by Robert Waltz
Not for the faint of art.
|Okay, it's called "Food Grammar," but "Grub Grammar" is alliterative so I'm exercising my literary license. Hey, that also alliterates.
Introducing ‘Food Grammar,’ the Unspoken Rules of Every Cuisine
Technically, spaghetti and meatballs is bad grammar.
One of the common experiences of humankind -- well, actually, of pretty much all animals -- is that we eat. Humans make it social, though, so you'd think we'd have more customs in common. That turns out not to be the case.
Serve spaghetti and meatballs to an Italian, and they may question why pasta and meat are being served together.
"Because that's how we do it in the US."
Order a samosa as an appetizer, and an Indian friend might point out, as writer Sejal Sukhadwala has, that this is similar to a British restaurant offering sandwiches as a first course.
Depends on the sandwiches.
Offer an American a hamburger patty coated in thick demi-glace, and they’ll likely raise an eyebrow at this common Japanese staple dubbed hambagoo.
Now I want to try that.
Each of these meals or dishes feels somehow odd or out of place, at least to one party, as though an unspoken rule has been broken. Except these rules have indeed been discussed, written about extensively, and given a name: food grammar.
I'm calling it grub grammar anyway. Because I'm contrary like that.
Yes, much like language, cuisine obeys grammatical rules that vary from country to country, and academics have documented and studied them.
Sounds to me more like an excuse to try a bunch of different foods.
A culinary grammar can also provide insight into how an assortment of ingredients becomes a meal, much like how a jumble of words becomes a sentence.
So, in this analogy, cooks are all writers, and really good chefs are famous novelists or poets.
The article provides many examples; if you're the slightest bit interested in international cuisine or other cultural dining practices, give it a look.
In Italy, pasta and rice dishes are served before meat rather than alongside it; in Italian-American restaurants, however, fish is often perched on risotto, and meatballs take their starring place atop spaghetti in the eponymous classic.
You know, something about spaghetti and meatballs always bugged me. It's not the taste; it's usually delicious. It's more about the work you have to do in order to eat it. Like... okay, say you have a dish of spaghetti in some other kind of sauce, no meatballs. Whether it's Italian or not is irrelevant here, the point is, it's pasta and sauce. You stick a fork in, twirl it around, and stuff it into your face. But with meatballs, unless they're really really tiny meatballs (which can also work) you have the extra step of breaking up the meatball with the fork or with the aid of a knife. Then you have to get just the right proportion of meatball fragment to pasta to sauce. I mean, you can't just eat the meatball by itself, and you can't just eat a forkful of spaghetti by itself; otherwise, why bother with one or the other?
But this has nothing to do with the national origin of the dish. As far as I'm concerned, S&M (which I enjoy calling spaghetti and meatballs because I'm hilarious) is just as proper a food as anything you get in Italy, or anywhere else for that matter.
I mean, it's not like Italy invented pasta, and it's not like the tomato that forms the basis for so many pasta sauces was native to Italy. They had to put those things together once they got noodles from the east and tomatoes from the west (see the discussion of tomatoes a few entries back). So the Italian cooks, at some point, used these foreign concepts and made their own dishes out of it. S&M is just more of the same.
None of which says a single word about the taste of the dish. And that's what I care about in a dining experience. I don't give two shits if the dish is "authentic."
“Japanese people will take anything and make it theirs,” says Albala, citing shokupan, a Japanese white bread that’s even sweeter and softer than American Wonder Bread.
This... this is nothing to be proud of. If you want to cite one of the greatest achievements of Japan, it's how they were able to steal whiskey from Scotland and come up with distilled spirits even better than most Scotch.
Oh, yeah, I said that out loud. Okay, fine, it's not technically "food," but we were talking about how Japan will take anything and improve upon it.
I'll finish this with my own first known experience with grating grub grammar. And it didn't happen in some exotic foreign land, but in New York City, and it wasn't some other culture's cuisine (there are many such in NYC, which is one thing I love about the place), but in my very own aunt's house.
You'd think that she and her sister, my mom, would have similar ideas about how food is served. And they did, in some ways, though my mom was also influenced by my father's New Orleans background. But as a kid, I was always presented with meal courses in the following order: salad, main course (that is, what we call an entree, which is not the same thing as the French entrée, which is an appetizer), dessert. I mean, that's what you do, generally, right? With of course variations depending on what's being served.
But then I go to my aunt's house and suddenly I'm expected to eat the main course first and then the salad.
I don't know why this freaked me right out. I mean, I can understand having them both at the same time and switching back and forth; that is, treating the salad as a side dish. But my aunt treated it like First Dessert. So I guess that was grub grammar, even though I didn't know what to call it then, and really, didn't know until I read the article I linked above last month.
And now? Now I'm all hungry.