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Red Sauce

It's not fusion cuisine itself that inspires me, but the inventiveness that inspires people to make new and unexpected combinations out of familiar ingredients, be they foods, images, or words.

Charlie Bertsch

Issue #43, April 1999

The first time I made a red sauce for pasta, I had to eat it all myself. My partner wouldn't go near it. She knows something about red sauce. Not only is she of Italian descent, but many of her relatives came from Calabria in the south of Italy, a place where tomatos are particularly popular. And my red sauce didn't pass muster. But it wasn't that she disliked the taste of it. She refused to taste it. You see, I made the mistake of telling her what I put into it before I offered her a bite: dried New Mexico chiles, potatoes, and — I'm almost embarassed to admit it — sardines.

Sardines? It was a spur-of-the-moment concoction, the sort you throw together when you need to go to the store but haven't found the time. I had to work with the materials at hand. And I had potatoes and sardines. Perhaps you're wondering why I couldn't content myself to make a basic red sauce — tomatos, garlic, onions, and some dried spices — instead of taking such a huge risk. I'm wondering the same thing.

The funny thing about my first red sauce is that it was really good. I enjoyed eating it, not only because my partner found the idea of it disgusting, but because it pleased my palate. I was more than a little surprised. Even I had doubts about those sardines. Still, it all worked out somehow. The flavors complemented each other nicely so well that I could almost forget where they came from.

This brings me to the reason for my partner's disgust. The excuse she gave for not trying my red sauce — despite my repeated protestations that "It actually tastes alright" — was that "Everybody knows you don't make a red sauce out of potatoes and sardines." I was frustrated by this explanation. I understood it. If you were to pore over all of the Italian cookbooks ever produced in search of recipes for red sauce, it is unlikely that you would find one that calls for the use of both potatoes and sardines. I doubt whether more than a few of these recipies call for even one of these ingredients. As my partner's reaction indicates, people who have a sense of what belongs in a red sauce know that potatoes and sardines do not. I knew it when I made the red sauce. So why did I refuse to put that knowledge into practice?

cake The question interests me because I see a connection between my own refusal to play by the rules and a noteworthy trend in contemporary cooking. I don't mean to imply that I'm a gourmet chef. My repertoire in the kitchen is decidedly limited. But when I read the food section of our local papers, I realize that people are paying upwards of $25 a plate for dishes that make my experiment with sardines and potatoes seem almost tame. These dishes do more than combine ingredients that don't normally go together; they combine different food cultures. This "fusion" cuisine places a premium on the exotic. Recent reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle have featured such transcultural combinations as "steamed clams and mussels with basil, white wine and Chinese black beans;" lobster in a "Meyer lemon butter sauce" on a bed of "creamy lentils perfumed with shiso, a Japanese herb with a mildly minty taste;" "jasmine tea-stained halibut with asiago, panko and cellophane noodles;" and a grilled beef filet "crowned with a mound of melting Sichuan peppercorn and anchovy butter" served with "taro gnocchi, chanterelles, and pearl onions." These dishes don't just break the rules within a particular cuisine. They break down the division between different cuisines.

Fusion food confounds our sense of what is appropriate. Most of us were brought up to believe that different foods belong to different cultures. While there may be some crossover between different cuisines — garlic is a good example — the majority of the ingredients we use are associated with different regions of the globe. Tarragon, shallots, and soft-ripened cheese are thought of as French; Lemongrass, kaffir limes, and coconut sauces as Southeast Asian; Corn tortillas, refried beans, and cactus as Mexican. When people go out to eat, they still speak of eating at an Italian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, or a Caribbean restaurant. The idea of eating at a restaurant that resists this sort of definition is new.

I don't have the money to eat at top-dollar restaurants. I haven't even been to many of the lower-priced fusion eateries. And yet I feel the impetus behind fusion cuisine whenever I'm in the kitchen. The hard part is figuring out where that impetus comes from. I read the food section of the local paper. I peruse the menus of the restaurants my partner and I walk by. But it's not like I set out to reproduce the hottest fusion dishes when I step into the kitchen. If anything, the respectability of fusion cuisine provides me with a justification for doing what I would do anyway. Long before I became a resident of the restaurant-saturated San Francisco Bay Area, I experimented in the kitchen as a high-school student. Although I knew next to nothing about how to really cook, I still invented such strange combinations as cranberry chicken soup. It's not fusion cuisine itself that inspires me, but the inventiveness that inspires people to make new and unexpected combinations out of familiar ingredients, be they foods, images, or words.

