The 18th-century French gastronomer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said: “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.”
This quote is usually interpreted in terms of a new restaurant dish or a new creation. However, let’s think about this quote in another way, as the discovery of a dish emanating from a culinary culture.
Although découverte means discovery, did Brillat-Savarin mean “discovery” or “invention?” To invent is one thing and to discover quite another. To me, discovery happens when you travel and eat something you’ve never eaten before. Invention is another matter. Among the many dishes invented in the last 50 years, for instance, consider tiramisu and carpaccio. The coffee sponge cake called tiramisu, meaning “pick-me-up,” was only invented in the 1960s (or the 1930s, according to the restaurant) by the chef at El Toula in Treviso in the Veneto region of Italy, although it is now ubiquitous in Italian-American restaurants in the United States.
According to Arrigo Cipriani’s 1966 book “Harry’s Bar: The Life and Times of the Legendary Venice Landmark,” carpaccio di manzo was invented in Harry’s Bar in Venice around 1950. It was first served to the countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo when she informed the bar’s owner that her doctor had recommended she eat only raw meat. It consisted of very thin slices of raw beef dressed with a mustard sauce.
The dish was named carpaccio by Giuseppe Cipriani, the bar’s former owner, in reference to the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, considered the early Renaissance’s greatest narrative painter, because the colors of the dish reminded the chef of paintings by Carpaccio.
Closer to home, think of the all-American sandwich invention called a muffaletta that takes its name from a Sicilian bread. You might have discovered this combination of olive salad, capicola and Italian bread after a night of revelry in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was created by the owner of Central Grocery when he needed a quick street-food-style dish to serve his market and dockworker clientele who liked to eat sitting on barrels around his shop.
Spreading discoveries to new lands
However, the discovery of a new dish means actually finding it somewhere and introducing it to a wider audience. Among the best example is another Italian dish: risotto. Risotto is now well known and ubiquitous, even in non-Italian restaurants, but that was hardly the case as recently as the late 1960s.
Up until about 1970, “Italian” restaurants in this country were actually Italian-American restaurants, nearly all of which could trace their heritage to southern Italy where there was no risotto, a northern Italy food.
Then American travelers and food writers started traveling and exploring culinary Italy. Up until that time, France reigned king in the culinary world. The Americans brought home a new understanding, the most important being that there was no such thing as “Italian food.” There were only foods from the different regions of Italy such as the risottos of Venice and Lombardy, which were until then little-known regions.
The discovery of a new dish does indeed bring happiness. It can happen in the most unlikely of places and could be a very familiar food to everyone but you. The last time it happened to me was in Solvang, Calif., when I stopped one morning at Mortensen’s Danish Bakery and had a kringle, a kind of coffee cake filled with custard, raisins and marzipan.
I had never had it or heard of it before, but later learned that the capital of kringle among Danish-Americans is Racine, Wis. I find stuff like that cool. When you’re traveling — let’s say you’re in New Orleans — and you see a muffaletta sandwich, don’t be forensic about it; just eat and enjoy. The moral of the story is to approach the eating of food without presuppositions — or fear — then look, point, order and eat a new food.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Muffaletta. Credit: Michelle van Vliet