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"Authentic": what does that mean, anyway?


Chris Amirault
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Sociologists talk about the power of "ex nomination"

that is, who gets to decide what something is called, how it

is pronounced, what is included in the category, when it is

in / authentic, etc. 

The power over these choices and imposing them on others

reflects the power you have in society. 

That's really interesting, Milagai. Do you know of any food-related examples in the scholarship? I think that it would be very interesting to read some of the discussions around here (gumbo and cassoulet come to mind) through this concept.

So, in some sense, "authoritative" is not such an obsolete meaning of "authentic." I think certain renowned chefs can become authoritative to some degree, though probably by default.

It may be easier to recognize something as inauthentic. For example, take the local restaurant that offered me their special, jambalaya over rice or pasta! They must not have known that rice is the main ingredient in a jambalaya. Of course, they never said their jambalaya was authentic.

You would be hard pressed to define "authentic" gumbo since as we saw in the gumbo thread, even natives of Louisiana cannot agree, and even on basic things like the essential ingredients. "It has to have a roux," is not true for the okra gumbo where I come from, or "It has to have okra in it since the word gumbo means okra," is also not true for what a lot of Cajuns call gumbo. They would probably call a mostly roux based gumbo with some okra slices thrown in at the last minute a gumbo with okra, but not an okra gumbo, which begins with cooking okra down for a long time before adding the other ingredients. But "roux based gumbo with okra" is too much of a mouthful to say, so okra gumbo it is, I suppose. Unfortunately it confuses this type of gumbo with what would have been called okra gumbo by my family, my community, and the good cafeteria ladies who cooked lunch at 3 public schools and a Catholic school where I went to school or taught in Vermilion parish, Louisiana. But these people don't have the authority of the well know chef.

When it appears in a renowned chef's cookbook or encyclopedia or on a celebrity chef's TV show that you start with a roux and add some okra slices toward the end, they lend authority to that concept, and the concept of an okra gumbo evolves or is lost.

What about chili? Is Texas red more authentic than Cincinnati chili? Maybe there is authentic Texas red and authentic Cincinnati chili.

Edited by My Confusing Horoscope (log)

Scorpio

You'll be surprised to find out that Congress is empowered to forcibly sublet your apartment for the summer.

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Of course it matters.  Just not to everyone. 

In my book, there is "authentic" and there is everything else. 

I'm quite happy with "everything else", because for something to be truly authentic, I'd have to go to the country of origin and experience it there.  That, or have a grandmother from the source country with amazing cooking skills.

Naming is important.  Keeping traditions alive is important.  So is a good meal.

I suspect that "authentic" has a different weighting in the Australian v USA lexicon. If you like I would also use 'traditional'. The makings of a traditional boeuf bourguignon are avalible even in Scotland, so I'm not sure why adding an extra layer of complication is acceptable. Lets face it isn't such a big deal for home cooking and Chefs play about with names, that is part of the creative process, but names and labels have a purpose.

Anyway, as said I not sure that is such an imporant point, except where an a secondary dish with the same name detracts from the original or is misleading

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Oh, you know where I'm coming from.

Traditional/authentic bouilliabaise requires amongst other things rascasse, yet I could point to probably half a dozen different "bouilliabaise" that don't have it (or include other things like salmon and cockles), some from French bistros in NYC that should know better.

Those other "bouilliabaise" aren't in the least bit authentic according to our definition. Won't stop people from calling it bouilliabaise though.

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authentic to me means that the dish is cooked as it would be if in the country of origin with indiginous ingredients, methods and tools - as grandma would have made in that country.

Grandma, eh? Let's remember that most codified cuisines are not family or working-class cuisines but rather the cuisines of the courts, upper class, and (in a few cases) the bourgeoisie. And granny doesn't guarantee authenticity -- or, at least, not the authenticity that you might imagine.

Case in point: my grandmother-in-law is Mexican-American, a lifelong resident of southwestern Arizona, and maker of the best tamales in Bisbee. When recently asked where to get good snacks, she said that she and her husband often get nachos at Dairy Queen when they want a special treat.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I agree with Adam that "traditional" is much more useful in this context than "authentic." I don't think it's possible to identify something as an example of "authentic boeuf bourguignon" the one can identify something as an "authentic Rossini manuscript" or an example of "authentic painting of the so-and-so school."

--

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Grandma, eh? Let's remember that most codified cuisines are not family or working-class cuisines but rather the cuisines of the courts, upper class, and (in a few cases) the bourgeoisie. And granny doesn't guarantee authenticity -- or, at least, not the authenticity that you might imagine.

