Not long ago, I joined an Italian cooking group on Facebook. I thought it would be a good opportunity to pick up some tips and recipes. I left the group a couple of months later, after some members became...oh, let's call it "agitated"...over whether Sunday ragu was a "sauce" or a "gravy".
It sounds like a joke, doesn't it? Personal attacks stemming from disagreements over culinary terminology seem like such a cartoonish Italian stereotype that you almost think it just can't be true. Or maybe you just don't want it to be.
I mean, I don't particularly enjoy pineapple on my pizza, but if you do my reaction is generally just to shrug and move on. My reaction, notably, does not involve calling you a "festering puke" and then telling you to go "die in a fire".
Okay, I'm exaggerating. But only slightly.
There's a lot to unpack here, so let's start at the beginning and give some context.
The motivation for this blog post stems from a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine. I live in Montreal, and a standard grocery store item is a bag of diced, frozen "sauce vegetables" - carrots, celery and onion. They're meant to form a base for tomato sauce. He commented that these vegetables, though a very common feature of Quebecois life, are about as Italian as kielbasa. Authentic Italian tomato sauce, so the story goes, consists of nothing but tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil and salt.
Now, my mother is Italian and, as you might expect, a pretty good cook. And it's true - I've never seen my mom add carrot or celery to a tomato sauce. Her recipe, as a matter of fact, roughly matches my friend's. But I think back to that Facebook group and my hackles go up because if there's one thing that group taught me it's that I have an intense dislike of gatekeeping, in cooking as in life. And I suddenly feel like I have to defend the idea of carrots in tomato sauce, even if my mom would make a face at the very idea.
The Authenticity Trap
So...do I actually think that carrots are an appropriate ingredient in Italian tomato sauces? Well, I could point out that many tomato-based sauces in Italian cooking start with a soffrito, which consists of carrots, celery and onions. These sauces tend to have meat in them, but so what? I could also point out these recipes:
I honestly have no idea how "authentic" these are, but I think the question is badly framed. I'm not even really sure what "authentic" is supposed to mean in this context. Authentic for whom? Italy is a big, regional country, and cooking is a very personal and individual thing. I'm sure everybody and their mother has their own way to make tomato sauce, and it seems a little absurd to think that carrots and celery are simply banned from the ingredients list.
Also, Italian cooking is extremely rustic, especially when compared to something like French cooking, which is much more formalized. It sometimes feels like a competition to see who can produce the tastiest meal with the fewest ingredients and, frequently, you end up just making do with what you have in your pantry. It's only natural that recipes vary wildly from person to person and region to region. Trying to nail down one "authentic" variation of a dish feels completely anathema.
That's not to say that the notion of authenticity has no place at all - you probably won't find bok choy or soy sauce in many Italian recipes - but focusing on it kind of defeats the spirit. Even something as emblematic as tomatoes are a fairly recent addition (500 years ago) to the Italian culinary landscape. Nothing ever stays the same forever.
Case In Point
Marcella Hazan's famous tomato sauce has a grand total of four ingredients:
- can of tomatoes
- peeled, halved onion (unchopped)
You fish out the onion at the end and either throw it out or eat it separately. Notably, this sauce it has no garlic, no olive oil and no spices. Is it authentic? Well, Hazan is Italian, so...yes? Then again, I ran this recipe by my mother who, as I mentioned, is also Italian, and it grossed her out. So...no? Do you see the problem?
People are sometimes flummoxed by the butter in the sauce, because common wisdom states that Italian recipes tend not to use butter. But which Italian recipes? From what part of Italy? Part of the reason that gatekeeping is a sucker's game when it comes to Italian cooking is because Italy is such a varied country. Believe it or not, there are parts of the country that use butter. Italians who forget this fact will often sputter when someone points out that many recipes for Bagna Cauda call for butter as well.
On Avoiding the Question
Okay, but...do I actually use carrots in my tomato sauce?
The answer is...sometimes. I don't generally add them if I'm making simple sauce. But I will if I'm trying to make something more robust; I live with a vegetarian, and I'll often make a lentil "bolognese" with a full soffrito as a base. Do I care if it's "authentic"? Not even a little.
And if the haters in that Facebook group don't like it, they can go eat a wheel of Cazu marzu. It's very authentic.