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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - April 18, 2007 - Mark R. Vogel - - Archive

Harry Stack Sullivan (1892–1949), was a renowned psychiatrist who spearheaded the interpersonal school of psychoanalysis.  Breaking with Freudian tradition, Sullivan placed the onus of personality development on our interpersonal experiences.  One of his concepts, consensual validation, describes the process by which young children realize that their perceptions of the world are shared by others.  This bolsters their self-confidence since the confirmation of their observations normalizes their experience.  Consensual validation also applies to our meanings and definitions.  Arriving at a general consensus of what things mean facilitates communication and understanding.  When we all agree what something is, the definition of that something has integrity.  Imagine the chaos that would ensue in society if we had contrary definitions of what “three” meant. 

     Well, that very chaos sometimes exists in the culinary realm.  In fact, if the world of gastronomy was a Sullivanian toddler, he would be well on his way to neurosis; addled and conflicted as to the nature of reality.  Take a Delmonico steak for example.  What is a Delmonico steak?  That depends on who you ask.  Get used to that answer right now.  It’ll make the remainder of this discussion easier to, uh..…swallow. 

     Delmonico’s was a famous restaurant in New York City during the 19th century.  Led by the culinary icon Chares Ranhofer, the eponymously named steak was one of his signature dishes.  Culinary research suggests that it was a boneless, top loin steak, cut from the anterior of the short loin before the tenderloin begins.  However, over the years the term Delmonico steak has become so bastardized that as many as eight other types of steak have bared its name.  Sadly, the term Delmonico has lost its meaning. 

     Maybe you’d like some prawns with your steak.  Have some surf and turf.  What’s a prawn?  That’s right, depends on who you ask.  Not that it doesn’t have a textbook definition, (or two), but like the Delmonico, various chefs ands restaurants have their own interpretation as well.  Colloquially, the term prawn has come to mean large shrimp.  But what’s large?  At what point does the oxymoronic jumbo shrimp become prawns?   Again, this will vary from establishment to establishment.  By the book, there are two formal definitions.  The first is a species of crustacean related to lobster.  In fact, they resemble six to eight inch long lobsters. 


To befuddle things further, they are referred to by a plethora of names including langoustine, langostino, lobsterette, and Danish lobster, amongst others.  The second formal definition of prawn is yet another species of crustacean that looks like a shrimp/lobster hybrid which migrates between fresh and salt water.  So when the menu reads “prawns” which one will end up on your plate?

     Whichever prawns we get, maybe they’ll be barbecued.  Uh oh, did I just say barbeque?   What does THAT mean?  Welcome to the most hotly debated nomenclatural issue in the world of food.  As Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator’s brilliant food writer once stated:  “one of the few truths in barbeque…..that just about everyone thinks he knows what barbeque is or should be.”  One could indeed write a treatise on this subject alone.  In the interest of succinctness I will attempt a pithy synopsis. 
     For the culinarily lumpen, barbeque is basically any food cooked on a grill and then smothered with those store bought, chemically laden, cloyingly sweet, “barbeque” sauces.  Excuse my Valley Girl vernacular but gag me with a spoon.  Clearly this is not real barbeque.

     Genuine barbeque has two schools of thought:  Kansas City and Memphis.  The Kansas City style does involve sauce but that’s the only similarity with the backyard, suburban grill-fest.  In the Kansas City style the food, such as ribs, is given a dry rub, cooked slowly over indirect heat, and then slathered with homemade sauce near the end.  Generally speaking, and there are exceptions, the Memphis barbeque style relies mainly on the dry rub with sauce more likely served on the side.  Either way, Kansas City or Memphis, authentic barbeque involves slow, long cooking over indirect heat with plenty of flavor boosting smoke from various types of hardwood chips. 

     In addition to classes of food and cooking techniques, specific dishes are also the victims of identity crises.  Take Caesar salad for example.  The “Caesar salad” you are served in a typical American restaurant today is a far cry from the initial invention by chef Caesar Cardini in 1920’s Tijuana.  Adding anchovies, eliminating egg yolk, and revamping how the lettuce is fabricated are all post-Cardini modifications.  Beef Wellington, chili con carne, pad thai, and French cassoulet, to name a few, are some of the many dishes that have various adaptations. 

     One reason that so many classic dishes have multiple renditions is individualism.  Many chefs like to impart their own twist on a traditional recipe and then claim the new version as their own.  Or maybe the chef doesn’t know the formula for the original recipe.  Maybe he can’t get the exact same ingredients.  Maybe he doesn’t like the original and changes it to suit his taste.  Whatever.  The bottom line is, the classic loses its integrity and culinary confusion is proliferated. 

     Spaghetti carbonara, according to the fundamental Roman recipe, is spaghetti with a sauce made from pancetta or guanciale, (pork jowls and/or cheeks), eggs, and Parmesan cheese.  Later modifications sometimes included cream.  I once worked for an executive chef who believed the reverse: that cream was an original ingredient and eggs were a later addition.  Clearly we did not have consensual validation and I was in no position to enlighten him.  Nevertheless, due to the widespread propagation of recipe augmentation, even a seasoned pro had lost touch with the seminal formula of a classic dish.  Much like how history is rewritten over the ages as facts become lost, misinterpreted, reinterpreted or outright renounced.

     So where does all this leave us?  Well, on one hand, as stated, multiple definitions only lead to unnecessary confusion.  No one benefits from having three definitions of the word “prawn.”  A lack of culinary continuity doesn’t serve the dining public or the field.  On the other hand, when it comes to preparing classic dishes, allowing chefs the freedom to craft their own versions facilitates creativity.  Some would argue that it also breathes new life into hackneyed, done-to-death dishes.  Of course at the extreme, the integrity of the original dish is lost and its archetypal formulation is forgotten or debated; hardly a way to pay homage to the chef who invented it. 

     Sometimes in the culinary world the only thing that can be validated is that there is no consensus.  Everyone has their own definition.  And that’s why too many cooks spoil the broth.  Broth?  What’s that?  Well it’s like stock but……it depends on who you…..oh never mind.

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