I never said granny guaranteed authenticity.

As discussed above, the definitiions and interpretations of those definitions are going to be based on each individual's experience in life.

Of course not all "grandma's" cooked, but most of them did, and I'm pretty darn sure a majority of them around the world were not royalty. Certainly it willl depend on the dish and the origin of the dish, the country of origin, etc.

I believe that when those of us say "grandma", we're referring to those grandmas who are not bi-lingual or into fusion cooking. Who did not live in major metropolitain areas and hence did not have access to a wide variety of ingredients. Who never moved to another country other than their native one until they were over 70 if at all. In fact, most of these "grandmas" are most likely deceased or a good 90 years mature. The grandmas who if you're raised in America can't communicate with you because you dont' speak or barely understand their language. This is where I'm coming from.

Edited by mudbug (log)
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Oh, you know where I'm coming from.

Traditional/authentic bouilliabaise requires amongst other things rascasse, yet I could point to probably half a dozen different "bouilliabaise" that don't have it (or include other things like salmon and cockles), some from French bistros in NYC that should know better.

Those other "bouilliabaise" aren't in the least bit authentic according to our definition.  Won't stop people from calling it bouilliabaise though.

There you go then. You know what the traditional form of the dish is, from there you can determine the merits of the variations. Again if you like call it a variation on a theme (fish stew/soup with saffron, fennel, orange peel, olive oil), the point being that "bouilliabaise" defines this solar system of fish stews which orbits the archetype. I imagine that most people would be surprised if they were served a dish of Thai fish cakes under the name of "bouilliabaise" though right?

As I said before, I don't think that an absolute of "authentic" exists in the context of food (obviously there are exceptions) and I personally prefer "traditional", but the concept is important otherwise we would not know what people actually mean when they describe a recipe.

It is like language (or at least English) it is defined by peoples use of it, but there also has to be a degree on agreement and continuity otherwise it is the Tower of Babel.

There are at least three type of rascasse used in bouillabaisse, they are also key to other Med. Fish stew/soups. This suggets to me that they are very important in some way. There are at least six dozen members of the family (Scorpaenidae) in North American waters are none of these eaten in the States?

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Possibly they are but a real purist would insist up and down on there being rascasse in bouilliabaise, otherwise, it's not the real thing.

I wouldn't say that Thai fish cakes as "bouilliabaise" is too far a stretch. Marinara sauce started life as a seafood-based tomato sauce and look at what it's become in Italian-American cuisine. Something totally different. A food-aware person would say it's "sugo di pomodoro". Most people wouldn't know.

Whether this is partly due to ignorance or just because things evolved remains to be seen. The fact of the matter is that it happens all the time, and it's not about to cease anytime soon. That's my point.

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Possibly they are but a real purist would insist up and down on there being rascasse in bouilliabaise, otherwise, it's not the real thing.

This purist would most likely miss the point then that it is impossible to pin down a recipe like bouilliabaise in a pure form, there are too many variations even in traditional recipes (look at the clafoutis thread on the French board). But it is useful to have definitions.

I don't have any clues on American-Italian food, but I assume that Marinara sauce was a tomato sauce for seafood? In this case I can't see there being a conflict with it having multiple definitions as it is a basic preparation.

Things evolve, but I still have to know what you are talking about for you to effectively communicate an idea. Just like the fish cake v bouilliabaise it is balance.

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No, no. In it's previous life, "marinara sauce" was originally a seafood-based tomato sauce for use with pasta. As time went on, eventually it evolved to become the familiar "red sauce" that many Americans associate with what passes for Italian-American cuisine. Marinara sauce nowadays bears no relation to the original save in name only. What we call marinara sauce within the context of Italian-American cuisine is really sugo di pomodoro. Of course, most people don't call it that. :wink:

Here's another: moo shu pork is a classical Chinese dish, except that it's usually made with a minimum of pork, whereas the modern version -- or at least the version that's served in Chinese-American restaurants all over the U.S., is made with an overabundance of meat.

MOO SHU PORK

Moo Shu Pork is a northern Chinese egg dish typically wrapped in wheat flour pancakes. In Chinese, the words ‘Moo Shu’ are the name of the yellow cassia flower, a poetic reference to the look of the scrambled eggs in the dish. Moo Shu Pork first became popular in the US during the late 60’s and early 70’s. There were so many exciting things about it! Here was a delicious new dish that was fun and authentic, and you could eat it with your fingers. 

