Tag Archives: Food History

What’s Spaghetti?

30 Oct

I got into a debate about spaghetti the other day.

You might assume I got into a debate about the right type of herbs for the sauce, or how long to cook the noodles. But no: I got into a debate about spaghetti itself. What it even is, at its most basic level.


From Kawaling Pinoy

It started with a dish called Filipino Spaghetti. This dish includes hot dogs and banana ketchup, adding up to a sort of sweet, sort of savory dish. I’d never had it before, and quite liked it. But then, my dining companion and I got to talking about spaghetti. He wasn’t a fan of Filipino Spaghetti, and said he prefers “Italian spaghetti” with a richer tomato sauce and savory herbs. Which is totally fine: to each their own. Still, we started wondering what makes spaghetti, well, spaghetti. Is it about the shape of the noodle ? The way it’s served? Who makes it?

Technically, “spaghetti” refers to a type of noodle. But when we hear the phrase “spaghetti,” we have specific associations of what that dish should look like. Same goes for most foods, really. What guacamole should be, what fried rice should look like, what ketchup should taste like. These ideas come from our individual food histories: what we’ve experienced so far and what we believe to be true about different foods. Coming up with a standard definition really isn’t that simple, though. There may be traditional ways to prepare foods, but who’s to say what the “right” way is, especially when variations persist across cultures? Where’s the line between “authentic” and “variation” and “reinterpretation?”

Defining dishes has been a hot topic lately because of chefs’ new takes on traditional foods. Recently I saw a discussion about paella that was altered so much, Spaniards didn’t think it should be called “paella.” I also saw a conversation about tacos that shouldn’t be called tacos, since their fillings were so non-traditional. I’ve seen people declare certain dishes a “mockery” of regional cuisine because of ingredient tweaks or technique changes.

When does something become a mockery, rather than a twist on a classic? Where is that line between “creative interpretation” and “offensive bastardization?”

Honestly, it’s sort of hard to tell. Something like Filipino Spaghetti is, in fact, authentic to a specific culture. It is an adaptation that happened over time due to local contexts and local ingredients. This is true with most foods we eat today: few look like the original dish that our ancestors would have consumed centuries ago. Earlier this year, I read a fantastic book called “The Language of Food,” which digs into the linguistic roots of popular dishes to explain how those dishes evolved over time. Most things we eat today morphed over centuries of human migration, crop changes and cultural nuances. Did you know the origins of ketchup are a fish sauce created in 17th century China? That ketchup looked and tasted nothing like our ketchup today. If a restaurant served you that take on ketchup, would you protest it wasn’t ketchup? Or should we rename our beloved tomato sauce something else, instead?

In my opinion, Filipino Spaghetti is equally spaghetti-like to something smothered in marinara. But what about when it comes to more liberal takes on traditional dishes?

And that’s where it starts to get murky. There is a difference between creativity, and disrespect. I often think that switching around ingredients shows creativity, not insult.  I’ll gladly eat your Korean BBQ tacos and your butternut squash paella. But I do think there is a line to watch about respect, about mocking an authentic dish, about claiming authenticity. Which brings us back to the original question: when is paella not paella? Is it about some proportion of ingredients that got swapped out? Is it about who makes it?

Personally, I am satisfied with someone modifying the name of a dish to express that it’s been altered. “Butternut squash paella” or “soppressata kugel” are just fine by me. But I hope that chefs always respect the origins of the cuisine they’re adapting, and that they call it an adaptation rather than trying to claim authenticity or superiority. What ruffles my personal feathers is when chefs get snobby about how they’re “improving” a dish by using different ingredients or techniques–implying that the original dish was not sufficient on its own.

It’s a gray area, to be sure, because lots of people do get offended when they see their traditional dishes “re-interpreted.” But given how much food changes over time, I think respectful creativity is a delicious addition to our menus.


What A Spread

23 May

In its original form, Supercrema. Nutella is probably a better name, but I sort of like the mental image of a chocolatey superhero

I’ve always thought of Nutella as an indulgence, something I buy when I want to add a touch of decadence to what I’m eating. And despite the company’s attempts to market their spread as a health food (which resulted in a false advertising lawsuit), Nutella falls under the “occasional treat” category for most consumers. As it turns out, Nutella’s very existence is rooted in this idea of a small luxury. I recently read a BBC article that explained the company’s “origin story,” as we call it in marketing. According to the article, Nutella’s inventor came up with the idea for the hazelnut spread in the years after WW2, when a lot of people couldn’t afford to buy real chocolate. The story goes that founder Pietro Ferrero became obsessed with creating a chocolate treat for the masses. First he produced a chocolate hazelnut loaf, which had to be cut with a knife. In time he invented a recipe for Supercrema, a spreadable form, and the roots of Nutella as we know and love it today.

