or attempting to sing -- its irresistible jingle for weeks afterwards.

References and Acknowledgements

For much of the information in this article, I am directly indebted to Cara De Silva, and to Nancy Radke, Director of the US Information Office of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron (Rigg, J. M., trans.), Volume II

"EU Court Says Parmesan Cheese Must Come From Italy."

Huffington, Ariana. "Cheese-gate: On the Trail of Phony Formaggio." The Huffington Post, July 14, 2005.

"Petition to Amend Standards for Parmesan and Reggiano Cheese." Federal Register: September 27, 2005 (Volume 70, Number 186)

Wolf, Burton. "Untitled." The Washington Post (August 12, 1979, Sunday, Final Edition), G1.

Parmigiano Reggiano on Foodista


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