Classically prepared Moo Shu Pork is a stir-fry of scrambled eggs, pork shreds, tiger lily buds, shredded bamboo shoots, tree ears, and scallions. It does NOT contain: carrots, cabbage, nappa, ginger, garlic, mushrooms, chicken, beef, or shrimp.

When properly made it is ‘dry-cooked’. This means that the finished dish should have no visible sauce. There are liquids that flavor it, but they are used in small quantity and then reduced away during stir-frying. The distinctive aroma of an authentic Moo Shu Pork is created by the subtle muskiness of the sautéed lily buds combined with the smell of the just warmed sesame oil. When cooking Moo Shu Pork, the goal is to bring out this subtle musky aroma and combine it with a tasty/savory background of flavor. 

Today, however, it’s likely that the recipe used by your local Chinese restaurant produces a very different dish, one that has evolved and adapted itself to the perceived demands of the mass marketplace.

To start with, probably because the same pancakes are also served with Peking Duck, and because Moo Shu Pork is dry-cooked, and because the not so knowledgeable American customer was used to having ‘sauce’ with their ‘rolls’ and asked ‘what kind of sauce goes with this dish’, some enterprising restaurateur decided to serve hoisin with Moo Shu Pork. To complicate matters, a common mistake was incorporated and many Americans started mistakenly referring to hoisin as plum sauce. Think of this, here you have gone to all of this trouble to create a subtly delicious dish permeated with the exotic fragrance of the lily buds and you obliterate all that effort with a spoonful of tasty but overwhelming hoisin sauce. May taste good, but it’s still catsup on steak.

As its popularity soared chefs started to regard Moo Shu Pork as a profit center. Chicken, shrimp, beef and vegetarian versions appeared. To lower production costs bulky and inexpensive vegetables like cabbage and carrots were shredded and added to the recipe. To accommodate American tastes, the proportion of meat and egg was reversed so that instead of 4-6 eggs per order, there were only 2. Pancakes, instead of being homemade, were outsourced and often far from an acceptable quality. Over the coarse of a few decades Moo Shu Pork changed considerably. On many take-out menus it is now a category of its own.

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to dumb down the conversation a little :rolleyes:  ...

authentic is when i am sitting in a restaurant in barcelona eating paella.  . . . .

Hmm. There are those who would say that's the authentic tourist experience. Paella is authentic to Alicante and Valencia. In Barcelona the local dish would be an arroz caldoso. It's a much different rice dish.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

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Perhaps buried in a post by Almass is an important point that I believe was picked up by Adam as well. It's about communication and expectation. You want to cook chicken in tomato sauce and tell your kids it's boeuf bourguignon, go ahead. You want to tell them 2 + 2 = 7, fine. You want to tell them the sky is green and the sun is blue, okay by me, but understand that when they leave your house they're at a disadvantage. They can't talk with other people because they speak a language only they understand. We use langauge to communicate and we give names to things so we can talk about them. If I ask a waiter for a fork, he and I have to share a common undertanding of what a fork is before I can get what I want. That's why people have a hard time in foreign countries. They don't speak the same language. Open a restaurant and put chicken with olives on the menu as coq au vin in France and you're going to annoy your diners because they all share a communal understanding of what to expect. On the other hand, it may annoy no one in Topeka where perhaps most of the diners will ask what's in the dish anyway.

All of this is dependent on context. Do you speak the langauge of the person to whom you're addressing? In NY diners are composed of three groups. Some diners have no idea what bouillabaisse is, some think it's some kind of expensive fish soup that varies from chef to chef and some pretty much know what it is and isn't and know you can't replicate it in NY. In that context, it's perfectly safe to call just about anything bouillabaisse as long as it has broth and fish or seafood, because we've destroyed the traditional meaning. Of course you may run across a disgruntled diner from Marseille, but anyone from Marseille crazy enough to order bouillabaisse in NY, gets what he deserves.

The monkey wrench in the works is when there's an abrupt contextural change. When nouvelle cuisine chefs started calling any dish with three layers or more millefeuilles. Nouvelle cuisine developed it's own lingo, just as jazz and hip hop developed their own language. It was hard for outsiders to know if hot or cold was "hot," or if something was so good it was "bad." You had to be part of the private club.

My point is that it's not a matter of the right or wrong word, but the communicative word. Words change meaning over time and dishes may change over time, or the name of a dish may evolve over time. In essence, we can argue night and day, but the changes will occur with or without message board approval.

