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hathor

Tradition v. Contemporary Italian Cuisine

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I didn't grow up with traditional Italian food, I don't think. When I was a kid (I'm dating myself), Italian-American restaurants offered Veal Parm and Spaghetti with meatballs, and they all could've been using the same pre-printed menu, the same as Chinese take-out joints today.

My first taste of real Italian food was when I started spending 7 weeks per summer in Italy the year I graduated college in 1973. I traveled at a slow pace around the various regions for ten summers and got to taste all the various cuisines that make up "Italian".

Though if I read you right and you grew up Italian-American, Doc, you probably ate the same red-sauce dishes at home that were what my family went out for (n'est-ce pas?).

Are you saying, though, (not trying to twist your words, honest) that those people who have experienced traditional food first have a harder time with the modern/creative versions? I thought the argument was that those people brought up with tradition were the ones who (supposedly) craved something new and different.

Sounds more like something else than marijuana to me. Not enough of an appetite payback there! :raz:  :laugh:

Hey, let's discuss my drug-induced psychoses in your office, or by PM, Doc!

:wink:


Edited by markk (log)

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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When I was taking my very Italian husband to America, I told him to avoid discussions when someone offered him a choice, say BOTH.

one of my favorite restaurants in Florence, used to offer a wonderful menu, traditional menu/recipes on the left side, on the right new twists!

Easy!

BOTH

but be clear!

I do hate when I order porchetta..and it is not porchetta!

PS I have yet to see spaghetti and meatballs in Italy, I believe I must go to Abruzzo.

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I didn't grow up with traditional Italian food, I don't think.  When I was a kid (I'm dating myself), Italian-American restaurants offered Veal Parm and Spaghetti with meatballs, and they all could've been using the same pre-printed menu, the same as Chinese take-out joints today.

My first taste of real Italian food was when I started spending 7 weeks per summer in Italy the year I graduated college in 1973.  I traveled at a slow pace around the various regions for ten summers and got to taste all the various cuisines that make up "Italian".

Though if I read you right and you grew up Italian-American, Doc, you probably ate the same red-sauce dishes at home that were what my family went out for (n'est-ce pas?).

Yes, what I grew up with was technically Italian-American, but it was heavily based on Campanian and Sicilian home cooking as well as restaurants. I did not eat spaghetti and meatballs and generally still don't - not that there is anything wrong with them!

Are you saying, though, (not trying to twist your words, honest) that those people who have experienced traditional food first have a harder time with the modern/creative versions?  I thought the argument was that those people brought up with tradition were the ones who (supposedly) craved something new and different.

I suppose if all I or anyone ever had was traditional cooking then a craving for something new and different would probably be more likely. Italian or Italian-American food was enough of my formative experience to be very much comfort food, but not so much as to be boring. While I would never want to give up traditional dishes, Italian, Spanish or otherwise, I would equally hate to give up the ability to enjoy something new, different, surprising and fun, even if it was a take on a traditional dish. Not all the new dishes are wonderful, but to me at least, those that do work add an extra level of enjoyment.

Sounds more like something else than marijuana to me. Not enough of an appetite payback there! :raz:  :laugh:

Hey, let's discuss my drug-induced psychoses in your office, or by PM, Doc!

:wink:

:hmmm::laugh:


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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When I am in tourist mode, I want at least one good traditional meal. Its part of the travel experience. And is probably a good income-driver for a restaurant in a tourist area. However, there's room on the menu for both as Divina notes. If I'm in one area several days, I'm going to be ready for something less traditional, and would be intrigued by something innovative. I'm thinking that hathor could experiment to her heart's content, and when something is made that is new and delicious, put it on the menu.

The first night at Erba Luna, I would probably choose as traditional a meal as I knew how to, but night two might belong to those chili squash petals and their kin.


"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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Questions I don't know the answers to, but that I think would be interesting to have answered:

1. Italy is currently the world's leading producer of kiwifruit. When was kiwifruit first grown in Italy, and when did it become a major crop there? Also, is kiwifruit eaten in Italy very much, and is it used in any recipes?

