Many years ago, I began writing a book about herbs, The Herbalist in the Kitchen and one of my first tasks was to define them, to distinguish between herbs and spices.
That turned out to be difficult, as culinary differences tend to be based on how these plants were used in cooking, while botanical distinctions are based on how the plants that produced them grew, whether they had woody stems, their structures, and a host of other characteristics that had nothing whatsoever to do with the kitchen requirements. Some of the distinctions were accidents of geography; spices usually came from the tropics, while herbs could be grown in more temperate climes. Another means of differentiation was based on the parts of the plants that were used. Seeds, roots and bark were generally considered to be spices, while foliage and flowers were herbs. What was I to do with something like coriander, whose seeds are a spice, but whose foliage is an herb (and worse — in Thai cooking — is considered to be three different herbs, treating foliage, stems, and roots as distinct ingredients)?
I finally just lumped herbs and spices together, defining them as “those plants that are used to enhance the dining experience by adding flavor, scent or visual appeal” — which allowed the book to address them merely as sources of certain chemical compounds. What the definition lacked in scientific rigor, it made up for in flexibility.
Later, while writing Sausage: A Global History, I ran into a similar problem. What constitutes a sausage? Does the meat need to be ground — if so, are capicola and culatelo sausages? Must it be encased — does that mean breakfast patties are not sausage? If those breakfast patties are sausage, does that mean meatballs are also sausages? Even though the word “sausage” implies that it requires the action of salt to bind the bits of meat, what about headcheese that uses gelatin to hold everything together, or haggis and scrapple that are bound with starch? No matter how we distinguish sausage from non-sausage, we’re certain to find some sausages that are arbitrarily chucked out of the sausage tribe.
As the King of Siam sang in the play, “It’s a puzzlement.”
Last week, I was reading a new book, Doughnut: A Global History, and found the author, Heather Delancey Hunwick, struggling to find the boundaries between doughnuts and fritters. She tried looking at the problem by how the doughnut-like products were made which, in turn, led to a discussion of the differences between batters and doughs.
A proverbial lightbulb flashed in my head.
She and I were dealing with very similar problems, and those problems had exactly the same cause. We were trying to solve either/or questions about things that were not subject to either/or answers. We were trying to paint our subjects in black or white when they were really just different shades of gray.
I started to think about other foods that could be similarly described. Where, for example, do we draw the line between soups and stews? Between appetizers, tapas, small plates, and luncheon portions? Between crêpes, blinis, and pancakes? These foods are not either/or; they’re part of a continuum. I shouldn’t have been surprised; while everything we experience is part of a continuum — we use categories in an attempt to impose digital order on an analog world. We should not be saying “this is this, not that” but instead “this is more like this, than that.”
Some time ago, a correspondent wrote to ask if she was correct in thinking that her fried polenta could be considered a kind of bread. I took her hypothetical dish apart to see if it violated any of the standard definitions of bread (in effect, examining its place on the bread/not-bread spectrum):
1. Her dish was made of corn, not wheat or other typical bread grain.
That’s not a problem, since there are many cornbread recipes that are considered “bread.” Also, while all breads contain some form of grain (the seeds of grasses) — corn is a grain, so it qualifies.
2. It’s boiled and fried, not baked.
Again, not an issue. Bagels are boiled before being baked; Navajo Fry Bread is fried, not baked — both of these examples are clearly recognized as bread. Also there are many baked polenta dishes, which are not very different from her fried one.
3. “Johnny (or Journey) Cakes” and “Hoe Cakes,” like tortillas, are “baked” on a griddle, not an oven.
Not a deal-breaker. Many flatbreads, from around the world are not baked in ovens. There are also steamed breads in several cultures; they never see the inside of an oven.
4. Fried polenta, like her dish, has no leavening of any kind.
This seemed, at first, to be a major issue. However, tortillas (either wheat or corn) are unleavened — yet they are obviously bread. Also, matzoh — the cracker-like substance eaten during Passover — is described as “un-leavened bread,” so leavening is not a requirement for something to be called bread, either.
My first inclination was to consider fried polenta NOT to be bread, but a starchy side-dish (like Roesti potatoes, or potato pancakes, which are also par-boiled, then fried). However, since there are exceptions to every one of the possible objections, I’m forced agree with her position. Fried polenta is a kind of bread.
Despite deriving my father’s portion of my genes from the south, the other half is from Connecticut. My mother’s mother used to serve a very different version of the white grits that grace breakfast tables down in Dixie. Adding some ham or sage-flavored sausage will ensure an adequate supply of calories and cholesterol to get you through the frostiest morning.
1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups cold water
2 cups boiling water
oil or lard for frying
molasses for serving
1.Stir the cornmeal and salt into the cold water until evenly mixed. Stir the cornmeal slurry into the boiling water, stirring to mix. Lower the heat to medium, stirring occasionally with a wooded spoon. When the polenta starts to get thick, stir more frequently (because this is when it’s most likely to scorch). When the spoon causes the polenta to pull away from the pot, making a soft ripping noise, the polenta is done.
2.Spread the cooked polenta, while still hot, onto a greased sheet pan. Allow it to cool thoroughly.
3.Once the polenta is cool and firm, cover with oiled plastic wrap to prevent the formation of a skin. Refrigerate overnight.
4.Slice the polenta into 2-inch squares.
5.Heat fat in a large non-stick skillet, then fry the slices until crisp and nicely browned. Arrange on heat proof serving dish and keep warm.
6.Serve the fried polenta with molasses (or maple syrup, if you prefer) to be added at the table.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us