Kiss My Ciabatta

Those of you who know me know that I am given to the occasional rant opinion. I’m giving you fair warning that this is one of them, and it’s only loosely on-topic at that. Please feel free to click on by if you’re not in the mood.

I had originally planned this to be a short footnote to my Sourdough Ciabatta Rolls post, but I realized I had somewhat more than a footnote’s worth to say. And I want to make it clear up front that my little tirade has nothing to do with the merits of what we bake (or cook or do), and everything to do with how we talk about what we bake (or cook or do).

First, about those rolls: I had originally been calling them “Rustic Sourdough Rolls” because I have been told by a professional baker I admire that if it’s sourdough it’s not truly ciabatta, but is more aptly termed “pane Francese” or something like that. But I decided to call them “Sourdough Ciabatta Rolls” after all, because I thought more people would understand the type of bread I made (or meant to make) with that name than with “rustic rolls” or anything else.

Now the professional in question is not only an extraordinary baker but a gracious, astute, and good-humored man, and I’m certain he would never chastise someone for the “incorrect” use of the term “sourdough ciabatta.” And in truth, I have never seen or heard anyone’s use of that term (publicly) questioned. I have seen, however, lambastings of “Beet Carpaccio,” “Edamame Hummus,” and “Pad Thai Noodles with [an assortment of nontraditional ingredients],” to name a few. Or to be more precise, reprimands not against these dishes themselves, but against their monikers, against the coopting of names of certain dishes to refer to something other than the “real deal.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m thinking that a primary function of words is to inform, describe, communicate. Be honest, doesn’t the term “Edamame Hummus” conjure a succinct image in your mind as to what this dip is about, notwithstanding that traditional hummus is made with garbanzo beans? If you saw “Beet Carpaccio” on a restaurant menu, wouldn’t that name convey a good bit of information (more than, say, “Beets au Chef Marcel”)? And if you ordered it, would you really be shocked and indignant when you were presented with a dish that wasn’t the “authentic” preparation of thinly-sliced raw beef?

I’m all for using words to mean exactly what they mean, when they need to. It would be inadvisable for me to decide to use the word “red” to mean “the color between yellow and blue on the spectrum” when teaching my daughter how to drive a car and obey traffic signals. But language is rich, beautiful, and useful because words can do more than the simple jobs they were originally assigned, creating infinite variety and texture. Sometimes meaning becomes more precisely honed even as the words themselves are applied less literally. Have you ever had the urge to take William Shakespeare aside and sanctimoniously remind him that the world is much too big to be a stage, let alone an oyster? Me neither.

So here’s to spinach Caesar salad and celery root slaw, to mushroom tartare and courgette spaghetti, to oven-baked fries and sourdough ciabatta. Know what I mean? Of course you do.

CommentsLeave a comment

  1. says

    YAY for you Susan…a rant that makes oodles of good reading sense. Couldn’t agree more. Loved the stage & the oyster bit, the colours, everything…your pesrpectic is spot on!! Here’s a *MUAH* to your ciabatta…Cheers

  2. says

    Hey Susan,
    As a chef I can tell you we aren’t geniuses and I don’t know how often things are bastardized with food. Besides, like Jim Lahey says, it’s just rotting dough, yecch!

  3. says

    Ha ha…..I agree with you totally….I’m new to the food blogworld but I’m already amazed at 1) the condescending air that some blogs write with…..

    and 2) the tone and content of some of the comments of folks…..

    Good for you….


  4. says

    Of course there are always perfectionists and purist around to ruin the fun of others. I agree that if an adjective or term can help give an image of the result, why not. Ciabatta definitely conjures up imagines and your is right on. As for rustic bread, it’s meant to mean a very holey bread, but I saw a recipe recently for a rustic bread that resulted in a tight-crumbed, mixed grain type-thing. The author imagined rustic to mean more “back to roots”, earthy.
    So, do please rant. It makes us all think.

  5. says

    Excellent rant! I can’t help but see your point, given how well it is expressed.

    And yet… I can’t fully agree with you. Yes stretching appellations can be both poetic and very descriptive. But I feel something is lost in the process. It is less likely that someone unfamiliar with Middle Eastern food will get to enjoy the authentic, centuries-old recipe of hummus if hundreds of variations bear the same name. If there were an elegant way to say, “Hummus-inspired…” or “Hummus-like,” I would feel much happier.

    I am talking about hummus though I know very little bout the dish. Perhaps closer to home for me is the use of the name “Opera cake” for cakes in very different flavors and shapes. I hope I won’t be angering the entire Daring Baker community if I say that while all those vanilla/white chocolate/mango/pineapple etc. variations look scrumptious, I feel a pang of regret at the idea we might one day forget what the original opera tasted like.

    But then again, things change, recipes evolve, and for every recipe lost a dozen delicious ones are invented. I will not join the ranks of the culinary inquisition!

  6. says

    I agree with you, as long as the title conveys it is a variation from the expected recipe. Sourdough Ciabatta works for me.

    What ticks me off is going to Camille’s Sidewalk Cafe, ordering a Panini (which not only implies the sandwich is made on foccaccia bread, the menu even indicates it), and getting something served on plain old bread. And when you complain about it you are told, in an offhand manner, “oh, we changed the bread we use for Paninis,” as if you are a fussy pain in the rear. Oh, sorry, that’s another rant…

  7. says

    I made it to the end! ha ha. Anyway, I agree. There is nothing that irritates me more than a snob.

    Definition of snob: one who THINKS they know it all!

  8. says

    I am in total agreement, food term snobbery really winds me up! The snobs should realise that the English language is free for all to use as they wish. They need to find something more important to worry about.

  9. says

    I love how you express yourself, so to the point and very recognisable! A very good read. this use of words and communicating is just what a growing and alive language is all about, as long as we understand each other!!

  10. says

    I agree with you and also liked the way you made your point.
    As for the sourdough ciabatta rolls I think that if you had named them “rustic sourdough rolls” my first thought after seeing their pictures would have been: “sourdough rolls…they look like (small) ciabatta, though”.
    In other words, the way they look clearly evokes ciabatta bread, while the name “rustic rolls” is generic and vague and–in my opinion–could be applicable to many different kinds and shapes of small breads.
    So sourdough ciabatta rolls is the right way to name them.

  11. BackBou says

    Agreed — I only recoil when the moniker is self contradicting. I once got a request for a “blackened stir fry” — which , last I checked, were different styles of cooking. I think the requestor wanted cajun seasoning in his stir fry but still…

  12. says

    This post made quite happy. I actually stopped reading a particular popular blog after the writer scathingly went off on calling a particular dish by its traditional name when it was made un-traditionally. It was just so… arrogant, I guess. I never got past it. Good for you for speaking up. I will say though when I am paying for food the name or the description should indicate the dish is made un-traditionally.

  13. says

    I was thinking the same thing when I made my ciabatta with kamut recently too! The ciabatta was no more ciabatta as it had kamut, and I was about to call it rustic kamut bread. As the bread was based on a ciabatta recipe, so I decided to keep the name at lest. I believe people should understand it: “a bread looks like ciabatta but with kamut in it”! The word “ciabatta” is descriptive in this way : )

  14. says

    fine words – I have a post in the pipeline where I was ruminating on whether name of recipes should entertain or enlighten – I really like an entertaining name but I agree with you that it is best when it gives some clues as to what it is about. And as a vegetarian, I am aware that many purists would be horrified at some of the names I have given my dishes – but I am always delighted to find a name that is a vegetarian take on a traditional – one of my favourites is chilli non carne but I was delighted to find a veg recipe for Shamburgers recently too.

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