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5 november 2014

As I did with Spices, I took a look at my fridge and kitchen shelves when I started reading Maryann Tebben's global history of sauces.

"Sauce," as Tebben notes, is easy to define and hard to delimit. Any bottle with a label that says "sauce" is presumably a sauce – so I have soy sauce on hand, and fish sauce, and a bottle of habañero hot sauce from the Hudson Valley that really should not be consumed in quantities larger than a microgram. I have about a finger of Worcestershire sauce in the bottom of a bottle of uncertain vintage. Tebben counts prepared salad dressings as sauces, and I have three bottles of widely different styles, all getting a bit crusty around the rim. I've got a jar of hoisin that hasn't seen the light of day in a while. I guess it'll keep? Unopened, I've got stocks of pesto, plain canned tomato sauce, salsa casera for tamales or tacos, and a couple of "simmer sauces" (tikka, pasilla) that reverse the usual process: you cook raw chicken or beef in it till the gravy flavors the meat, not vice-versa. And of course there's one jar of napoletana sauce in reserve for what my partner calls "slut spaghetti."

Various pastes that have congregated in the door of our fridge (chili with garlic, Thai curry) don't really count as sauces; too thick. Other items are too basic to count as sauces on their own, as Tebben suggests: hence, the vinegars I currently have around don't qualify, nor the oils, ciders, syrups, coconut milks, nut butters, wines. I suppose a random bottle of "pomegranate molasses" does not count. Condiments do, though: mustard and mayonnaise are true sauces, even if industrially processed, preserved, and packaged. But I feel almost unpatriotic in saying that mine is one of the 3% of American households that contains no ketchup (47).

Sauces, of course, can be bought ready-made, but are also constructed at home on a daily basis. Last weekend I roasted apples and leeks to serve as a side dish for broiled porkchops. Mistakes were made, and by the end of the session the apple-leek mixture was more mush than anything else. I presented it as "apple sass," the classic American pork accompaniment. But home cooks make sauces all the time with more forethought. And professionals build menus and entire cuisines on from-scratch sauces. I remember Anthony Bourdain's advice to make your own stock, and then reduce a portion of it into demiglace and save it in ice-cube trays. I have a better idea, go out for dinner.

Tebben is perceptive on the insistent, yet constantly shifting, relationship between sauce preferences and culinary nationalism. The French have a curious historical habit of creating a sauce and naming it after another country – espagnole, hollandaise – as if to say that French chefs do everyone else's food better than they do. Sauces are so volatile, so improvisational, so dependent on context and conditions, that they exemplify international fusion better than perhaps any other element of cuisines. Tebben points to a tipping point in the culture of the United States, the famous turn-of-the-millennium finding that salsa was now more common than ketchup (45-47). (I'm a living example.) The watershed appears to be somewhat manufactured, but its symbolism is strong. We are not only a more diverse nation now than ever before, but we are more adventurous eaters across our internal diversities.

Tebben charts a very long trend in the West, a move from heavily spiced contrastive sauces (the Greco-Roman garum and liquamen, vinegary medieval coatings of pepper and other exotics), to milder, complementary modern sauces that reinforce the flavor of the main ingredient and are often largely made from that ingredient, like meat gravies. Though maybe the 21st-century mania for dousing absolutely everything with sriracha will reverse this trend.

Most sauce, whether contrastive or complementary, is meant to play a supporting role for a main dish. Not so with pasta sauce, which is the reason you eat pasta in the first place. Tebben looks at the history of sauces for pasta, from Italy across to the Italian-American tradition. The refinement of Italian pasta cookery has tended to make dishes more and more asciutta: less noodle soups than noodles with a little bit of something, in the direction of the "plates of the poor" which are also the height of hipsterdom: aglio e olio, cacio e pepe (respectively, very simple garlic/oil and cheese/pepper treatments). But Italian-Americans preferred big platters of what Tebben somewhat archaically calls "gravy": the Sunday ragouts and bowls of bolognese that used pasta as an excuse to sock away a couple of pounds of meat. In the case of restaurant parmigian dishes, we even find the near-disappearance of a little helping of pasta beneath a main ingredient, a slab of cheese, and an ocean of sauce.

I like to test the recipes in Reaktion Edible books, but one should be warned that the more heirloomy of them can try a cook's patience. Tebben traces the primeval joining of tomatoes and pasta to recipes like a Neapolitan timbale of vermicelli (134), first published in the early 19th century. The instructions, both elaborate and vague, call for stacking broken uncooked vermicelli with broken halved tomatoes, dousing with butter, and baking. Tomatoes must have been juicier in 1837, because fifteen minutes later, I was looking at a few forlorn shriveling fruits on a bed of slowly charring dry pasta. I dumped vegetable stock liberally into the dish, kept baking, and after a while produced something halfway between stewed tomatoes and a thick noodle soup. It keeps body and soul together, but appetizing it was not.

Tebben, Maryann. Sauces: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2014.