Don’t Be Messin’ With My Pepe: Food, Change, and Respectful Dialogue

The Open Table site published a blog post about restaurants that have re-imagined a classic simple dish of Italian cuisine.  Like many dishes, Cacio e Pepe was born of the simple, cheap, and readily available ingredients and methods in its native Italy.  Strands of pasta dressed simply with fresh ground pepper and some grated cheese, Cacio e Pepe has been a staple of both Italian families and chefs for generations.

But today…  A “what if…” answered by chefs armed with creative minds and molecular gastronomic technologies, resulted in a stormy response.  Most of the comments were a combination of defensive, critical, and angry.  All because some chefs dared to experiment and explore what might be possible within the recipe for a plate of food.

The strong and at times angrily critical responses are revealing.  Not only of the strength of people’s preference for tradition, but of the ways some people feel it is appropriate and necessary to attack those daring to be different.  

For me, as both a facilitator of dialogue and a restaurant reviewer since the early 1980s, the overwhelmingly critical responses were both challenge and opportunity.  I posted a  comment asking why people felt compelled and ok to be so angry and harsh in their criticism of those compelled to experiment with a simple food recipe. The responses I got both underscored people’s powerful attachment to the traditions of their families and cultures of origin, and their seeming unwillingness to approve of new explorers.

This is a challenge– perhaps THE challenge of our time. I replied that our restaurants, and our museums would be very different, and very boring places, if chefs and artists were not allowed to deviate from ancient accepted norms.

Change can be difficult.  We learn to love and revere our traditions.  They comfort and reassure us.  The new and the different- perhaps especially when cloaked by the names from our past- may feel confusing and even threatening.  We may deride and dismiss the explorations of possibility as looking “like something the cat spit up” (as one poster did, in response to the pictured cheese foam), more as a defense of our own limited preferences, than as a reasoned critique of the new.

If we have such difficulty being open to reimagining Cacio e Pepe, how much harder is it to engage in respectful analysis and dialogue about the great issues of the day that impact and even threaten us in our world?  Can we respect our traditions, respect our values, and also engage with the new and possible?

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