Monday, July 04, 2011

Guerrilla-style potato salad (this is NOT a recipe)

In honor of Independence Day, upon which we were liberated from our Oppressors--culinary and otherwise.

Dear Readers,

It's always something. When you live in a foreign country, even the most innocuous request can open up a can of wriggling, irritating, cultural worms.

Recently, because of my Yankee origins, I was asked to contribute un piatto americano to my six year-old daughters' year-end class picnic. I smothered a loud, curmudgeonly groan and the usual array of curses with an effusive, "Why, of course! I'd be delighted!" The organizer-mom had the cute idea to ask everyone to bring a dish from their native land--which is odd, considering that nearly all the parents are Florentine and thus we'd be having the usual slew of local fare. But, upon reflection, I suppose this class is about as diverse as it gets for my little corner of Florence: there are two American moms (including yours truly), as well as a Japanese, a German, a Danish, and a French mom--and one from Calabria (though from a bona fide region of Italy, she's considered as foreign as the rest of us).

Preparing ethnic/American dishes for Italians is a tricky business (one I have touched upon here), hence my annoyed reluctance to subject myself and my not-too-shabby-if-I-do-say-so-myself cooking to the typically close-minded scrutiny of such cuisine-phobic pantywaists. The iconic foodstuffs, the hamburgers and hot dogs and their ilk, seem to be what most Italians expect from us--rather like malaria from pesky mosquitos. I have found that efforts to enlighten them with our genuine, though perhaps harder-to-suss-out, homemade specialties are usually as lost on their sissified palates as flotsam in a roiling sea of culinary provincialism. For instance, every time I have served an honest-to-goodness, made-from-scratch-and-redolent-with-spice pumpkin pie to People of the Boot, they double over and fling themselves from their dining chairs as if they'd just cannibalized a dear-departed, and practically projectile vomit all over the walls. I have, since, ceased to inflict this particular--though dearly beloved to me--dessert of doom on my adopted countrymen.

For the most part, Italians simply have no idea what other people in the world eat—beyond the stereotypes, of course—and, when it comes down to it, they simply don't care.

Once, in the bookstore where I was working, a liver-spotted, toad-like Italian cretin with Baroque sunglasses and carefully-upturned, pressed polo collar asked me to show him a book on American cuisine. When I pulled out Thomas Keller's newly-arrived Ad Hoc at Home, he added--his voice dripping with sarcasm--“That is, if there IS such a thing as American cuisine!" Naturally, I immediately rendered him unconscious by hitting him over the head with the cash register.

I feel no need to be ashamed of American food that uses the best of our local ingredients. Our vast continent is teeming with a Pilgrim's bounty of wonderful indigenous produce; that fresh, green breast of the New World about which Fitzgerald wrote nourishes its wayward children on an embarassment of culinary riches. And of course the tired, poor, huddled masses whose foreign hands stirred the great, exotic, multi-ethnic minestrone created an ever-changing smorgasbord for generations to enjoy and riff upon. American cuisine is rather like American English—peppered with far-flung influences, constantly innovating and evolving, a veritable bucking bronco of free-spirited creativity—producing a rather astonishing and riotous polyglot range of expression which ennables us to get straight to the point with a grilled-cheese-on-rye, or elaborate more thoroughly with a Creole jambalaya or New England clam chowder. It's a language and a cuisine that both shoots from the hip and frolics with the sublime--and, yes, it does have its fair share of barbarisms.

Entirely at a loss, I put the question of what to make for the class picnic to friends. Among the quintessentially American (and, I suspect, slightly irreverent) suggestions were: pizza-lasagne-spaghetti, White Castle sliders, Tater Tot casserole, funnel cakes, coney dogs, Twinkies dipped in taco sauce (this from a respected educator. Hi Mr. S!), cocktail weenies, lime Jell-O salad, mac n' cheese, and my personal favorite—buffalo jerky, roast squirrel (or, in a pinch, muskrat) and acorn mush. Now that's what I call going native.

In the end I decided on an archetypical picnic food: the humble potato salad. After all, I reasoned, Italians eat potatoes, don't they? I knew I'd be playing fast and loose, though, what with the spicy mustard I add to the mayonnaise. And of course there was the clear and present danger of the bits of pickle and celery—that could trigger the inborn revulsion/expulsion reflex. But dammit-all, I'm proud to be American and by God I was gonna give those self-righteous noodle-eaters a taste of the Stars and Stripes! Hell, yeah!

So I stormed the picnic with a splendidly defiant potato salad, my eyes blazing, my head held high.

I discovered that only myself--representing the red, white, and blue--Japan, Denmark, and Calabria showed up. (Clearly the others were chicken). "Well, here goes--to hell with them!" I thought, as I slapped my Tupperware down decisively on the long table under the gazebo, daring the first Italian to taste my offering. (I suppose this attitude makes me the anti-Christ to Martha Stewart's Jesus).