Supercrema helped reinvent how the masses interacted with chocolate. As the BBC article says, “spreadability meant that a small amount went a long way.” Meaning, the spreadable format more or less diluted the cost of the ingredients, and made Supercrema much more affordable for the masses. The spread format also changed the confection’s perception from a treat or dessert into any “anytime” thing. Suddenly you could put a dab on bread, have just a spoonful, and indulge whenever you wanted. Supercrema helped shift people’s ideas of when it was acceptable or allowable to eat chocolate. It became a permissible indulgence rather than a twice-a-year treat. It was never exactly a “necessity,” but it was an affordable luxury, a pleasure you could have without feeling guilty about spending too much money.

Italy has a commemorative stamp to mark Nutella’s 50th birthday

Over time, Supercrema became Nutella. Though Nutella has long been popular around the world, it’s somehow only become really popular in the U.S. in recent years. But that popularity has exploded, to the point that the Eataly Italian food markets in Chicago and NYC now feature Nutella bars. In fact, Nutella has become so popular that it’s spurred a lot of copycats, from Hershey’s to boutique brands. That’s good news for consumers, as product choice in a category like groceries usually means accessible price points and lots of promotions. But it’s really not so great for Nutella and its market share! (Yes, these are the things I think about while grocery shopping. Doesn’t it make you want to go with me?)

While I wasn’t always a huge fan of Nutella, these days I’m a card-carrying member of the Nutella fan club. So in honor of Nutella’s birthday, why don’t we all treat ourselves to jars of the chocolatey delight?

If you don’t want to end up eating the entire jar with a spoon, here’s a few ways to work it into baked goods:

The most recent Nutella-based recipe I made:

Nutella-Stuffed Oatmeal Peanut Butter Cookies 

What I most want to make next (it’s a tie!):

Nutella-Swirled Peanut Butter Chip Blondies

Nutella-Stuffed Brown Butter Sea Salt Chocolate Chip Cookies  

Nutella Swirl Brownies



Buttery Goodness

7 Mar

From Brown Eyed Baker’s take on Gooey Butter Cake. Makes you just want to grab that cake from your screen, doesn’t it?

There are certain foods I just can’t explain. I know they’re delicious, I know what’s in them, but my words somehow fail me when it comes to explaining the taste to other people. Gooey Butter Cake is one of those foods. In reality, its name is pretty prescriptive: it’s gooey, it’s cake, and it sure has a lot of butter in it. But beyond that, I can never quite explain to someone else what they’re in for when they go to take a bite.

According to food historians, Gooey Butter Cake was first made by a St. Louis-area baker in the 1930s. It was the product of a mix up: a new baker used the wrong sort of butter. But as with so many recipes and foods, the mess-up proved lucrative. Gooey Butter Cake was a hit, and a new era of buttery goodness was born.

I first fell in love with Gooey Butter Cake during my time in St. Louis, and have eagerly sought it out ever since. Every now and then I think I see it at a bakery…and then realize it’s just lemon bars, which can look awfully like the buttery bars I seek. I did find it once, by chance, in Alabama. The bakery even had multiple flavors! The owner told me that a customer from St. Louis had suggested it to them, and it’d sold well since.

I baked this cake for an Oscars party last weekend. Guests said it was exactly as advertised: gooey, butter, deliciousness!

I baked this one for an Oscars party last weekend. Tasters said it was exactly as advertised: gooey, butter, deliciousness!

Alas, the cake remains hard to find in the wild. So to satisfy my cravings, I started baking it myself a few years ago. I’ve tried a few recipes over time, and have come up with a couple favorites I want to share with you today.

There are 2 main approaches to gooey butter cake: one involves a risen base and corn syrup, the other involves cake mix and cream cheese. Neither one is technically considered “correct.” I’ve seen both kinds for sale in St. Louis, and both kinds on food blogs around the web. I personally prefer the yeast-dependent version, but I’ve also made the cake mix version and gotten rave reviews. So I suggest you peek over the recipes below and choose the one that feels most comfortable to you in terms of ingredients, and most appealing to you in terms of pictures and descriptions. Then grab some butter, and get baking!


  • My favorite yeast-based recipe can be found at both Brown Eyed Baker  and Smitten Kitchen. You have to let the dough rise for a bit so it forms a cake base, then you pour the corn syrup topping over it and bake it altogether
  • The cake mix version I’ve made is derived from the cake at a coffee shop called Kaldi’s. I found the recipe via a  St. Louis newspaper. It’s a quicker approach, and a bit easier, than the yeast version above
  • If you’re more of a cookie person, fear not. These Chocolate Gooey Butter Cookies were really tasty and had a similar gooey texture

Ready Made

Unfortunately I don’t have many suggestions for buying it pre-made. If you happen to find yourself in St. Louis, definitely check out the version at Kaldi’s Coffee Shop. I’ve never tried the cake at Park Avenue Coffee, but I hear great things about their multitude of flavor options. Beyond St. Louis…a friend told me about  a similar dessert at a place called Mastro’s in Newport Beach, CA. I recently noticed a butter cake on California Pizza Kitchen’s menu. And of course, there’s always that Alabama bakery! Which, if my memory serves me right, was Heavenly Creations in Fairhope. And in one of my favorite twists on it, Ample Hills Creamery in Brooklyn mixes Gooey Butter Cake into one of their flavors. It’s divine, so if you find yourself in Brooklyn, check it out. 

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