I found my thoughts provoked before I sat down to write this post, because I just read this terrific essay by Emma Marris, which lays out how the “gospel” of Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse has become a cultural force in dining, especially high-end dining, while reminding us more than once that Alice Waters cooks peasant food “but only rich people can afford it.”
I parsed the reality that the kind of cooking that captivates my heart and senses, and moves me toward what I do (and share with you here) is exactly that kind. Call it “cucina povera” – Food of the Poor Peasant – or any one these favored words; “rustic” “simple” “seasonal” and let’s not forget “artisanal.”
I feel the irony of the situation.
There’s no doubt that my ancestors were of the peasant variety. At Ellis Island, the occupation of my paternal great-grandfather was noted on his entry form as “country man.” Paisano. Contadino. Rustico. So here I am, a few generations later, in some way romanticizing the simplicity of their diet, based as it was on extreme circumstances and a sense of desperation they apparently found unendurable.
I wonder if my great-great ancestors would be puzzled by my obsession, if they would feel honored and proud that their humble food traditions inspire me, magically forming a link that connects us. And because of them, I live in the world possessing a distinct privilege to choose to cook like a peasant, rather than having it forced on me by necessity.
So, here’s what bothers me: Aside from feeling a little defensive about my personal taste for what is interpreted as high-end peasant food, I feel it’s our cultural tendency (in this century, anyway) to elevate the humble, the homemade and the traditional ways of making food into some kind of food fantasy, a social circle with a high-priced admission fee.
Like a page out of Kinfolk magazine, all spread out on a reclaimed wood farm table, food can go the way of trendy affectation, becoming an aspirational activity reserved for those with far greater means than those of a peasant. It’s enough to make my head hurt! And bring on an identity crisis. And think about what the word “authentic” really means.
For example, the rustic, whole grain, heirloom-variety, stone ground Italian Flint corn polenta I ordered from Anson Mills is special. It’s exceptionally, richly corn-flavored – delicious. It’s flecked with beautiful shades of amber from the multicolored (remember, heirloom) kernels. It seems expensive, when you think that traditionally cornmeal is the mush of poor people’s food, more so when compared to the organic polenta I usually buy from Bob’s Red Mill, which is less than 4 bucks for a 1.5 pound bag.
This Rustic Integrale polenta, on the other hand, costs about twice as much, but amounts to less than 75 cents per serving. Still, it seems like an indulgence. Because this particular food isn’t something you’d find in your average grocery store and doesn’t come with a price tag associated with the term “economical” (like, maybe soft drinks and boxes of cereal).
I’ve always felt it’s well worth my time to go in search of things to cook that are better – better tasting, better nutrition, better quality – and I’m certain that my own grandmothers felt the same way. They were cooking every day at home for their families; simple, satisfying food that wasn’t intended to be shown on the pages of a magazine. I learned something from that.
Does choosing to cook with really great ingredients, simply and with respect for the effort required to produce them amount to culinary elitism? I cringe to think so. How about you?
- 1 cup coarse, whole-grain polenta
- 3 cups green leaves, from arugula, spinach, chard, kale or a mixture
- Handful fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
- Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a medium-sized heavy pot – enameled cast iron is ideal. Add 1½ teaspoons salt, then slowly add the polenta in a stream while whisking. When all the polenta has been added, stir and turn down the heat to a very low simmer. Cook 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. If you find the polenta getting too thick, add a bit of water as needed and lower heat.
- While the polenta cooks, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Trim off any thick stems from your greens and parsley drop them into the water. Cook for 2 minutes. Drain, reserving about a cup of the cooking water.
- Put the greens in a blender or food processor with 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and butter, adding a small splashes of the cooking water if needed, to get it going. Puree until fairly smooth. Stir in the lemon juice.
- Stir the remaining olive oil, butter and half of the cheese into the polenta. Put 1 or 2 tablespoons cheese in the bottom of each serving bowl before spooning in the polenta. Top each serving with some of the pureed greens for each person to stir into their bowl. Sprinkle with additional cheese at the table.