2. Which of the classic Italian repertoire dishes are 20th Century phenomena? For example, most of the sources I've looked at indicate that spaghetti alla carbonara was popularized after World War II.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Questions I don't know the answers to, but that I think would be interesting to have answered:

1. Italy is currently the world's leading producer of kiwifruit. When was kiwifruit first grown in Italy, and when did it become a major crop there? Also, is kiwifruit eaten in Italy very much, and is it used in any recipes?

2. Which of the classic Italian repertoire dishes are 20th Century phenomena? For example, most of the sources I've looked at indicate that spaghetti alla carbonara was popularized after World War II.

1. Around the same time I first saw the fruit, if in California: the 1970s. You might be interested in reading some of the regional cooking threads we collaborated on here in the Italian forum, especially the introductory remarks. I think I mentioned Emilia-Romagna's kiwi fruit ("actinidia") for the first time in a list of regional specialties compiled at the beginning of the thread on Liguria back in May 2006. Perhaps Judith can tell you more, but I'm guessing kiwi fruit are as influential in Italian cuisine as they are in American.

2. The era after World War II brought tremendous change. I've delved very little into the subject, but you'll find the phrase "cucina povera" thrown around quite a bit in the cooking threads mentioned above. While generalizations are dangerous--especially mine--it can be said that a very large portion of the Italian population ate the food of poverty until the second half of the 20th century. The book's rather dry at times, but I recommend skimming Carole Counihan's Around the Tuscan Table which results from interviewing three generations of former in-laws. The eldest say that they ate "poco ma buono"--little, but well, expressing an attitude that while there is plenty now, quality suffers. This kind of nostalgia is behind the elevation of certain humble foods such as dried salted cod which can be quite expensive in good restaurants.

I won't say much about carbonara, but most of us enjoyed and recommend David Downie's excellent book on the food of Rome. He begins w the popular theory that American GI's and a love of bacon and eggs brought about a dish whose origins, as far as he is concerned, remain obscure. Nonetheless, there is a fine discussion of attempts to pinpoint the dish's "invention" and the role that etymology plays in the book. Not much about dissemination, though, it's acknowledged. I have not seen Maureen Fant's contribution to the literature, but she's a member of this Society, so you might wish to send her a PM.

* * *

Busboy periodically plants tongue in check when referring to lit crit types. You need patience for academic discourse in attacking it, but the preface to Italian Cuisine is illuminating.

The authors argue that even though we tend to think of Italian cuisine as being local and diverse, and therefore by its very nature, not really unified and definable, the concept of a local, regional cuisine is largely determined by its difference to other cuisines. Definitions of one Italian region's [traditional] cuisine come about via exchange, that is, the moment when "a product or recipe is brought into contact with different systems and cultures." (xiv) Example: no one in Bologna calls mortadella Bologna, but outsiders do.

"Cuisine is then revealed for what it actually is and has always been: an unparalleled site of exchange and contamination, beyond its origin. If a product can be the expression of a particular territory, its use in a recipe or on a menu is almost always the result of hybridization."

Italy is also rather distinctive as a conglomerate of cities with formidable legacies often reaching all the way back to Ancient Rome. Each city (whether court or republic during the Middle Ages) "is at once local and national. An unparalleled site of commercial exchange...administrative center..." and ultimately "the strategic setting for the creation and transmission of a culinary heritage." This is a nod to the food and dishes of ruling classes as opposed to "cucina povera".


Edited by Pontormo (log)

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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PS I have yet to see spaghetti and meatballs in Italy, I believe I must go to Abruzzo.

I serve "Italian American" versions to my Italian friends sometimes for the fun of it. They usually stiffen up at first then they relax and get into it and see the humor of it all. I always tell them this is what Al Capone ate! :laugh:

edit: I wonder if spaghetti and meatballs qualifies as cutting edge in Italy? Maybe I should open up a restaurant!?


