Before last week I would never have imagined that I would use these three words in the same sentence – ravioli, pierniki and authenticity – let alone that they would have a connection. Last weekend I decided to bake cut-out cookies for Christmas – something I had not done in a few years. For me, baking Christmas cookies is a way to hearken back to my childhood and contribute to a traditional holiday season, as well as completely ignore my usual diet! I am not an inherent baker, I can improvise any kind of sauce or appetizer, but when it comes to baking I need to follow a recipe with no deviations. So I went in search of my Polish grandmother’s recipe for “pierniki” – the classic Polish Christmas cookies my mother, sister and I used to make together every Christmas. Having moved across the continent twice in the past 5 years, that was no easy task. I could not find the recipe anywhere – in my file cabinet, in any of my cookbooks, in any of my drawers. So I did what any normal person would do, and called my mother. Of course she would have or know the recipe by heart. But my mother moved for the first time in 30 years this year, and guess what, she couldn’t find the recipe either. And she couldn’t remember it either. Between the two of us we remembered all of the ingredients, but not the amounts…what to do?
Well, I did the next thing any normal person would do, I googled “pierniki”. And this is when it got really weird. Ten different postings for pierniki came up, including one in Wikipedia. All ten were similar, but not one of them was even vaguely similar to what I remembered as our classic Polish pierniki recipe. There were barely any of the same ingredients. It was not my grandmother’s recipe. So why did she call it “pierniki”? I briefly thought about trying the recipe anyhow, but it sounded horrible! I wanted the moist, sugar-filled cookie of my youth, regardless of what it really was. After ranting to my mother that we had lost this last tradition forever, she suggested that I google the main ingredients we remembered and see what came up. So, in went “sour cream, Crisco, anise oil, cutout cookie”. And voila!! Up came the recipe immediately – exactly as we remembered it, only one odd thing happened – it was listed as a traditional Christmas cookie under “Southern Cooking”. Southern cooking? The furthest south my grandmother had ever been was Erie, Pennsylvania. Did they mean “southern Poland”? I briefly thought about looking at a map of Poland to see if Warsaw was in southern Poland, but in looking at the webpage again I realized, no, this was definitely listed under Southern American cooking. I decided to file this in the back of my mind while I actually got to work baking the cookies. Twelve hours and 130 cookies later, I took the first bite and indeed was transported back to my early Christmases.
The following day I was taking my twelve gift bags of cookies to work for my colleagues and listening to an NPR podcast of “Books” from the previous week on my iPod, when I heard an interview that connected my daily work involving authenticity and sustainability with the recipes for ravioli and pierniki. Laura Schenone was being interviewed about her latest book, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family. And she related a story similar to the one I’ve just told you. She decided she wanted to make the classic ravioli recipe her Genovese mother made when she was growing up, only her mother had recently died and she couldn’t find the recipe anywhere. So she emailed and called her relatives in Italy asking them for the recipe. One of her cousins sent back what he claimed was their definitive family recipe, but Laura howled, “This can’t be it, it has cream cheese in it!” She called him immediately and he confirmed, “no, it’s not ricotta cheese, it’s cream cheese!” And thus she was off on a several year journey to trace the original recipe and understand how and why the recipe changed in the past century, particularly when her mother moved to New Jersey from Genoa. And what she discovered is that a recipe or rather the memory of it, is an ephemeral thing. While she was able to trace the original ravioli recipe back to the 12th century – nothing came as close to her childhood memory of her mother’s ravioli as that first recipe her cousin sent her with the cream cheese in it.
And it was then that she waxed poetic in several chapters about the meaning of “authenticity” and what are the true ingredients of a real recipe. Does it matter if some of the ingredients have changed because the new ones last longer now, or are easier to get, as long as the taste is the same? Or as long as the feeling it gives you when you bite into that first forkful of ravioli is the same? And believe it or not, that very simple question about a ravioli recipe resonated with me about some difficult professional philosophical questions regarding modern heritage that I’ve been wrestling with lately. And I’m not the only one. In addition to and in conjunction with the climate change debate, I believe that the question of how to define authenticity in modern buildings is one of the great architectural challenges of our generation.
How can you really measure authenticity of historic buildings? Is it the percentage of actual original fabric remaining or is it the feeling you get when you look at a place and remember? And is authenticity different for midcentury modern buildings? This question is at the crux of the conversation regarding our recent past. Our most recently opened historic site, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut (1949), is a place that has been occupying much of my thoughts the past couple months. And the philosophical questions we are struggling with there are representative of questions that people across the world are confronting in these days of coming to terms with climate change, sustainability of existing buildings, and durability of experimental or new materials.
More recent buildings – especially those constructed between the 1950s and 1980s, most of which are NOT icons like the Glass House – pose a great challenge. Many of them were constructed at a time when fossil fuels were plentiful and inexpensive, so there was little regard for energy efficiency. In addition, they often include experimental materials and assemblies that were not designed to last beyond a generation. Today, these buildings make up more than half of our nonresidential building stock. Because of their sheer numbers, demolishing and replacing them isn’t a viable option. (Remember those rapidly filling landfills?) We must find ways to rehabilitate these buildings and lighten their environmental footprint while still protecting their architectural significance. Although there are many that do not have nor will they ever have architectural or even social significance. This is a challenge that preservationists and green-building advocates must face together in the coming years. (The above two paragraphs have been adapted from Richard Moe’s Vincent Scully award speech, also on our website.)
Which brings me back to the Glass House. We recently submitted a proposal for a federal grant for funding to evaluate and repair the steel structure of the Glass House and to replace the remaining plate glass in the house with tempered (safety) glass. Our grant was denied. Now I haven’t had a chance yet to confirm the reason we were denied, but I have heard anecdotally that it was because we were replacing the original glass. As the original plate glass broke in the house over the years, Mr. Johnson replaced it with safer glass. We suspect that at least half of the glass in the house has already been replaced. And each year at least one piece (many of them of monumental scale) needs replacement as cracks develop. Now there are very few materials more dangerous to life safety than plate glass. When it breaks, it shatters into huge shards the size of daggers. And with a house whose walls are glass, a life safety disaster can happen with something as simple as a rainstorm, tripping while walking next to the walls, or more recently, when a turkey flew through one of the walls. The turkey lived, but had anyone been standing or sitting near the wall, they may not have.
Glass is one of the easiest materials to recycle. So each time we need to replace a panel, we ensure that the removed piece will be recycled. But as the steward for the historic sites of the National Trust which receive hundreds of thousands of visitors each year – the life safety of everyone on any of our sites is of paramount importance to me. Who can tell that the plate glass was changed with tempered? Almost no one – I can’t even see the difference. But I sleep much better at night every time we change a piece.
I think that flexibility will be one of the key things necessary in the coming years as we learn to relive on this planet. Flexibility in how we define “authenticity”, flexibility in how we use our buildings, flexibility in accepting that just because an iconic architect used an experimental material that doesn’t hold up, or is a life safety hazard that doesn’t mean we need to perpetuate his or her choices. After all, our cultural resources are only significant when there are people and a planet left to use them.
Happy New Year
So, Laura Schenone’s ravioli makes her happy regardless of the fact that it uses non-authentic ingredients. My family and I are happy to eat our traditional Christmas cookies regardless of what they’re called. And the Glass House is still the Glass House, even if little of the original glass remains. The older I become the more I think that “authenticity” is more of a concept than an actuality. And it’s different for everyone. Like Proust’s madeleines, if a bite of ravioli or a cut-out cookie, or the transparent view into and out of the Glass House, transport you back to a different time and help to tell a story, well, there’s something to be said for that. Happy New Year!