Pasta Blunders: From Domestic Science to Celebrity Chefs

[This a repost from my much more opinionated and contentious food blog, The Conservative Food Blog http://conservativefoodblog.wordpress.com/.  If you can abide the argumentative stance, there are some very useful tips about cooking and serving pasta…..Peter di Lorenzi]

Non-Italian-Americans have always had a ‘filtered’ relationship with the very simple techniques required to cook pasta properly.  From the late 1800s until roughly the 1980s, the filtering was done primarily by teachers of ‘domestic science’ and home economics [DS/HE],as well as by home-recipe book writers, both of which groups, especially the former, had little or no familiarity with Italian foodways.  They were concerned with their own cherished values of convenience, time-saving, and industrially-guaranteed sanitation  rather than with flavor, authenticity, or the optimization of gustatory quality.  The unappetizing pasta techniques they espoused were, then, errors of ignorance, inattention, and shabby ‘delicacy’. Thus:

  • Undersalting pasta water  -–  more a result of simply not bothering, I think, than of any visionary concern with excessive sodium consumption.  The result, an irreparable blandness, probably made the final tasteless product more suitably ‘delicate’ in their kitchen-clock-focused eyes.
  • Overcooking pasta —  As much, I am guessing, an effort to tame the whip action of twirled al dente strand pasta  — with resulting unseemly stains — as from a generalized propensity to overboil everything.   Water-logged pasta also nicely dilutes the too-strong flavors [sic – these were the notions of home ec ladies, after all] of the canned pasta sauces [or stewed tomatoes] they advocated and no doubt used.
  • Breaking strand pasta  —   Again, to avoid whipping/staining, as well as to minimize the pointless, inefficient effort  — lest you forget: this was domestic science! — involved in twirling unbroken strands.
  • Rinsing cooked pasta  —  This practice flows logically from the DS/HE  foundational  value of convenience over flavor [except, sometimes, in sweets] and from their doctrinaire disinterest in the practices of those cultures that value and cherish their foods — none of the time-consuming fussing and bothering of immigrants for these educated, careerist WASPs. They imagined, I bet, that rinsing rendered unnecessary the practice of tossing hot, unrinsed pasta in butter or, horrible dictu, in greasy olive oil.
  • Not tossing cooked pasta in oil  —  Oil in any form was somehow un-Protestant and best kept to a minimum to the DS/HE missionaries, thus leading to the rinsing of pasta cited above but also to its near invisibility in their preferred concocted salad dressings, where it was usually camouflaged in nice white, dairy-looking mayonnaise.
  • Over-saucing pasta  —  There really is nothing one can do with bland, overcooked, undersalted, water-logged, unlubricated pasta save to drown it in so much sauce that it sort of disappears into a kind of red sauce noodle soup. Given the kinds of sauces that probably passed efficiency muster for these scientific educators, one can more charitably comprehend the preference among so many non-Italian Americans for Chef Boy-Ar-Dee and Franco-American canned pasta products.
  • Not tossing pasta with sauce  —  again, a matter of the ‘no-extra-step’ Taylorite mentality, seen also in untossed green salads and in the characteristic pile of grated cheese sitting atop the ladle or twelve of sauce.

Though they malinger in some stubbornly dismal backwaters of home practice, these debasing practices no longer corrupt the pasta served in many restaurants and on television food shows.  There they have been replaced by new errors:  of performance, presentation, and  — this will make the pretentious, little price-gouging hearts of ‘celebrity chefs’ everywhere and Food Channel ‘personalities’ swell  — ‘deconstruction’ [understood here as the willful dis-integration of a usually traditional or classical dish for the purpose of showcasing in unmistakable isolation the expensive ingredients and  laboratory processes that  supposedly justify the ridiculous price.  Or for no reason at all save to display a vicarious association with  a by-then commonplace ‘creativity’ as well as, perhaps, a particularly conformist form of edgy daring.].

These new de rigeur frills of performance/conformity pasta preparation have everything to do with the food channel and celebrity chefs and their intense quest to be seen doing whatever the hapless food media happens to be lapping up this season.  These latter poor souls strive comically to find some ‘new’ technique or fad ingredient [that others of their clan — probably in New York — are already writing about; lest how would they, in their usual journalistic ignorance of things culinary, have ‘brought it to light?].

These discoveries they delightedly proffer — and, too often, alas, wield — to their readership as evidence of their ‘in-the-know’, cutting-edge status as interpreters and tribunes of the culinary avant garde. The wielding part comes when they are inflicted upon sacrificial restaurateurs and chefs who may not yet have realized that such trendy performance/ingredient frills are the basis by which food writers and reviewers will deem them worthy of notice, cheerleading feature stories, or positive reviews.  For these unenlightened dullards, to be out of step with current food fashion, as understood by your local food writer, is to be consigned to the dustbin of disdain.

The second generation of ‘filterers’ were spawned in the era of nouvelle cuisine presentationalism, and have become virulent in our own era of food TV, food media, and  ‘celebrity chef ‘ shows, ‘competitions’ and restaurants.  What unites them all is desperate gotta-be-with-it conformity and self-promotion.