Edited by SWISS_CHEF (log)

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One of the main things that makes creative cuisine successful when it is, is the spirit in which it is done. At places of my experience like elBulli, minibar, Alinea, WD-50 and Osteria Francescana, the chefs are quite serious about what they are doing, but they are still playful and offer their work with a sense of fun and whimsy and thereby avoid pretense. For sure not all dishes work for all people at all times at these or any restaurant, but if the diner commiserates with a similar sense of discovery and playfulness, that diner will likely enjoy the meal and appreciate its novelty and cleverness as well as its deliciousness. When this happens, to me that is as good as it gets. Certainly not all "creative" chefs and restaurants fit into that mold. I have been at some restaurants in which i think the chef is shooting for a Nobel Prize and as such loses the sparks of fun and discovery. It is often a fine line, but one that makes all the difference.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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PS I have yet to see spaghetti and meatballs in Italy, I believe I must go to Abruzzo.

I serve "Italian American" versions to my Italian friends sometimes for the fun of it. They usually stiffen up at first then they relax and get into it and see the humor of it all. I always tell them this is what Al Capone ate! :laugh:

edit: I wonder if spaghetti and meatballs qualifies as cutting edge in Italy? Maybe I should open up a restaurant!?

Hey, I serve it too...but the spaghetti will be a primi, and the meatballs a secondi with a contorni of something or other! (Jeez, I hope my grammar is correct).


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

mweinstein@eGstaff.org

Tasty Travails - My Blog

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Hey, I serve it too...but the spaghetti will be a primi, and the meatballs a secondi with a contorni of something or other! (Jeez, I hope my grammar is correct).

The spaghetti will be a "primo (piatto)", the meatballs a "secondo (piatto)", and the vegetable or other item you serve on the side will be a "contorno". When you change the vowel at the end to an i (or an e in the case of things feminine), you make them plural.


Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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most of the sources I've looked at indicate that spaghetti alla carbonara was popularized after World War II.

I too have heard the legend that it was created during the war by Italian cooks asked to make use of the GI rations of powdered eggs, and bacon, but I don't know that that's true. A recipe for it using "pancetta" appears in my copy of "Il Talismano della Felicita", which dates from 1929, though there is no date on my edition, which I purchased in Italy in the early 1970's. I have written to the publisher to ask if a recipe for the dish appears in pre-WWII editions, and will post the answer when it arrives.


Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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I don't think it is 'enough' to constantly remake the traditional dishes, even if you use the finest ingredients and the purest, most classic preparation techniques. Traditional dishes sprang from the  ingredients and techniques that were available at that moment in history. To me, it's ok to now push the boundaries with new preparations and techniques. I don't want to work in a food museum, if you know what I mean.

I think that this is a good point. Not every recipe in Italy is based on something created in the 16th century and for a lot of 'classic' dishes the basic ingedients have altered a great deal.

On the otherhand, "deconstructing a regional classic and putting a contempory twist on it" is not very original (and will eventually be seen as a chiché of the decade around 2000 I think). Originality for the sake of originality is just not original anymore.

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Nope, that was 85'-92'. Mind you given the popularity of the blue footed chicken I guess there is some marketability left in "tradition", if not "authentic" (obviously the latter doesn't exist as has been proven in several other previous discussions).

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It all goes in cycles.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I agree with FG that without innovation a cuisine is basically dead (to paraphrase), but I don't think that is an issue with Italian cuisine as it is quite dynamic in many respects. Unless they have been codified or defined in some way, for many tradional dishes there is no one single recipe anyway. However, there are a great many dishes/products that are codified and at the present point tradition/authenticity is an important factor in marketing a product. I think that each situation has to be accessed on an individual basis.

From a personal point of view, I'm not at all sure at where I stand on all of this. Does a group of regional producers have more of a right to define regionality and authenticity then an individual chef? On the other-hand are individual chefs any better at judging "authentic'/regional/representive" then a marketing team for a supermarket? In Australia I see a great deal of products labeled as "Tuscan" which have very little to do with any of the food present in Tuscany, I have also seen chefs do exactly the same sort of thing.

My thoughts at the moment is that the individuals that are the best at judging what is the make up of "authentic'/regional/representive" foods are those that possess the type of culinary genius that makes the distinction between tradional or innovative cooking irrelevant.

