CLASSIC: "accepted or deserving to be accepted as one of the best or most important of its kind" Oxford Dictionary
"having a high quality or standard against which other things are judged" Cambridge Dictionary
My Happy Foodie newsletter this week was, of course, all about Christmas and it began, more or less with the - not original - quote at the top of the page, followed by links to how to cook a turkey and other Christmas things - and also how you could stray from the classic turkey. Which got me to musing on the baked apples that we had for dinner and once again on the old chestnut of what is new, what is old, what is classic and and what indeed is original. I should have taken a picture of our baked apples last night, but I didn't so you will have to make do with this not very good one of the remaining half. David only ate one half. I, I'm afraid was somewhat greedier and ate both of mine. It looks a bit gloopy now - well it is straight out of the fridge in its pyrex container, but I bet it still tastes good.
It is indeed a classic because it it was of high quality and was among the best of its kind. And that's not me congratulating myself on my cooking. It's me acknowledging that this dish is so classic because it is delicious and just about foolproof, so that it is delicious for everyone. It's the concept that is so great.
The baked apples are, in fact, a good example of a classic dish that can be easily updated - and is - as yesterday's post showed. Or is it? Do they bake apples in India, or Japan, or Argentina or other far flung places on the planet? They may for all I know because most places grow apples I think - unless the climate forbids it - but one doesn't think of baked apples as being anything other than British in origin really. Which is sort of odd because it's such an obvious thing to do with them - if you have an oven anyway.
So - first thing to note - one man's classic is another man's novelty. Witness the food traditions being shuffled around the world at an ever increasing rate. Curry from India - once incredibly exotic - now a British tradition. Is Chicken tikka masala a British or an Indian classic dish? Hummus - in every western child's lunchbox and on every supermarket shelf. Pizza and pasta can be found in every country around the world as can hamburgers and fried chicken. But man has a thirst for the new and so when nothing completely new is on offer - for true innovation is very, very rare - we fiddle with the old, or plunder from elsewhere. We explore and we always have - ever since ancient man left Africa.
Second thing to note - we love our classics. They are indeed classic for a reason. The reason being that they are good. Good enough to keep - mostly just as they are - that roast turkey, fish and chips, shepherd's pie, rice pudding, roast beef and yorkshire pudding .... These are just some that spring to mind from my own classic upbringing. I fiddle with them a bit, but often find my fiddling has not improved on the original and go back to that. Is it the taste of the original or is it pure nostalgia - comfort, a return to the womb?
Third thing to note - there is nothing new under the sun including the quote at the top of the page, anything I write - there is not an original thought in my head, or anybody else's either. I know that. Throughout history there have been very, very few people with an original thought. Even those you may think of as original - Leonardo say - built on what had been thought and done before them. In a truly innovative and imaginative way it is true, but built on what had gone before. The truly original thinkers are way, way, back in time. Such a big subject that I am unable to go on or imagine what a truly original thought might be. It's a bit like the concept of the Big Bang. I mean how could there be a Bang if there was nothing to explode? Though I have to say that sometimes when writing about food I do at least wonder who or how somebody first thought of grinding seeds to make flour and then mixing it with water to make bread, for example. Or who first thought of baking potatoes in a fire?
Which is why food is so fascinating. That roast turkey for example. Roast turkey is now considered the classic British Christmas dinner - not Australian - British. But the turkey is an American bird and goose used to be the tradition. So it's only a classic of a couple of hundred years gestation. But there's not a lot you can vary it with - you can change the stuffing, you can marinade it in all sorts of things, you can cook it in different ways, but the ultimate result is similar. And we get locked into our own classical ways of doing it. For example in my family we cook it with Jane Grigson's celery and ham stuffing - more popular than the turkey itself I think, so I never, ever vary it. I am locked into this. It is not something I fiddle with. Which is sort of interesting because I fiddle with all sorts of other things - like those baked apples. Which were delicious of course - I don't think you can spoil them unless you cook them too long and burn them.
We can't actually resist fiddling. It's that ancient need to explore. We get bored with doing things the same way all the time. The turkey is alright because it's only a once a year thing, but other dishes that we cook more often - lasagne say - we fiddle with. Either using what we have to hand, or in our heads, or from somebody else's new and exciting recipe. We have to balance our craving for excitement and the new with our craving for comfort and the known. Some people do more of one than the other. And a few people only do one or other, which I suspect is not a good thing.
All of my cookbooks lean one way or the other in varying degree, but I decided to check out two in particular today as theoretically at least, their titles would hint at opposite approaches to the concept of classic.
'New classics'. Is that an oxymoron? Well yes and no. 'Classic' does indeed suggest something old, so how can you have a 'new' classic? Well I suppose the aim is to create such wonderful new dishes based on classic ones - that they become classics themselves. And even those basic classics are in many instances new and the cover photograph demonstrates that - what can be more basic and classic than an egg, but balls of mozzarella and ricotta from a tub - how classically modern is that - well outside of Italy, where, of course they are ancient? There is turkey in here, and roast beef, fish and chips and rice pudding:
"the ultimate collection of classics with our signature twist. It's designed to help you build your repertoire, taking old favourites and pairing them with modern flavours and seasonal ingredients, or offering an entirely new take instead." Donna Hay
It also includes classics from other cultures and twists them too. A stunningly beautiful coffee table book that weighs a ton, but which epitomises a very modern cooking approach.
Then there is Jill Dupleix's New Food, which, from the title you might expect to be very different. But not quite:
"I describe new food as being part-Mediterranean, part-Asian, and part-cake because it bows to the past, sends kisses to Europe, shakes hands with Asia, and is happy at home in its own backyard."
Australian in fact. The past she bows to though is not Australian - it's the past of the immigrants - all of them since the first fleet. Not the Aborigines - but that's a story for another time. An aside to be ignored for now.
'New' also has to take into account what we have learnt about the way different foods affect our bodies and our health, and also the planet.
"We have the chance to learn from the past to safeguard our future, and to adjust our eating so that we eat better and feel better every day. It starts at home as everything does."
A quick glance through the book which is a favourite, shows me how very modern Australian it is - there is very little British influence but heaps of Italian, Mediterranean and Asian - except when it comes to dessert. Other people's classics made Australian.
I don't know what I have been saying here really. Nothing new - that's for sure. Not even anything new for me.
Christmas is coming - a most traditional time of year - and yet here in Australia it's likely to look a lot more like this. If the sun eventually shines that is. Even in this household we have moved a little from traditional roast turkey. There will be prawns and gravlax to start with and there will be no Christmas pudding, but there will be mince pies - and something festive but cool for dessert. We are in between classics. We are hanging on to the turkey and the roast potatoes, but I can see that everything else is gradually changing and new Dearman classics - like the gravlax - are emerging.
But none of it will be original.