Those of us who cook for a living are often asked by non-(professional) cooking friends what we’d do in a certain situation or with a certain set of ingredients or what we might substitute if a key ingredient in a recipe isn’t available.
Usually, I have no clue.
That’s not completely true, of course. Often I can suggest a few things I’d do in a given situation. But, really, it‘s not a fair question because food is so…so… personal. I’d like to say it’s that way just in this part of the world, but that’s not true at all. Any region has its own cuisine and every cook has his/her own style. I think it’s a kind of blasphemy for someone else to inject their influence.
As I’ve mentioned before, cooking is so much like music in that it’s intensely personal, subject to plenty of outside influences and, ultimately, the goal of a musician/chef is to please one’s self. There are avenues to please a larger crowd, but this usually results in the musician/chef cutting corners or leaving out or adding something they might not normally add/subtract just to make folks happy.
One time years ago, when I lived in the Texas Panhandle, I had an employee of Italian surname who was a native of northeastern Pennsylvania. For whatever reason, he had always wanted to live in Texas and be a Texan and become all that is Texas. A few weeks into his employ, he invited me over for a bowl of some good ol’ Texas chili.
It was the best spaghetti sauce I’ve ever tasted.
This isn’t to say what he did was wrong. He simply took what he knew and threw in what he thought were the right influences and here we go. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to the “Creole Italian” cuisine here in New Orleans. You work with what you have and what you know and, in the case of this local favorite, an entirely new cuisine is created. The modern name for this is “fusion cuisine” — something I usually shy away from but I also realize it can certainly have its merits.
I think all of us, when venturing to another part of the country, have been treated to whatever the local version might be of “Cajun” or “Louisiana” or “New Orleans” food. Of course, being the genteel people we are, we refrain from mentioning things like “Cajun” and “New Orleans” styles are two separate species (particularly when it comes to gumbo). Fact is, there might not be andouille available there. Their spice choices/equipment might be different. Maybe the only available shrimp is long-frozen. We smile and nod and say “thank you” because we know it was made with the same love we put into our local food — or at least we’ve been taken someplace because those who love us hope we’ll like it.
The culinary world is fraught with former New Orleans chefs and residents who have bravely sallied forth, voluntarily or not, and tried to show the world What Real New Orleans Food is. Twenty-five years ago, virtually every city of any size had a place trying to emulate Paul Prudhomme. I don’t have any numbers at hand, but it’s safe to say most of the professional operations failed miserably and, on a home-cooking level, things proved simply too spicy or otherwise unfit for regular local consumption. “Marcel is a great cook, but I wish he’d take the heat down a notch.“ Perhaps some of this resulted from the chef being too long and too far away from home.
…but at least the cooking was honest. Bad food is, of course, Bad Food. “Blackening” something does not mean “burning” it (something too many places still fail to realize). But sometimes I think we get too picayunish about imposing our own personal culinary rules on others.
I’m as guilty as the next guy. But, Lord knows, I try not to be.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.