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I think another issue is that, for a variety of reasons, the food of yesteryear isn't necessarily the most appropriate food for today. This seems to be a notion well incorporated into, say, French cuisine, where the regime of heavy sauces (talk about a cliche of a given era) was overthrown in the 1970s. That kind of heaviness and richness was desirable in another era. Among other things, heavy food was useful for fueling a population mostly dedicated to physical labor, and rich sauces were helpful (in part) to combat the lack of refrigeration and other factors that often made ingredients less than ideal.

Today, that kind of heaviness is passe in France, and in many other countries. Is it passe in Italy? It seems Italy has clung to some of the old heaviness more stubbornly than most. Perhaps this is in part because traditional, local, regional cuisine is a major marketing proposition for Italian tourism. Or perhaps it's because people just like the food that way. Or maybe it's a lack of imagination. Or maybe it's that there are many Italian dishes that at some point reached their Platonic ideals and can never be improved upon, like the best works of Mozart, Rembrandt or Shakespeare. Or maybe if you actually compared dishes now and 50 years ago you'd find that there has been more lightening than a lot of folks assume.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I can't remember eating anything 'heavy' in the few days I was in Italy. Even the lasagna we were served twice was 'light' in feel, flavor and stomach impact.

'Traditional' might be best designated by "are the locals happy with it?". Even tho' they might never order it, since they can get it at home. Tradition does have a way of gently mutating to include better tasting ingredients. Potatoes replaced turnips in Irish stew, etc.


"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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I have to agree with Michelle. I don't associate food in Italy with "heavy" - certianly not like "classic" French cuisine.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Originality for the sake of originality is just not original anymore.

I tried adding this to my name tag but it is so full already that I can't get more on there! Well said anyway!


Edited by SWISS_CHEF (log)

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"deconstructing a regional classic and putting a contempory twist on it"... will eventually be seen as a chiché...

...as served in Venetian bars.
Unless they have been codified or defined in some way, for many tradional dishes there is no one single recipe anyway. However, there are a great many dishes/products that are codified and at the present point tradition/authenticity is an important factor.
Because we rarely can single out one authority to establish the authenticity of a dish, what a recipe codifies has to be questioned, too. Ask Plato to replace his chair with a gatto di patate and he's not going to be able to compare all the GdPs on earth to the Ideal, Perfect Dish. Recipes are historical documents and informed cooks can respect history even as they're changing it. They also might interpret that history differently. Or cull from different sources to arrive at different results.
Originality for the sake of originality is just not original anymore.

I tried adding this to my name tag but it is so full already that I can't get more on there! Well said anyway!

Cf. your signature line. Priests subscribe to tradition when facing their altars. :wink:

Edited to revise redundant text and to mention one other thing that returns us to the reasons Hathor started this thread, I think: Fabio Trabocchi. Since the Italian chef is moving from Washington, D.C. to New York, the link to Maestro and the menu page may break in the near future. However, look not only at the dishes, but the classification system used to distinguish menus from one another here. Cf. especially the items that the chef presents as being in the spirit of Le Marche where he grew up and began his career. Italian chefs should not feel compelled to transfer their careers to other countries to experiment, nor should an American feel compelled to prove she's "Italian enough" while standing in front of an Umbrian stove.


Edited by Pontormo (log)

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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Or maybe if you actually compared dishes now and 50 years ago you'd find that there has been more lightening than a lot of folks assume.

I believe that this is exactly true. But the "how and why" foods have become lighter in many cuisines over the years (and I believe they have) might well be a separate thread. I believe it's for a few reasons, probably interwoven. For one, thinking of many dishes, there was a time when all that was available was heavy cream, or as in the case of when that got left out in a bowl, crème fraîche; it worked well to thicken many things, tasted wonderful, and was available in many places, so it was used. It may be the case that as transportation and travel improved and people tasted dishes from other places that were lighter because they were made with lighter ingredients, they thought "oh, it's nice not to feel that fullness I've felt in my stomach for the last 50 years", and started incorporating other ingredients into what they cooked. And maybe people lightened up on the stuff that was found to be bad for you when they realized that they were cooking a meal for grandpa since his heart attack, and thought "oh, I'll just put in less butter, or maybe use some olive oil instead..."

