The Wide-Eyed Gourmet

A signature dish loaded with pleasant memories

By Marina Wolf

WHEN I VOLUNTEERED to cook and coordinate my sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner, I originally envisioned as the centerpiece a pork tenderloin or a rack of lamb–some festive piece of animal protein that would symbolize abundance (and cook by itself). But at the crucial moment, after the recipes had been tested and it was time to write the shopping list, I chickened out and reverted to lasagna, a family favorite that has become my trademark.

Marina’s lasagna, they call it in casual conversation.

But it is not my lasagna, any more than it is the lasagna of anyone who buys the same brand of lasagna noodles. The recipe is right there on the box, and I have to refer to it every time. The pasta aisle is always the first stop on the shopping trip;

otherwise I wouldn’t know the rest of the ingredients. My family sees me squinting at the box every year, and still the lasagna sits up there on a pedestal, along with green salad and garlic bread made with a head of garlic and an obscene amount of real butter.

That’s my signature supper.

Clearly, a trademark dish has little to do with originality. All it takes is repeated exposure with enough positive memories attached. It’s the opposite of “familiarity breeds contempt.” Trademark dishes require only an occasional familiarity, an acquaintance that is infrequently met and therefore cherished.

Take my mother’s rolls. They are fluffy and white, flaky from the dabs of butter that have been scattered through the dough. These rolls are, as far as I can tell, well within the capabilities of any moderately skilled home cook. The recipe was handed down through church cookbooks and family members. It is not a state secret. And yet the time it takes to knead and shape the soft dough renders them impractical for all but the festive table. This rarity gives the rolls a special haze of unattainability; otherwise they’d become just another piece of daily bread. Between holidays, even to this day, I ask about the rolls: When are we going to have them next? And when they do appear, wrapped in a dishcloth to keep warm, I pay attention.

Trademark foods aren’t necessarily a family matter, either. Occasionally on a Saturday morning, my friends will mention scones with a sigh and a look of longing. One friend of mine has as her personal dish a spiced carrot soup that has become a delicious harbinger of the colder months, as reliable as the ducks flying south.

Some dishes are more amenable to the trademark process, foods that look more complicated than they really are, for example (elaborately spiced foods or anything baked falls into this category, with bonus points for spicy dessert breads). And trademarking never involves creating something new. Sometimes all you need is a new mold for that Jell-O salad, and everyone will think you invented it.

The buzz is the key, and you are your own publicist, so if you want to be remembered for a certain dish, make sure to mention your specialty at other times throughout the year.

“Remember the time when I made too much lasagna and we ate it for a week afterwards? Remember the time when we stayed up until 4 making those doughnuts?”

Casually, over time, a cloud of warm memories will develop around your specialty.

Of course, living legends always are in danger of being pigeonholed, and 15 years after I learned to make lasagna, I sometimes want to flex my culinary muscle a little. “I can cook things other than this overcheesed casserole!” I cry, and search for something, anything, to shock, or interest, or expand my family’s palates. But no matter how well prepared, these feeble stabs at self-assertion are met with indifference.

Everybody wants the lasagna.

So in the end I just shrug my shoulders and fire up the hot water. It’s better to be remembered for pasta than for nothing at all.

From the December 28, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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