Soba, I don't believe marinara sauce was ever seafood based, but that marinara was a word used to describe the way fishermen cooked. Italian fishermen used a tomato sauce and that over time, at least in America, the sauce itself came to be called marinara sauce is much the way language develops or gets corrupted depending on our point of view. Do you have any evidence to support the idea that it was a different sauce in the past and actually contained seafood rather than a tomato sauce used to flavor seafood?

Moules marinière and cozze marinara share the same concept of deriving from the way fishermen cooked as chasseur and cacciatore derive from the way hunters prepared food. At least that would be my contention. I am open to better understanding.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Of course you may run across a disgruntled diner from Marseille, but anyone from Marseille crazy enough to order bouillabaisse in NY, gets what he deserves.

It could be okay without salmon and green mussels.

This purist would most likely miss the point then that it is impossible to pin down a recipe like bouilliabaise in a pure form, there are too many variations even in traditional recipes (look at the clafoutis thread on the French board). But it is useful to have definitions.

Certainly no salmon or green mussels in a bouilliabaise in Marseille. The dish also implies certain methods that are not found in other fish soups.

In the clafoutis thread there's no disagreement about what constitutes traditional clafoutis amongst the French posters. There was a lot of discussion about other recipes though. And I don't think the other recipes claimed authenticity either.

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Soba, I don't believe marinara sauce was ever seafood based, but that marinara was a word used to describe the way fishermen cooked. Italian fishermen used a tomato sauce and that over time, at least in America, the sauce itself came to be called marinara sauce is much the way language develops or gets corrupted depending on our point of view. Do you have any evidence to support the idea that it was a different sauce in the past and actually contained seafood rather than a tomato sauce used to flavor seafood?

Hm, I don't remember where I saw that reference, so I checked a couple of cookbooks I own. (And it appears I'm half-right and somewhat wrong. :wink: )

From Lorenza's Pasta (1996, Lorenza de'Medici; Random House)

Travelling outside of Italy I have more than once come across a pasta dish dressed with tomato sauce listed on menus as alla marinara, or sailor's style, which is incorrect.  In Italy, a marinara sauce is made with garlic and olive oil and sometimes chili pepper, but no tomatoes are added.  In the days when that sauce was invented, sailors did not have tomatoes aboard ship, not even canned ones, which did not become widely available until early this century.
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Yes, but things evolve.

You can be a stickler for saying that things should remain timeless, like a painting is timeless, but everything changes, even art.[...]

I only wish paintings were timeless. Unfortunately, when the "restorers" get through with them...

...but that's not about food. :raz:

I basically agree with your point of view and also Almass's and Adam's, et al. It's all about expectations. I can accept something if it's not what I expect but equally good, but it would be safer for the restaurant not to set me up to expect something very particular, especially if I'm intimately familiar with the cuisine (e.g., Malaysian food). Ultimately, though, it's all about the food, by any other name.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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[...]What about chili? Is Texas red more authentic than Cincinnati chili? Maybe there is authentic Texas red and authentic Cincinnati chili.

That sounds right to me. Each style of chili could be authentic or not.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I agree with Adam that "traditional" is much more useful in this context than "authentic."  I don't think it's possible to identify something as an example of "authentic boeuf bourguignon" the one can identify something as an "authentic Rossini manuscript" or an example of "authentic painting of the so-and-so school."

Agreed. The authentic Rossini manuscript and the authentic paintings each have a specific, unique author. In that sense, we could talk about an authentic recipe by a specific chef, but many recipes are more comparable to folk music or folk art than music manuscripts or art attributed to specific authors that can be authenticated.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Further to the discussion of things like bouillabaisse (which is not only a discussion about authenticity but also a discussion about nomenclature) is the restaurant practice of giving dishes what I will call "quotation mark names." This is to say, they're not giving you the dish, they're giving you something that they think is evocative of the dish. Thus Keller's salmon "chop" and things like Thai-style salmon "bouillabaisse."

Part of what happens, of course, is that too many quotation mark dishes begins to change the public's perception of the dish, and "bouillabaisse" comes to mean "fish soup."

Back to the nomenclature thing, I think a lot of this comes out of simply not understanding foreign languages. For example, this is how "bruschetta" is coming to be known in America as "any old thing with chopped fresh tomatoes, raw garlic and basil on it." Likewise, this is how "panini" and "biscotti" are coming to be known in America as names for single items, as in "give me a panini." In fact, there have been plenty of discussions in these forums with members forwarding the argument that this is okay and exactly how it should be -- that "panini" now means "single vaguely Italian-style grilled sandwich" in America.

