This post was originally written in Spanish for the “Los Angeles Culinary Culture” blog at USC, part of professor Sarah Portnoy’s upper-level Spanish course on Latino food in L.A. Scroll down for English, or turn to page 2 for the Spanish.
Este blog fue originalmente escrito en español por el “Los Angeles Culinary Culture” blog de USC. El sitio es parte de una clase de español sobre comida latina en L.A., enseñada por profesora Sarah Portnoy. Haz clic en la págnia 2 para la versión en español.
Every big gathering with my Italian family in Connecticut has been marked by one thing: food. In particular, spaghetti with meatballs. Lasagna also, and perhaps hot dogs and a potato salad, but always spaghetti and meatballs, made by my great-aunt and her family. This side of my family, my mom’s, is big. My great grandparents Rosalia and Ignacio had emigrated to the U.S. from Sicily in the early 1900s. Here, Rosalia had 13 children, and they also started families.
I do not know much about Italy and its food. But I’m pretty sure Rosalia didn’t bring her recipe for “spaghetti and meatballs” to the United States. No plan to share this tradition with their daughters. Why? The dish did not originate in Italy, but in the United States, as Corby Kummer explains in great detail in The Atlantic. Apparently Italian tastes changed when immigrants reached cities like New York. The ingredients were different, sometimes new, along with an entire lifestyle. Kummer says they could eat more pasta and meat than before, and created spaghetti and meatballs.
The dish became popular among Italian-Americans and then among all Americans. Now, it is seen in the United States – and I suppose worldwide – as symbolic of Italian cuisine. (Perhaps reflecting the trajectory of pizza, as described by Ken Albala in Three World Cuisines and Eugene N. Anderson in Everyone Eats.) The real story has been forgotten.
Food critic Jonathan Gold once told me that restaurants like Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles — that claim to only serve only authentic Italian food – do not serve spaghetti and meatballs because the dish is not really Italian. (In his words: “… not serving it is seen as a sign of integrity.”)
What do I think, the third generation of Italians in my family? Making meatballs has been a favorite activity since childhood. I liked the feeling of raw meat, so sticky and strange between my fingers, as I tried to make perfectly round balls. And tomatoes cooking for hours in a large pot filled the whole house with a sweet fragrance. The result? Always delightful, no matter the lack of professionalism. (I could never make perfectly round meatballs.) When I’m in my kitchen making pasta with tomato sauce and meatballs, I feel connected to my Italian heritage, even though that’s something I actually know very little about. The food may not be authentic, but my feeling? Absolutely.
Diners may want to consider these ideas when trying a new cuisine. Recently, I visited a Filipino eatery, Max’s of Manila in Glendale, for the first time. It is casual, comfortable and colorful, with large photos on the walls illustrating its history. (Max’s started as small hut in Manila, the capital of The Philippines, and now has 127 sites in The Philippines and others in California, Hawaii, New Jersey, Toronto and Vancouver.) I saw only families – no couples or groups of friends. Everyone seemed Filipino, and spoke in Tagalog with a bit of Taglish, a blend of Tagalog and English.
Filipino food is not entirely new to me; I learned a fair amount when writing about northeast L.A.’s Filipino population for the Occidental Weekly. But I remember when I first heard about Max’s specialty — fried chicken — I was confused. Not very foreign, right? But it is not a question of whether Max’s mimics KFC. The Philippines has been influenced by three different countries: Spain, China, and the United States. Each country brought its culinary tradition, and now Filipino cuisine is an incredible mix. Ironically, the Philippines are an archipelago. It doesn’t share a border with any country. Still, the influence of distant nations has been strong, showing that socio-political boundaries do not necessarily mean very much.
The Philippines presents an interesting example of what Eugene N. Anderson, writing in Everyone Eats, calls the relationship between the “core” and the “periphery.” In his opinion, the “core” consists of powerful and rich countries or regions, while the periphery consists of weak countries or regions. Typically, he says, the core has a more sophisticated, elaborate cuisine than the periphery. It also has prestige, and is associated with wealth and power.
During various periods, The Philippines was dominated by powerful countries, making it part of the “periphery.” It is true that its food never became “haute cuisine,” or recognized and acclaimed worldwide. But, by connecting several culinary styles, it created a unique and complex cuisine – a blend of flavors and ingredients not found anywhere else in the world. It is also interesting to recognize that Filipino food illustrates what Anderson calls the “world-system:” its cuisine perfectly reflects the history of trade and commerce in the country.
Other Filipino restaurants besides Max’s of Manila also serve food that seems American. For example, Jollibee with its fast food. Specialties include milkshakes made with ube (purple yam), “Chickenjoy” (fried chicken), “Yumburger” (hamburger), and “Jolly Spaghetti.” Yes, spaghetti with tomato sauce and meatballs. Just like in my Italian family.
Click page 2 to read this post en español.