For supper tonight, Aina made some delicious gazpacho. It’s always been her dish to make – she’s the soup queen around here – so I’m not perfectly sure of the proportions, but the ingredients that go into the blender are:

  • bread
  • garlic (or garlic scapes)
  • olive oil
  • sherry (or Madeira – or sherry vinegar, but who has that)
  • salt (unless she doesn’t bother)
  • ice cubes
  • watermelon

And once it’s in the bowl, we crumble feta on top of it (which kind of obviates the salt). It’s delicious.

Yes? I see a hand in the back? Yes?

It’s not?

Are you sure?

Well, then, tell me what makes it not gazpacho.

Really. Is that so. Tomatoes.

Gazpacho, as I’m sure you know, is a very old Spanish recipe – in fact, an ancient one; it is thought to have been brought to Spain, in one form or another, by the Romans. Now, tell me: did they have tomatoes in Spain at that time?

Another hand back there? Yes? 

Yes, that’s right. Tomatoes originated in the Americas. They’re popular in European cuisines now, but that’s comparatively recent. Tomatoes were first used in gazpacho in the 1800s. For all those centuries before that, gazpacho was made with many different ingredients – I’ll get to that in a minute – but not tomatoes. And they’re still not essential, though they are common.

Cuisine, folks, is like language. It’s produced by people in cultures constantly interacting and varying. Almost any recipe – and especially any traditional recipe – doesn’t really have a single source or a single correct original version. Ingredients are imported from other countries – do you know why the Spice Route was such a big thing for so many centuries? Have you looked at where the various containers in your kitchen are from? Hot peppers and potatoes, like tomatoes, came from the Americas, but they quickly became so popular in cuisines on the other side of the planet that they are now generally accepted as essential in “authentic” recipes. 

Authentic, like originalpure, and any other word of that sort, when applied to cuisine – as to language – means just that the speaker wants to present one point in time and space as valid and all others as less valid: any history after the version the speaker considers correct is degradation, and any history before it doesn’t exist; any version from another place (or even another kind of person in the same place) is deviant. But the truth is that different people even in the same place do different things, because cooking uses available ingredients, techniques, and implements and follows individual tastes and whims. Of course people have their opinions – recipes such as chili and barbecue inspire very heated discussions – but they’re founded in taste and fantasy. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t talk meaningfully about a particular named recipe – for instance, it would be obnoxious to put hot dogs in a blender with orange juice and call it gazpacho (or anything else, for that matter) – but we do best to be pragmatic and shy away from absolute pronouncements (except for the sake of trash talk, I guess, since cooking can be very competitive). And we should be wary of terms that imply some pure point of origin: most recipes, like most points of grammar and most words, trace back in their sources into the impenetrable mists of time and may well use elements originally from other places.

Take gazpacho, for instance. The word is of… uncertain origin. It may have come from Arabic. Or it may have come from Latin. The speculated etymons are such as may raise an eyebrow on a historical linguist. But the word is here now, and its spelling and pronunciation are established. (Well, you can argue about the different pronunciations of the z in different varieties of Spanish. I’m not here to do that.) And so, within very broad parameters, is what it names.

Gazpacho is a kind of soup; that much is a given. It’s usually – though not always! – served cold. It comes from an old recipe involving bread, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and water, and those ingredients are standard, though you can apparently get away with leaving out one or more of them if the soup is nonetheless sufficiently gazpacho-like. It has variations throughout Spain and, now, around the globe. It is now commonly, but by no means universally, made with tomatoes. Cucumbers, onions, and peppers are also common ingredients. It was traditionally made using a mortar and pestle, but food processors and blenders are popular today for reasons that should be obvious. It may be thick or it may be thin; you may even drink gazpacho from a glass, but you are unlikely to finish a bowl of gazpacho using just a fork. It may be garnished with boiled eggs, ham, almonds, or various other vegetables. (Or, you know, cheese, if you want.)

In other words, gazpacho is a general kind of idea, like garden salad (which we also had tonight), meatloaf (did not have), ice cream (soon to be served), beer (drinking now), pizza (had for lunch), chili (not today), lasagne (not lately), and really just about any well-established recipe of any real complexity from anywhere on the planet. You can have the same kind of fun arguing about edge cases of gazpacho (or chili, or lasagne, or…) as you can about edge cases of chairs, tables, cups, et cetera. The way your mom made a particular dish (if she did) is naturally important to you, but we don’t all have the same mom. Nobody requires you to like the way everyone else makes it. The number one rule with almost any food is “Enjoy it”; if you can’t follow the number one rule, try finding someone at your table who can and let them have yours. 

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