Recipes are stories, and so they tell tales. About a set of ingredients transformed into a new thing, surely, but also about their time and place, about the level of skill of their cook, and even about the cook’s ideals.
But because recipes are stories, they also are fact — or fiction. In one way, every recipe is a fact; it’s there as itself, simply.
But is a “Grilled Chicken Caesar salad” a “Caesar salad?” No, it’s fiction because the fact of a true “Caesar salad,” at its origin, as it began, didn’t sport any grilled chicken. (Or, for that matter, any of these: anchovy, garlic, Dijon mustard, or small croutons or many other possible ingredients that a typical, contemporary, so-called “Caesar salad” might contain.)
This is the hobgoblin of “authenticity,” a notorious element for any recipe.
The origin of Caesar salad
Cesare Cardini, an Italian immigrant to the United States, who lived in San Diego but also ran a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, was said, by his daughter Rosa Cardini, to have invented the Caesar salad on the Fourth of July 1924 by cobbling together merely seven ingredients: whole leaves of romaine lettuce, a raw egg yolk, Italian olive oil, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Worcestershire sauce and lime juice. And a round slice of baguette, nicely toasted.
Apparently, Rosa’s father did not cotton to whole anchovies and considered the amount of anchovy (in essence, the level of umami) in Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce to suffice. All the other stuff — the garlic, et cetera — came afterward and at the hands of others, including his brother, Alex, who also laid claim to the “authentic” Caesar salad.
And so it goes with the origins — or, to say it another way, the authenticity — of recipes.
And when more than one source lays claim to the beginnings?
Origin of the French cassoulet
Along a 60-mile stretch of the Canal du Midi in southwestern France, three towns boast theirs as the authentic cassoulet. But the town of Castelnaudry’s original recipe insists on Lingot beans and a piece of ham added to the universally-included various cuts of pork, whereas Carcassonne’s adds a shank of lamb and a partridge (though updated to today from its original, neither) and Toulouse’s insists on its famed sausage as well as Tarbais, never the also regional Lingot, beans.
So, which is “the” authentic cassoulet? And who is to rule on the answer?
In Nice, writes the great food historian Waverly Root in his classic “The Food of France,” the Salade Nicoise “is innocent of lettuce . . . and must contain tomatoes, cut into wedges (not slices) . . . and should contain nothing cooked, with the possible exception of hard-boiled egg, not often permitted in Nice itself.
“Outside of Nice (and as close as Paris itself), the Salade Nicoise often sports green beans and potatoes, both cooked,” writes Root, “though a purist would regard either of these, especially the latter, with horror.”
And where’s the tuna?
“The Nicois [a person or persons from Nice, France] often combine anchovies and tuna fish in the same salad,” allows former Nice mayor Jacques Médecin in his book “Cuisine Nicoise,” although, he adds, “traditionally this was never done, tuna fish being very expensive and reserved for special occasions, so the cheaper anchovies filled the bill.” (Root does not even mention tuna fish as a possibility.)
In any case, in France, even today, the tuna would rarely, if ever, be a grilled plank of sushi-grade tuna with a cold center. It would “authentically” be canned tuna in olive oil.
So, again, it goes.
Origin of Colorado’s beloved recipe: Green chile verde
As for the authentic recipe for our State of Colorado’s beloved green chile (chile verde)?
“It’s not canonical,” points out Mark Antonation, Communication Manager for the Colorado Restaurant Association and Foundation and former food and drink editor for Westword. “It varies from town to town and region to region and changes all the time. Probably the only original ingredient is the chile itself,” which everyone agrees gives it its surname, “green” or “verde.”
In Mexico, Antonation notes, “they will use a combination of poblano and jalapeño, along with tomatillos.” But in New Mexico, “Hatch chiles, no thickeners and no or few tomatoes,” and in Colorado, “jalapeño and Pueblo chiles, tomatoes and thickeners such as masa or cornstarch or potatoes,” all these latter very much looked down the nose by New Mexicans who consider, Antonation says, “chile verde as their state dish.” (Learn more about how to make Colorado Green Chile.)
I like to think of authenticity in recipes the same way that I think about authenticity in persons. We praise people (or ourselves) when we act “authentically,” do we not? Or when we are our “authentic” selves? What does that really mean, though?
The Greek roots of the word “authentic” are “autos” (“self”) and “hentes” (“doer” or “accomplisher”). The idea of an authentic action or life is that there exists a correspondence between who and how someone knows themself to be and how they act; there’s an integrity, a wholeness, a unity between what one knows about oneself and who one is out in the world.
In the same way, I am comfortable thinking about authenticity in recipes in the same way, that there is a correspondence or resemblance between the source and the output (or dish or preparation of food) in a way that faithfully captures the origins of the dish.
In the end, however, as we can easily see with chile verde in our part of the world — or with cassoulet in its — “close to home” has many meanings, even interpretations.
The original Caesar salad recipe
By Cesare Cardini, July 4, 1924, at Hotel Caesar, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico; measurements from various sources. Serves 2.
1 medium head romaine lettuce, outer leaves discarded and separated into individual leaves
1 coddled egg yolk (see note)
Juice of 1 lime
1 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (preferably Lea & Perrins)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Shy 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 slices baguette, toasted (2 round croutons)
Using a large open bowl (wooden, if you have one), add the lime juice, the egg yolk and the Worcestershire sauce and whisk or emulsify with a wooden spoon or spatula. Grind in the black pepper and mix in.
Slowly add the olive oil while emulsifying further and then 1 tablespoon of the cheese. Mix well. Add the romaine leaves longways and gently roll them over each other so that they gather up as much of the dressing as they can.
Plate the salad onto 2 chilled plates, the romaine leaves spine-side up and topped with the toasted baguette slice. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon of grated cheese over the plated salads and croutons.
Note: To coddle an egg, bring a small pot of water to a rapid boil. Meanwhile, have ready an ice water bath in a bowl in the sink. Carefully lower the egg into the boiling water and precisely time exactly 1 minute when the water begins simmering again (almost immediately). Remove the egg to the ice water and let it cool well, 3-4 minutes, stirring gently. Crack the egg at its fat end and allow the liquid-y white to drain away, saving the yolk in the palm of your hand or on a large spoon for making the Caesar salad dressing.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]