But I do think that foods are lighter now indeed than they were 50 years ago. And I find that when I make a recipe and use the amount of butter and cream that we thought nothing of using 50 years ago, even I feel bloated - and I don't like nouvelle.


Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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Today, that kind of heaviness is passe in France, and in many other countries. Is it passe in Italy? It seems Italy has clung to some of the old heaviness more stubbornly than most. Perhaps this is in part because traditional, local, regional cuisine is a major marketing proposition for Italian tourism. Or perhaps it's because people just like the food that way. Or maybe it's a lack of imagination. Or maybe it's that there are many Italian dishes that at some point reached their Platonic ideals and can never be improved upon, like the best works of Mozart, Rembrandt or Shakespeare. Or maybe if you actually compared dishes now and 50 years ago you'd find that there has been more lightening than a lot of folks assume.

The one thing that I am sure of about Italian regional cooking is that the number of dishes and products that are possible to serve is vast. Some is heavy, some is light and I'm not sure that heaviness in French regional food is passe yet either. But I agree fat content and type has altered in many types of food. A good way of judging this is by looking at the ratio of flesh to fat in pork products, photographs of bacon from the 1930's show very little meat for instance.

The traditional food being made now is a different range of traditional food to 50, 100, 150, 200 years ago. I think that to maintain an awareness of these dishes and products is one very positive role of the traditionalists and the preservers, as I think that those individuals that are innovative and have culinary genius and who will produce the interesting cuisines of tomorrow, must have great depth of knowledge when it comes to traditional dishs, in fact I can't see any meaningful innovation occuring otherwise.

There is nothing less enticing then a few blobs of pasta on a plate or a strand of pappardelle wrapped around a sprig of rosemary, as an attempt to lighten the cuisine through a process of reduction. I think that one issue is that genius and original thinkers are very very rare and cooking tends to reflect this. When people say that they are against new-style food they are very often refering to mediocre or poor attempts, rather then the food produced by the best of the innovators. In the last week I have had two meals based on the idea of modernising a regional cuisine. The "Greek" meal that I had was excellent, really interesting stuff. The "SE-Asian Moderne" was terrible, I would be ashamed to serve it at home and I am no stella cook.


Edited by Adam Balic (log)

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Unless they have been codified or defined in some way, for many tradional dishes there is no one single recipe anyway. However, there are a great many dishes/products that are codified and at the present point tradition/authenticity is an important factor.
Because we rarely can single out one authority to establish the authenticity of a dish, what a recipe codifies has to be questioned, too. Ask Plato to replace his chair with a gatto di patate and he's not going to be able to compare all the GdPs on earth to the Ideal, Perfect Dish. Recipes are historical documents and informed cooks can respect history even as they're changing it. They also might interpret that history differently. Or cull from different sources to arrive at different results.

When I am researching traditional recipes from historical sources, what I often imagine is that all the possible "authentic" recipes for a traditional recipe form something like a normal distribution curve. There may be an mean set of ingredients and cooking technique for a dish, but most other "authentic" versions of an individual dishes will fall somewhere else on the bell-curve.

The thing that I think is interesting is that while somebody in the region may add or do something to the dish which is novel and still maintain a sense of "authentic", this is rarely true of restaurants or individuals outwith the region.

I have seen bizarre conversations where a restuarant serving up-market versions of a tradional cuisine is condemed for producing food that is both "just copied from traditional recipes" and "not really X cuisine, we would never do that to X dish".

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Recipes are historical documents and informed cooks can respect history even as they're changing it.  They also might interpret that history differently.  Or cull from different sources to arrive at different results.

One phenomena that I have noticed with "tradional"'recipes that have some continuity is that the "tradional" recipe of today is often not very similar to much older recipes. Tastes change, fashion is important, ingredients change. Many people in would be surprised to hear that some of the very earliest recipes for Lancashire Hot-pot add curry powder to the mix.

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