When I took the step of calling out my own ethnic tradition last week for making bad food, I neglected to point out how may of my co-religionists have adopted other culinary traditions. Some of us like Chinese food best. My friend the restaurateur Eddie Schoenfeld, for example, so identifies himself with Chinese food that he claims to have invented General Tso's chicken. I, though, respond far more strongly to Italian food. In fact, it obsesses me. And I know I'm not alone. Italian food is, coast to coast, the most perennially popular ethnic food in America.
The Italian food Americans love, make no mistake, is not the authentic, exquisite renditions created by the likes of Michael White, Mario Batali or Marc Vetri. It's not that Americans wouldn't love that, too, if it were available. It's just that it's generally easier to find the sort of richly sauced, palate-walloping plates of spaghetti and meatballs, shrimp scampi and chicken parmigiana that we are used to. We've certainly moved, as a nation, beyond those dishes, but the spirit of them lives on in their successors: the green lasagna overflowing with pork and cheese, the orecchiette with a pound of ground-up sausage on it. Most of all, it persists in our tomato sauces, which so many of us have been trained from birth to want sweet and bright and as red as an '89 Impala.
This thought struck me while looking through Delicious Memories, a cookbook recently published by Anna Boiardi. Boiardi's great-uncle Hector Boiardi is well known to you; as a child, you ate a can of ravioli with his face on it and a phonetic spelling of his family's name underneath. Yes, Chef Boy-ar-dee (it was thought that Americans were incapable of pronouncing Boiardi without phonetic help) was a real man, and looked just like the picture. But of course, the food he actually served his family was a far cry from the slop and glop that came in the cans bearing his image. You can actually see what he looked and sounded like in this remarkable 1953 TV commercial on YouTube, in which he serves up one of the worst-looking plates of spaghetti I can remember.
It couldn't really be that bad, though, could it? In preparation for my interview with Anna Boiardi, I went across the street to the dismal C-Town supermarket and bought a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs. It was much worse than I had remembered: the spaghetti is as soft as cottage cheese, or rotted fruit, and the dark orange sauce tastes like nothing on earth. I like industrial meatballs, but even by the standards of industrial meatballs these things are weird. I always wondered what Canner-grade meat tasted like, and now I guess I know. And the whole thing is swimming in sauce; that's the part you forget. It's basically a stew. Feh!
Of course, the Boiardi family can hardly be blamed for that. "My great-uncle sold the company in 1944," Boiardi says. "It's been through three or four owners since then." (It's currently owned by ConAgra.) But it was never the food the Boiardis cooked at home, right? "Well, once they started selling in cans it became a more American brand, appealing to an American population. Our family definitely ate more of a northern Italian type of cooking." The family sauce was "straightforward, mild, without a lot of garlic." And other than a few reproduced magazine ads, Delicious Memories has little to do with the Italian fare sold as economy food to postwar middle-class families, which still exists, along with checkered tablecloths and Chianti-bottle candles, as a cliché of midcentury foodways.
Instead, the book is filled with the delicious but now all-too-familiar Italian-American recipes such as rigatoni Bolognese, Italian meat loaf, chicken cacciatore and so on. I don't understand why new cookbooks are published at all. They could have stopped publishing Italian-American cookbooks in 1981 and no one would be the worse for it.
And the reason is that the Italian-American repertoire is stubbornly fixed. Nobody is adding any Andrew Carmellini or Michael White recipes to that canon. Why should they? Their parents made the same wonderful dishes, just like Anna Boiardi's did. But even the stickiest marsala sauce can't resist the erosion of time. Someday, we may look back on the kind of family recipes found in Delicious Memories with the same pseudonostalgic disdain with which we currently regard canned spaghetti and meatballs as a loveable parody of the real thing, or perhaps as an atavistic rite, a relic of the bad old days. But we're still in a time when Italian-American families, and those of us who wish we had Italian-American families, grow up eating these dishes and loving them. For better or for worse, they define Italian cooking in America today so much so that they hardly register as ethnic at all for most Americans. Hector Boiardi was a big part of that, and nobody needs to have his name spelled out for them today.
Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. You can listen to his weekly show at the Heritage Radio Network and read his column on home cooking on Rachael Ray's website. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.