Did they eat it? No. Sure, there were a few cautious nibbles, then the culinary equivalent of a dead silence. Me and Danish mom (who brought a bowl of crispy bacon, God bless her, of which I and my wolfish offspring ate two-thirds and dumped what remained into my purse) polished off half. Then--to add insult to injury, as they say--I was asked to judge an Italian mom's attempt at New York-style cheesecake. Still burning from my slighted potato salad, I looked down at the impossibly flat, sticky-purple-goo-slathered, burned-periphery concoction and tried not to let a Kurtz-like tremor of horror overtake my body. The thing had three inches of Kalahari-dry, brick-like cookie crust and two centimeters of a glum glop comprised of cream cheese, mascarpone, ricotta and--apparently--cotton balls. But did I gag and clutch my throat? Did I spew in disgust and wrath? No. I choked the abomination down, smiled, and pronounced it delicious.

And as it turns out, I was also too chicken to cackle or mock or show my stunned surprise at the enormous plastic trough of STEWED VEAL that some Italian miscreant brought. (Nothing like thick, hot stew at a picnic in 90-degree weather, I always say! How dare they spurn my cool, tangy, tastebud-tickling potato salad? Fools! Xenophobes! Depraved stew-lickers!).

Thankfully, James Beard, MFK Fisher, and Julia Child--up there among the celestial crockpots in their culinary Valhalla--showed mercy and did not smite chicken-livered me with an outraged lightning bolt from on high.

So as you see, dear Readers, I clearly failed in my mission. I do not possess the forbearance and valor needed to force the food of my star-spangled heritage down the gullets of infidels. It takes real guts to be a soldier in the culinary crusades here in Italy, I tell you. More guts that I have, that's for sure.




  1. Colin6:44 PM

    As always....delightful and a bit warped, love it.!!!

  2. I understand the pumpkin pie incident. Europeans seem to have an aversion to vegetables in desserts. Carrot cake included! Hard to believe and understand, I know.

    Since food is also an obsession in India, I often get asked questions like: 'So what do you do for food?' 'Do you eat rice?' And last week: 'What do you eat in your country? Pizza and hamburger?'

  3. E - I've found, over the years, that potato salad is an absolute bomb (my potato/mortadella/jalapeno recipe from last year a total nuclear incident). That said, I was laughing so hard while reading your post that I cannot possibly do it justice. Brava, te!

  4. Philistines.
    I admit, after nearly 13 years here, I've never had a bad meal, but it's barely July and I'm already tired of panzanella. My MIL never ate a banana during her 79 years of life because they were considered too exotic. Let them think we're just hot dogs and hamburgers. That way there's plenty of Thai peanut dipping sauce left us.
    Excellent post, Campobello!

  5. @Colin--thanks, dear and you're right, I was a little warped on this one! I put it down to wilting in the heat....

    @Isabel--too funny! "What do you do for food?" Darn these pesky cultural stereotypes that dog us all over the globe!

    @Patti--"nuclear incident" hahaha! I defintely shall shelve the potato salad along with the pumpkin pie. But then, how do you explain the fact that Italians will eat that disgusting "insalata russa" or "insalata salsa aurora" and then spurn deviled eggs?

    @papaya--loved your comment! It's true that Italians should be righteously proud of their food, for it is wonderful. It's hard to eat poorly here. But this idea that the rest of the world is wallowing in a culinary morass is just plain kooky. Of course, a lot of it can be put down to fear that something foreign and exotic might upset the delicate mechanism of the Italian digestive system.

    Mmmm, thai peanut dipping sauce...

  6. You and I have already discussed this subject at length so all I will say on the matter is this: bringing your potato salad to the picnic is like casting pearls before swine, Campobello. Pearls before swine.

    Those of us with more adventurous tastes might consider, as an alternative tactic, bringing our favorite dish, one that *surely* noone will try. You'll be forced to bring home the leftovers. If you're me, you'll even get a perverse satisfaction out of seeing the screwed-up noses and hearing the disgusted "non mi garba"s. Win-win.

    But really - stew? Seriously?

  7. Just curious, what did the Japanese mother bring?

  8. @Minx--you have given me an excellent idea for next time I'm asked to wear my origins on my culinary sleeve! I shall bring something completely outrageous to Italians, sit in a corner, and gloat as I eat it all by myself [rubs hands together with glee].

    @papaya--Japanese mom brought these delicious little seaweed-wrapped rice wedges that had bits of pickled daikon (I believe) in them. Apparently they're sort of the Japanese equivalent of sandwiches. Oddly, those seemed to go over slightly better with the Italians than my potato salad. Hmmpf!

  9. Insalata russa, as they make it here, is an absolute abomination. A Russian chum made me a proper one once upon a time, and I have never looked back. Peas & carrots in mayonnnaise? Oi oi oi.

    Why not take a layered taco salad to the next Enforced Feed? No one will eat it ... bring a bottle of hot sauce, sit back, and let the games begin.

  10. @P.--muaahhhhh! By Jove, taco salad may be just the thing! What a dastardly, yet ingenious plan. You're like the culinary Dr. No.


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