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Dissimilar Climate, Similar Cuisine

How culinary traditions are tied to people, not places.
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A pizza with gorgonzola cheese, spinach and bacon. (PHOTO: CYCLONEBILL/FLICKR)

A pizza with gorgonzola cheese, spinach and bacon. (PHOTO: CYCLONEBILL/FLICKR)

A hot climate and spicy food go together. Just add a dash of residential density and wait for the culinary innovation to explode. Well, not really:

Climate shapes ingredient usage patterns not only by affecting the availability of ingredients but also by exerting other pressures, such as a need to use additional spices as preservatives. At the same time, we expect nearby regions to have a higher probability of similar food culture even without similar climate, because they are more likely to have more communication and migration.

Without migration, there is no kitchen magic. Recipes are knowledge. Knowledge diffuses via migration. It doesn't grow organically out of the terroir. The flows of people into a region matter more than physical geography.

The counter-intuitive findings of the above cited study say quite a bit about our geographic perceptions. We tie culture to terrain as an expression of nationalist mythology. The sense of place is a fiction and distorts reality. A good gumbo isn't indigenous to anywhere. It's a product of newcomers who must make sense of unfamiliar surroundings.

Churn (i.e. birthplace diversity), not ethnic diversity, begets cultural vibrancy and creativity. New ideas, new cuisine move with migrants. Check out the geographic variation of taco styles on this map of Mexico. The kind of taco a U.S. resident eats in his or her town likely depends on where the immigrants came from and the migration patterns impacting their home region.

The American analogy is pizza. This website lists, by no means exhaustive, 30 regional variations. Behold the Steubenville-style:

Three young men from the Steubenville, Ohio, area are introducing their hometowns' delectable pizza style to grateful Myrtle Beach diners at Gem City Pizza.

"Every pizza shop up there has square pizza," A.J. Hunt said on March 20 as he prepared for the lunch rush. "When I say square pizza here people think I'm talking about Sicilian, but this is different."

No offense to Sicilian pizza, but Ohio pizza is magnificently different, and Hunt, with partners Scott Roman and Eric Archey are doing an excellent job making pizzas (except they call them trays, not pizzas) and other specialties. ...

... They immersed themselves, with the help of a buddy who owns an Ohio pizza shop, in learning the art of making the special type of dough.

"I spent weeks perfecting it," Hunt said. "Our sauce is a hometown recipe."

The components make for an incredible creation.

The crust is thin and crispy - crunchy even - on the bottom, and the back crust is soft, moist and tender. The pizza sauce is a much brighter red than the darker Italian-style sauces and tastes garden-fresh. Cheese is piled on to make it thick and gooey.

In the Rust Belt, every city seems to have its own kind of pizza. Youngstown, Ohio, is about 70-miles away from Steubenville. The two places share the same climate. The why of the where for Brier Hill pizza:

"We didn't call it Brier Hill pizza when we lived there," says Tony Trolio. "All our mothers made that pizza. "That pizza, the legacy of the Italian immigrants who settled in Brier Hill at the start of the 20th century, has become a staple in the diet of many Mahoning Valley residents. "Everybody has a version of it," Trolio says. "Doesn't taste the same, but they do their best. "Trolio grew up in Brier Hill and is the author of two books on the neighborhood. "I'll take credit for the name," Trolio continues. He tells the story: Years ago when he moved to Poland, he told a friend who owned the Inner Circle Pizza chain, "I need real pizza. I need Brier Hill pizza. "Most who lived in Brier Hill came from southern Italy and used Romano cheese instead of mozzarella on their pizza. A month after making sure his friend tried some, Trolio was invited to the restaurant. There, on the menu, Brier Hill pizza was listed. "So that was the first time the words Brier Hill and pizza were put in print," Trolio says. "That was in 1971." Brier Hill sausage is another food tradition to come out of the neighborhood. "We called it black gold," Trolio remembers. Only four of the original families who settled in Brier Hill remain there today, notes Mike Varveris, who edited both of Trolio's books. "They introduced pizza. They introduced pasta," Varveris says. "They introduced the dishes, some of the customs and mores in this area." The Brier Hill neighborhood is bounded by West Federal Street, southern Belmont Avenue, Wirt Street and the Girard city limits, but the borders "move over a street or so," Trolio says, "depending on who's telling the story."Brier Hill, in general, in addition to food, made its mark in Youngstown, in the Mahoning Valley," Trolio says.

Migration, particularly over long distances, is neighborhood-to-neighborhood. We go where we know, or a place full of people we know and trust. Folks leaving Rust Belt Ohio remember a vacation at Myrtle Beach and move there to open a pizza shop, giving other expats a taste of home.