Food civil wars: I'm not entirely sure it's always so civil in these wars. In reading reviews, from time to time I run across comments that go something like this... "this is NOT authentic (insert your dish name here)! It never contains (insert ingredient
name here)!" So what does authentic really mean and who gets to decide what version is really authentic? Last I checked, there was no governing foodie board who decreed a certain version the truly authentic one.
My mother-in-law (whose parents immigrated from Hungary) was aghast when we made two versions of Chicken Paprikash for a birthday dinner; one the "traditional" way with only paprika and sour cream for the sauce and one with tomatoes in the sauce along
with paprika (and--gasp!-SMOKED paprika at that!) and sour cream. And my husband, who had grown up with the traditional version, decided that the tomato version was far more flavorful. Now, granted, I didn't grow up with the traditional version and had
it for the first time when I prepared the dish (from a recipe on AR--delish!).
I am somewhat as adamant about chicken and dumplings. My great-grandmother--a wonderful Southern cook--prepared this dish very bascially; bone-in chicken cooked in water to make a stock, which was then strained and the boned chicken meat added back along
with dumplings (drop only--no rolled here!) made much like biscuits (i.e. with buttermilk). It was one of my favorite dishes she made, and I still love it to this day. My only change is that I add onions to the stock for flavor. But I still make drop dumplings
the same as she did and season the dish with lots of pepper and a little salt. Perfection for me. But my grandmother, who was taught to cook by this same woman and is herself a wonderful Southern cook, makes hers with cream of chicken soup and butter in
the broth. So which is authentic? Those who never had my great-grandmother's dish love my grandmother's version. I had what I consider to be the authentic one, and that's that. When I moved to Wisconsin a few years ago, I was excited to see chicken and
dumpling soup (ok soup? Well, I guess it could be considered a soup, so I'll try it) and ordered it. It was hard little pieces of noodle-like dough in a thin broth with carrots and celery. WTH?!? This was NOT chicken and dumplings! But to the people here,
it apparently is as I've come to discover since this version is always the one served when it's on a menu.
And biscuits and gravy? Well, for me that means a milk gravy with cooked bulk sausage served over a split buttermilk biscuit. Order it on a menu here, and you'll get milk gravy but with pieces of link sausage over a whole (not split) biscuit. Breakfast
sausage on any menu here is link sausage. Not in the South...sausage is bulk sausage...period. And not splitting the biscuit? Unheard of in the South, at least my South. Expose all those wonderful little pockets in the biscuit to the gravy. Whole means
it just slides off.
And on to biscuits. My great-grandmother and grandmother never made biscuits without buttermilk nor would I ever consider making biscuits with anything but buttermilk. It's unthinkable. Here, more often it's milk. It's just not the same. And sugar
in biscuits? No way!
My husband thought I was crazy the first time we had chili dogs, and I put mustard on mine. Not done here, apparently, but it's how I always had mine. Every diner, drive-in, restaurant, etc, that served them where I grew up added mustard.
Grits? Always served with butter, salt, and pepper. The first time my now-husband came to visit me in Alabama, and I took him to Waffle House (miss those--not one to be found here), he added syrup to his. No sweet grits for me! Having them "my" way,
he has conceded they are meant to be served savory not sweet. You can't find grits on a menu here. Sigh....
Cornbread? More like cake in many parts of the country. Southern cornbread in my little area of the world was made with little to no sugar, no eggs, and buttermilk...and with stone-ground cornmeal. White cornmeal, not yellow. I don't like flour in
my cornbread, either. I do concede that an egg does add some nice structure, and I may add a tablespoon or two of sugar sometimes, but never anything but buttermilk. And I use stone-ground cornmeal that I either order or have my parents ship to me.
I won't really get started on barbecue as I know that's a debate that will also never be settled. I will just say (no offense) that you can keep your Kansas City-style, sweet sauce and your South Carolina mustard sauce. I like the North Carolina vinegar
style and the vinegary, peppery, very slightly sweet style I have yet to see anywhere but at Dreamland Ribs in Tuscaloosa, AL. The North Alabama white barbecue sauce is pretty good served with smoked chicken, but I don't want it anywhere near my pork. And
speaking of pork...if you say barbecue where I grew up (Mississippi) and where I lived for 20 years (Alabama) before moving to Wisconsin, you get pork. Period. And barbecue is a noun not a verb. We "grill" in the South, we don't "barbecue".
A few last observations...if you fry green tomatoes or okra, they are dredged in cornmeal. No flour in sight. The pie at Thanksgiving or Christmas is sweet potato, never pumpkin. Greens are cooked with pork of some kind for flavor and served with pepper
vinegar. Red velvet cake reigns supreme, has very little chocolate in it, and always has buttermilk and vinegar in it. There is no such thing as stuffing in my family; it's dressing, and it's cooked separately from any bird, and it contains cornbread. In
times of sorrow or in times of recuperation from a serious illness, food is cooked and delivered for the family. The recipe may not always be the same as your family, but it's from the heart, and that's what matters. These are the things that I grew up
So, in closing, I will put forward these truths that I hold to be self evident.
1. No one will ever make a dish as good as your granny or mom or aunt, etc,(or what you remember the dish to be).
2. If you grew up with it, and it's what you prefer, it's "authentic" enough for you.
3. If you change an "authentic" recipe, and you prefer the changes, it's "authentic" enough for you.
4. Changing a recipe and making it your own is how you establish tradition. You are still honoring the memory or the original. I think of my granny every time I make chicken and dumplings even though they are slightly different than hers. She is the
inspiration for my version.
5. There will never be agreement on the "right" way to make something. Chicago thinks their dogs reign supreme. Go to NY, and they'll think theirs do.
So whether you agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear your traditions and what you consider to be your authentic versions.