Pollo Alla Cacciatora

In America, this dish is usually called, Chicken Cacciatore, (Hunter's Chicken.) In Italian, "Cacciatore" is the word for "hunter." When I thought about the name for this recipe I had wonder why a "hunter," a man who shot his game in the wild, would be using chicken, a bird kept in the yard?

My next step was an online search. American sites told me nothing. For the most part, Italian American "chicken cacciatore" was chicken stewed with tomatoes and peppers. The recipes were crude and harsh. (It was the recipe for one of the only dinners as a child that I did not like.) Every part of this dinner was harsh. The chicken was leathery, the peppers, always green peppers, were acrid and sharp. The online American recipes were the very things I was looking to avoid.

Then, through the wonders of the internet I moved to Google Italy. On the Italian sites, I found what I was looking for, and I also found what I think to be the correct name for the dish. Google.it I found that in Italy the recipe is called "Pollo alla Cacciatora." This name change is significant. It Italy the recipe is ` not "hunter's chicken" but, "the hunter's wife's chicken. " It would be my guess that somehow over the past one hundred years, with Italian Americans who do not speak Italian that the vowels shifted and the words changed. While in Italian there is a great difference between "cacciatora" ( cah- cha- tor - ah) and "cacciatore" (cah-cha-tor-aye) for a lazy lipped Americans, the differences are blurred. If other Italian Americans understood or spoke any Italian at all as did my father and aunts and uncles, then I can see why they did not hear the distinction. If you are interested in Italian as a language all you have to do is to watch the "Godfather" film series. In the first film they speak Italian. In the subsequent films that feature the later generations in America the Italian is completely Americanized with no attention to the fine points of the language.

The discovery that the Italian sites listed this recipe as "pollo alla cacciatora' sent me on a long exploration. Why was it called "hunter's wife chicken?" On one Italian site that I found, the name comes from the province of Romagna and is so called because the hunter's wife made use of simple flavorings such as rosemary and garlic to make a quick dinner. Other sites claim that "pollo alla cacciatora" is Tuscan and makes use of an old hen by braising it. Neither of these stories accounts for for the use of the word "hunter." If a hunter is a hunter, why would he be bringing home a chicken? A skillful hunter would be eating the game he has bagged. But suppose his hunt has not been so lucky? What would he resort to eating? He would easy whatever his wife might prepare: a chicken from the yard. Site that I found from southern Italy, in the Campania province seem to support this idea. In sites from the area around Naples, a "pollo alla cacciatora" is not chicken at all, it's rabbit. In other words, if you are a successful hunter, your chicken is a rabbit.

At one time, when I was a kid, some fifty years ago, Chicken cacciatore was a standard of Italian American home cooking and a significant entry on the menus of old time Italian American restaurants. Those were the days of red checked table clothes, bottles of Chianti in straw baskets, bread sticks and the "red sauce," that they called "gravy." Back then, folks wanted three things in their Italian food. They wanted dense tomato sauce. They wanted sugar. And they wanted salt. Their taste was centered on a heavy punch. They wanted to be hit over the head with aggressive flavors and texture. To that end, the subtle tastes of traditional recipes were removed or replaced in favor of the smothering Sunday red gravy.

Since I grew up on heavy Sunday gravy I never knew that there was anything else until I went to Italy as a student. It was the sixties. Commercial jet aircraft made travel to Europe accessible to a new middle class population. Americans began to experience Italian foods in their original setting.For some, the Italian original versions of the foods that thought they knew were not a pleasant experience.When some Americans ordered spaghetti, they wanted to know where the meatballs were and why the "gravy" wasn't dense and sweet. Other Americans however, took great pleasure in the lighter Italian preparations, the delicate use of tomatoes, and the integrity of ingredients not smothered in red gravy

This was the same time Julia Child opened America's eyes to real cooking. Here too, the revelation only had meaning for a few. But, nonetheless, Julia took this interested few to a new world that did not depend on Betty Crocker and pre-fab Swanson TV Dinners. Thus, Julia Child and international travel sparked a very slow transformation that began changing everything in the American kitchen among those who had an interest in food and cooking.

It wasn't just the introduction of refined French methods that made a difference. There was something of what the Germans call the "zeitgeist:" a "spirit of the times." Things were changing. We wanted something new and fresh and different. The old Sunday gravy that buried everything in red tomato syrup was overthrown by delicate chopped fresh tomatoes quickly sauteed in olive oil, or if not by fresh tomatoes by a can of quality peeled San Marzano tomatoes roughly crushed by hand. Then, in the past few years, another door into cooking opened wide: Google. Suddenly it seemed that there was nothing we could not know about any subject. And, if you could read another language, there was "Google France," or "Google Italy," and even "Google Hong Kong."For those interested in learning new recipes first hand with web sites of the actual country of origin every gate was opened to new experiences.

So, with Google Italy as the gate keeper off I went to try to rediscover "Chicken Cacciatore," or rather, as I found, "Chicken Cacciatora." Recipe after recipe surfaced. As with so many home type, peasant foods, there seemed to be as many recipes as there were people who made them. But, there were certain elements that these recipes had in common. It's worth noting that the common ingredients in these recipes were the very components that vanished from the Italian American version. And, what's more, these ingredients are what we now call. "umami," that Asian, fifth savory taste. And what were these elements? For the Italian kitchen they are pancetta, (or bacon), anchovies and olives. Another element I found in some Italian recipes was wild mushrooms. Since wild mushrooms are not something available in the States, I did not include them. I don't think our common white mushrooms have enough strength to make a difference.

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