This all seems to get away from the central question of what is "authentic," however. It may be inevitable, or okay in some minds, for "bouillabaisse" to mean "a vaguely French-style fish soup" in America, but there is no way a bouillabaisse made with salmon and without rascasse can be called "authentic" or (which I think is more useful) "traditional."

--

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Just found this thread.

Might of missed it, but to be authentic we need an authority to authourise it authentic? Surely then is all it comes down to the authority that calls it authentic. Is there an authority on authentic food? As mentioned Traditional makes more sense for it to be authentic there needs to be an agreement with an authoritive body! In art this is easy if its a fake and the person who said it was real is wrong, there reputation is gone and there no longer an authority on art, but as for a food authority!

As my own authority I call my authentic sauce x made against all tradition , whos to argue with my take on authentic, to call a dish not real puts it in a place of dreams, I can taste my food. You can tell me its not traditional.

Just my pennys worth

Stef

Perfection cant be reached, but it can be strived for!
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Just found this thread.

Might of missed it, but to be authentic we need an authority to authourise it authentic? Surely then is all it comes down to the authority that calls it authentic. Is there an authority on authentic food? As mentioned Traditional makes more sense for it to be authentic there needs to be an agreement with an authoritive body! In art this is easy if its a fake and the person who said it was real is wrong, there reputation is gone and there no longer an authority on art[...]

It's not even that easy in art. Many famous authorities have been fooled by excellent fakes over the centuries. But I agree completely with the thrust of your argument.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Why I think authentic is better than non-authentic:

Because the reason ethnic restaurants make dishes non-authentic is to cater to local tastes. This implies making things taste more like what I'm used to. But as a food lover, I seek to explore all sorts of new flavors. I don't want what I'm used to.

The slippery slope of the non-authentic dining world ends with Cantonese, Sichuan, Thai, and Vietnamese indifferentiable. There's just Asian--stir-fried veggies and meats without spices that Americans can't handle.

Many wonderful things in life require an adjustment period. A person drinking wine for the first time will probably like Woodbridge more than Margaux. But becoming adjusted to complex aftertastes and tannic body allows the person to derive much more enjoyment from wine--it could become a lifelong obsession. I think a similar thing is true for, say, Thai food. I am certain that the pleasure I get from very spicy, more authentic Thai curries is greater than typical people get from blander, more Western versions.

All that said, if a dish is non-authentic but just as interesting, I'm perfectly happy. Very rarely have I found this at ethnic restaurants.

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  • 10 months later...

Recently, I had a meal in a traditional Japanese izakaya restaurant. The yakisoba came with portabello mushrooms in it. I'm fairly certain that Japanese don't really use portabello mushrooms in their cuisine. This says to me one of two things; they either don't know or don't care about the regional cuisines they are trying to produce. Other examples I've come across are beef dishes in Indian restaurants and cheese on Italian seafood dishes.

Now, I'm known to put foie gras and duck into my potstickers every now and then, but I'm not running a Chinese restaurant.

Any other interesting examples?

Does this bug anyone else as much as it bugs me?

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Good points and interesting thread.

Never say never, though.

As a general rule, cheese is not sprinkled on Italian primi such as pasta with seafood.

However, there's a Sicilian main course in which swordfish is treated like thin slices of meat and rolled up with mozzarella before frying (Braciole di Pescespada). Cf. Ada Boni's Italian Regional Cooking.

I am not sure how "authentic" Mario Batali's recipe for tuna and ricotta fritters is, but, there you go.

Besides, Italy's a diverse country and the problem of an authentic Italian cuisine is similar to the one for Indian or Chinese. There are different local traditions, not everyone subscribes to same belief systems...

1) One of the problems with the label "authentic" is that you need to determine what establishes the norm and when it is fixed in time. There are lots of recipes for coq au vin and let me tell you the one about tomatoes and osso buco.

Home cooks get bored with the same-old, same-old. So do chefs. Daughters rebel against mothers and so on. You gotta be creative sometimes, make do with what you have or use up all the blanched fava beans before they spoil.

It's a bit like the dilemma Alan Lomax faced when traveling through southern regions of the United States trying to capture true, authentic "folk music" before it got corrupted by outside forces. Each of his musicians offered a variation on the songs passed down to him or her, so what was the true, authentic song? If that musician lived in a swamp without a phone or car or TV or record player, was his music authentic folk music? If he went off to college and started to visit blues clubs and listen to the radio, and wrote his own songs, were his original compositions not authentic folk music, but his recordings of his mother's lullabies were?

2) Should a chef be bound by laws that home cooks are free to break?

Edited by Pontormo (log)

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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