Osteria Francescana, a twelve-table restaurant tucked deep within the winding medieval roads of Modena, is the flagship restaurant of Chef Massimo Bottura and also the second-best restaurant in the world, according to the food critics who are supposed to know. This small avant-garde Italian cuisine—Bottura’s attempt to modernize a culinary tradition notorious for, well, tradition—has earned no shortage of media buzz. Since 2011 it has garnered his restaurant Michelin’s mythical three-star rating. Along with the city’s stunning gothic duomo, Maserati’s world headquarters, and the storehouses where the world’s best balsamic vinegar is carefully aged, Osteria Francescana has become one of the most important jewels in Modena’s crown.
Many of the older-generation Modenese hold mixed feelings towards this "jewel," however. The Modenese are a proud and particular people when it comes to food, tending to favor Modena’s traditional lasagna verdi over Bottura’s minimalist “The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna” and vastly prefer the classic, simply-done rendition of pasta e fagiole to Bottura’s hyper-chic, parfait-style “Compressione.” Modenese cuisine is intensely regional and steeped in tradition. Food is a practically sacred affair. To these older Modenese, Bottura isn’t merely ignoring the recipes that nonna made—he is stomping on nonna’s grave.
For the record, I don’t intend here to disparage Chef Bottura. He’s a culinary genius, and for as much as he challenges his cultural-culinary heritage, he has an incredible and admirable sense of social justice.
Genius notwithstanding, however, there’s something really admirable about Modena’s uneasiness toward Bottura’s culinary progressivism. Sure, it may seem a petty picky-eater protest on the surface, but Modena’s insistence that food must be done a specific way speaks to a much deeper issue. Food is important—really, really important—because cuisine, like any other art, tells the story of a culture. It is a product of history and geography and religion and aesthetics, and, when prepared and consumed with due reverence, our daily bread, whatever the form, connects us every day with the cultural traditions that formed it.
Cuisine is more than a mere indication of which ingredients are geographically. Perhaps more than other art, it is a sure indication of a culture's values. The spiciness and variety of Indian cuisine, for example, reflects their love of intricacy, vibrancy, and color. The Tuscans, on the other hand, do not even put salt in their bread. The vibrancy of Cajun cuisine—eclectic as zydeco—reflects a wide mélange of different tastes and a culture that essentially values fusion and cooperation. The French have notoriously laborious recipes and linger notoriously long at dinner: mealtime, obviously, is important. American fast-food reflects, for better or for worse, the value we place on efficiency and time. It is telling, too, that the Soviets’ ultimate "foodie" goal was a communal cafeteria system which did away with the family table entirely.
A culture’s cuisine also reflects its history. Food tells us where we came from and what kind of people our forefathers were. Beef bourguignon hearkens back to the resourcefulness (and stubbornness) of poor French peasants who demanded big things from bad cuts of meat: French factory workers, the legend goes, used to grill their croque-monsieurs on running machine engines. The hard crust of the Cornish Pasty would not only contain a miner’s whole meal but, if dropped down a mineshaft, was supposed to stay mostly intact. Korean warriors, athletes, and adventure seekers who used even delicacies as opportunities to prove strength of will created the unusual “dish” sannakji hoe.
Moreover, because of its connection with culture and history—two sacred things—cuisine itself becomes something of a sacred ritual. From the Burns Meal Pudding to the bûche de Noël, from Passover Seder to Thanksgiving dinner, important times call for important food, and not just any food, but that food: the food that represents a particular occasion meaningfully, whether an event in history or an ongoing reality. At the micro-level, too, every family has that meal they make on holidays. It's the cornerstone to a significant, commemorative event; a long-standing family recipe has every bit of sacred dignity that most traditions rightfully do. Food done properly is nothing short of an education, really, insofar as education is, in Chesterton’s words, “the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”
So learn to cook. If you’re Italian, learn to make good, homemade lasagna, and do it the way nonna did. Irish? Have a say in the Guiness-Murphy’s debate, an important contest that divides the country almost as sharply as Catholicism and Protestantism. Or, better yet, learn impeccable discernment towards tea. If you’ve Hispanic heritage, learn to make tacos without premixed seasoning. And so on.
At the very least, learn to cook American fare. From Chicago? Dare to criticize the ignorant masses who put ketchup on hotdogs. New Jersey? Insist that Taylor Ham is better than Spam. From Hawaii? Disagree with New Jersey. Wisconsin? Explain charitably to your foodie friends that, when all is said and done, a Spotted Cow and a brat are better than all the caviar in the world. Traveling across country? Defer to the locals; get the house specials at restaurants; support local food culture; drink the local beer.
“Being really universal,” Chesteron writes, cuisine “varies from valley to valley.” Respecting the diversity and tradition of different recipes is one small but powerful way to fight against cultural homogeny—avant-garde cuisine be damned!