Thus, you get the kind of silliness whereby all pasta dishes are tossed in the pan, no matter what the nature of the sauce; pasta is wrung into absolutely pointless presentational cones; pasta is dressed with shaved/microplaned cheese that actually limits the total amount of cheese used AND, worse, its likelihood of adding meaningfully to the overall flavor of the dish. To wit:

  • Pan-tossing all pasta  —  purportedly to allow the pasta to ‘soak up all the delicious flavors of the sauce’ by heating/dressing it in the sauce pan before service, this practice originated in restaurants in the post-1970s and 1980s,  after the triumph of the ‘Northern-Italian-cream-sauces-are-more-sophisticated-and-‘in’ orthodoxy/fashion that sneered at the old Southern Italian tomato-based sauces.It was quite functional as a means of reducing the liquidity and enhancing the coating capacity of cream-and oil-based sauces [because the fat content of these sauces coated the pasta and limited absorption after initial contact] that became so prevalent in ‘serious’ Italian restaurants of the late 20th century.  It also worked well for oil/brothy sauces such as white clam sauce and other seafood pasta dishes, making them less liquid and, with sufficient olive oil or butter, more clingy.  For tomato and vegetable-based sauces however, the pan dressing process, amplified by the high heat involved, will often, unless the pasta is well oiled, absorb too much of the base vegetable juices, resulting in sauce-bloated pasta and  dried-up sauces, especially after the initial serving.  That is why, when pre-indoctrinated Italians dressed and tossed their pasta off the heat, in bowls, they would first lubricate pasta intended for tomato or vegetable-based sauces with oil or butter. Pan-saucing also produces unnecessarily hot pasta that may be seen as necessary in restaurants, where food stands until it is picked up and served — and where steaming hot food is seen as a sign of quality, though many sauces actually taste better, and more intensely flavorful, when they cool a bit.  Tossing in a bowl has the added benefit of bringing down the overall temperature to these more flavor-developing levels. Pan tossing with grated cheese is a disaster-in-waiting, encouraging a very high likelihood that even properly aged, quality cheese will clump up or burn.
  • Presentational pasta cones  —  this is nothing but a purely pathetic conceit — rooted in the even more embarrassing ‘tall food’ plague, to demonstrate presentational flair when done by TV conformity- robots, and even more ridiculous when simply so arrayed on a plate carried out to you from the kitchen.  For home serving, where the standards tend to be much less idiotic, it is laughable.  If it does anything, this vice of simpletons guarantees that an intentionally higher percentage of the pasta is NOT in contact with the puddled sauce below.  Worse, if done with thoroughness, it will succeed to a degree in actually wringing sauce from the pasta in the manner of those old wringer-mops that wrung the mophead dry with a pull of a lever on the handle. [This practice, one imagines, may not have been quite so purposeless back in the Home Ec/Domestic Science days, considering the gustatory quality of the sauces they no doubt advised their victims to use.]
  • Shaved [or even micro-planed] grating cheese  —  Those curled shavings of Italian grating cheese, usually parmigiano reggiano, that are displayed prominently atop pasta dishes in pricier, pretty-food restaurants and food TV shows, are perfect metaphors for the debasement and vitiation implicit in the whole performance-presentationalist  project.  The shavings are eye-catching; they let you know you are getting cheese worth being gouged for; and, if you wish, you can easily take a piece and taste it to verify quality.  But they consolidate the cheese in discrete curls, thereby NOT integrating them into the whole dish, where, for centuries, wiser, simpler, non-Manhattanite, non-Culinary-Institute graduates  knew — without benefit of celebrity shows and food writers — that they should be dispersed to flavor the entire dish.  Even the beloved microplane, a fixture now in every food-attuned household and so beloved of lingering close-up TV cameramen, in fact, degrades the simple act of grating cheese for pasta. Sufficiently aged, hardened, granular cheeses [‘parmesan’-type cheeses are called grana cheeses in Italian] are so perfect for intensifying already highly-flavored pasta dishes precisely because, when grated on an old-fashioned raspy/tearing grater, or even in a food processor, they are broken into tiny ,solid granules that disperse easily in the sauce yet do not entirely dissolve — or worse, melt — and disappear.  Instead, they provide little crystalline nuggets of flavor sparkles within every forkful. Highly salted pecorino romano cheese behaves in much the same way.  The microplane, in its usual grating-cheese configuration, actually shaves very thin feathery/flaky sheets of cheese that — because they lie so lightly upon each other, with a lot of air trapped between layers due to irregularities and curling, just like feathers — actually contain much less actual cheese than a visually similar pile of cheese grated the old-fashioned way.  [Just try pressing down a small cup of both cheeses and note the result].  The overall result, then, is that a] there is usually less actual cheese for the dish, and b] unless the pasta is at almost room temperature, the tiny ‘feather-flakes’ melt almost immediately and provide far less residual flavor than the nuggets rendered by the more traditional manner.  But the cheese shower produced does looks so much better on TV, and the cynical restaurateur knows that a ramekin of microplaned cheese costs him a whole lot less than the same of grated cheese.  As for the use of the stick-sized shaved cheese, it is just about as useless to the real flavoring function as are the lovely shaved curls.

The simple truth is that both generations of fallacies might so very easily have been avoided by simply observing the practices in any reasonably traditional Italian-American home, of which there have been and still are millions. The ‘scientists’, we know from Laura Shapiro [“Perfection Salad”] and others avoided them because they represented precisely the target of their progressive crusade to indoctrinate malleable schoolchildren against the ‘excessive’ time wasting and uneconomic expense devoted to meals by their then-immigrating traditional parents — unnecessary fresh vegetables and leafy greens — often bitter! —not to mention how offensively all those cheeses and garlic assailed their privileged, Protestant noses.

The newer generation of ‘filterers’ ignores the simpler traditional methods of families for far less ‘noble’ reasons.  For them, it is all about making it by getting noticed, and home methods are anathema.  There is no ‘creativity’;  no reputation to market;  no claques of adulatory disciples, writers, and viewers to cultivate;  no justification for high prices when outstanding flavors can be achieved by ordinary people with common ingredients for relative pennies.

G.K. Chesterton, one of my favorite thinkers, sums up our current situation on this issue quite nicely, I think:  “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”  Nor, one is tempted to add, because they become crusades for a blithely assumed progress, which Chesterton aptly defines as “a comparative of which we have not defined the superlative”.

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