I began this article with the example of my first red sauce because it demonstrates the problems caused by my urge to experiment. Subsequent experiments have met with considerably more success. My partner now likes my red sauce. I've learned to go a little lighter on the unconventional ingredients, making sure that they don't overpower the more conventional ones. But I continue to break the rules. For some reason, I find it almost impossible to make any dish "straight." No doubt part of the reason for this is that I tend to cook when we're running low on ingredients, providing me with a justification for improvisation. To be truthful, however, I frequently buy foods with the idea that I might find some unconventional use for them.

wind The more I cook, the more that my culinary innovations become habit. They become something that I do instead of something that I'm doing for the first time. My red sauce is a perfect example. I make a few different kinds, but each of them has to a certain extent become my red sauce. And, although none of them involve potatoes or sardines, they all make use of ingredients that wouldn't seem to belong in red sauce. The long-cooking sauce that I have made most often features not only garlic, onion, mushrooms, red bell peppers, and zucchini — the usual suspects — but also cocoa powder, and mango juice. The proportions of these unconventional ingredients are small enough that the sauce wouldn't taste that different without them. Yet I like using them. Even when I'm making something that I've made before, I improvise a lot. Putting in my special ingredients, like cocoa powder and mango juice, provides my shape-shifiting recipes with a stable identity.

Although I now have a list of some ten to fifteen dishes that I make on a regular basis, I doubt if I've ever made them the same way twice. The few ingredients I use every time help to keep the recipe from becoming something else altogether. However the recipe never comes close to the carefully measured ones that you find in cookbooks. I'm always doing something different. I have a compulsion to innovate, to deviate not only from the conventions imposed on me from outside — the knowledge that there's a way to make a red sauce — but from the conventions that I have established myself — the memory of how I have made red sauce in the past. A few weeks ago I got the urge to make red sauce for polenta. Looking around the kitchen, I realized that we were out of many of the ingredients I normally deploy. I did find some ginger and, remembering a recent newspaper recipe that included it in a fusion red sauce, decided to proceed. I also found anchovies and some radishes, which I ground up with the ginger and an onion as a starter for the sauce. To further complicate matters, I made the "polenta" out of quinoa instead of cornmeal. It was interesting. It was also good. Will I make it again? Probably not, but only because it would bore me to retrace my steps exactly.

It bores me to play by the rules, even if I'm the person who made them. I have ambivalent feelings about this boredom. I'm proud of it, because it exemplifies my independence. But I sense that there's a dark side to this compulsion to innovate. The good goes hand in hand with the bad. When someone tells me that I can't mix two things — be they different ingredients for a red sauce or different philosophical traditions for a dissertation — my first impulse is always to prove them wrong. I congratulate myself for breaking the bonds of convention that imprison less adventurous minds. I imagine that my defiance is itself a political act. It's a wonderful fantasy, in which I metamorphose from a headstrong person with a dysfunctional antipathy towards order into a breaker of false images, an iconoclast in the true meaning of the word. And this all goes through my mind while I'm deliberating whether to add another unexpected ingredient to my red sauce. Last week it was garbonzo beans and tuna; next week, who knows?

The absurdity of this self-congratulatory spectacle masks a deeper problem. I like to believe that all prohibitions against mixture — this doesn't go with that! — are inherently conservative. I remind myself that the history of miscegenation laws is a history of fear. And so I feel good for bringing about the unholy union of red sauce, sardine and potato, as if mixing ingredients were the same thing as mixing blood. But then I think about what brings people together these days. More often than not, it's capitalism itself. The breaker of old bonds is also the maker of new ones. Capitalism combines what geography, language, and religion have kept apart. In a word, it's responsible for fusion. When I look at the menu for a fusion restaurant, I see the after-image of capital's movement around the globe. A dish that combines Italian pasta with Chinese seasoning is telling the truth of globalization, the fact that not only nations, but also the cultures to which they gave rise are losing their identity. And so I wonder, as I experiment in the kitchen, whether my iconoclasm is itself a function of capitalism. When I break with convention, am I only preparing the way for new markets? Is my facility for invention itself the invention of capital. And, finally, is my red sauce not so "red" after all?

Charlie Bertsch is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at UC-Berkeley. Maybe he'll cook you dinner sometime. But beware the secret ingredient! He can be reached be e-mail at the following internet address:

Copyright © 1999 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.