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Fusion Food : Birth of a Nation's Cuisine : Food History: The adapting of ingredients and dishes from other cultures is nothing new in American cooking. In fact, it's as old as macaroni and cheese and chili con "cana."

September 16, 1993|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fusion Cuisine may be the culinary buzzword of the '90s. We've tried Thai, finished French and been inundated by Italian. Sometimes it seems the only culinary frontiers left are a mix of multiethnic themes.

But Fusion Cuisine has really been going on forever. Every nationality borrows foreign food ideas, changing them in the process. When American cooks turned the pizza into the deep-dish pizza and the enchilada into the enchilada pie, they were adapting those dishes to their own taste the same way they'd already adapted the English fruit pie--downplaying the doughy part and expanding the filling. (And as for the original English fruit pie, the French already thought of it as a tarte gone wrong.)

Now put yourself in the shoes of an American cook back in the wood-burning stove days, 100 or 150 years ago. Most Americans cooked a traditional cuisine based on English-style stews, puddings and pies, rounded out with Indian touches such as hominy and succotash and a few wafts of German or Dutch influence. Cookbooks were rare, and rarer still were people who could afford to visit foreign countries.

But as people get beyond the level of hand-to-mouth existence, they begin to ask more of food than whether it's filling. They want variety; they want sophistication--which in the 19th Century meant French cuisine, or whatever people thought was French. During the 19th Century, American cooks (following in the footsteps of English cooks) took to putting white sauce in an awful lot of dishes in order to make them more elegant.

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French influence didn't mean a radical departure from the English tradition, though. Partly this is because our knowledge of French cookery was filtered through cookbooks written in England, and partly it's because English cuisine is an old-fashioned, backwoodsy cousin of French cuisine to begin with. In our language we can't talk about food without using French-based words such as boil, fry and sauce.

With that sort of culinary background, what would you have thought, 100 or 150 years ago, of the fresh herbs and lightly cooked vegetables of today's Italian cuisine, or that wide range of pastas in highly flavored sauces? What would you have made of Mexican cuisine with its aggressive spicing and unfamiliar uses of corn? And what about the fresh tomato sauces that Italians and Mexicans made? To Americans, ripe tomatoes were mostly for putting up as a (not necessarily sweet) condiment called ketchup.

Probably you'd do what people always seem to do when they have a slight contact with another cuisine. You'd adapt the foreign flavors you liked to the techniques you knew. And maybe you'd pick up some pretty strange ideas about what those peculiar foreigners eat.

Americans learned of Italian food first; for most of the 19th Century, we considered pasta dishes sophisticated and European, and only the rich ate them. (Even in the Middle Ages, the English had known something about Italian food, though they spelled macaroni as macrowes and lasagna as lozenys. ) Then, toward the end of the century, as Italian markets sprang up in every city to accommodate the flood of Italian immigrants, non-Italians began to see pasta in a whole new way--as an early version of Hamburger Helper, a thrifty extender for expensive ingredients such as meat.

One thing is clear from the old cookbooks: Pasta was always cooked well past the al dente stage. Mary Randolph's "The Virginia Housewife" (1824) gave a recipe called mock macaroni--for the times you didn't have (or couldn't afford) real macaroni--which was essentially macaroni and cheese with crackers soaked in milk in place of the pasta. In "Mrs. Rorer's New Cookbook" (1895), a best-seller of its day, Sarah Tyson Rorer decried the careless cooking that turned macaroni into "a mass of heavy paste." But her own method was to boil the pasta for 30 minutes, blanch it in cold water for another 30 and then cook it 20 minutes more with a sauce.

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Some early recipes call for adding vermicelli or macaroni to soup, but the favorite pasta dish in this country has always been macaroni and cheese--Thomas Jefferson served it at the White House in 1802. The idea of baking pasta with cheese and white sauce is certainly Italian. Of course, when the cheese is Cheddar, rather than mozzarella, the result is delectably American.

By the 1880s, when tomatoes were available year-round in cans, Americans had also become aware that Italians often combine pasta with tomato sauce. Since the usual American sauces (brown sauce, made with meat juices, and white sauce, made with milk) were thickened with flour, American cooks instinctively thickened tomato sauce the same way, rather than cooking it down. This made a thickish sauce, but not a very tomato-y one.

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