Thursday, July 14, 2011

So what is this thing called authenticity?

The idea of authenticity has been worming its way around my mind ever since I read Todd Kliman's article, "The Problem of Authenticity," in issue 1 of The Lucky Peach. I suppose the article resonated because authenticity has been a byword in my family for many years. The article made me realize I don't actually have a verbal definition of the term; basically, it's one of those gut-feeling, I-know-it-when-I-see-it kinds of things.

And I can't tell if I am comfortable with that or not. On the one hand, if you don't have a specific definition of a thing, you can make all kinds of exceptions that undermine the integrity of the thing, stretching its "truthiness" (to steal a term from Stephen Colbert) to the breaking point. On the other hand, you can make all kinds of exceptions that allow the thing to grow, to take into itself new perspectives. So, I don't know where to come down on defining authenticity.

Kliman addresses three questions regarding authenticity in food:

  • "For one thing, how the hell do you define it?
  • "For another, where the hell do you find it?
  • "And another, having found it, how do you know that it's, in fact, it?"
And he presents some examples that show what a tricky problem this actually is, such as the now less authentic bagels made in New York City (where once they were made entirely by hand, now they are stamped out by machine), or the wide range of how to define a gumbo in New Orleans, or the "right" ways to make Szechuan food or Neapolitan pizzas. Some places have strict regulations that define specific dishes to ensure that tradition is not lost. (To be honest, I also see some defensiveness against encroaching pop culture in such regulation too, but that's another story.)

Authenticity in food is an interesting topic because it mirrors and illustrates changes in culture. I was an anthropology major in college, and one topic that came up a lot was this idea of culture loss--that people the world over are losing their traditions to adapt to a new world order of internationalism. That sodas and televisions and t-shirts are now found in the remotest areas of the world and are destroying traditional ways of life. That languages are being lost as the last speakers die off. And, yes, it is sad, it is awful because there is so much to learn from what is being lost. And yet, and yet, isn't that the way of the world? We think of these cultures and these particular dishes as coming down to us fully formed, sacrosanct, but they too evolved. Cultures adapt to changes in local conditions and have always done so.

In the same way, people have taken their food traditions to new places and adapted them to what's available. Is it inauthentic to change something you grew up with to suit your tastes and the ingredients you can get your hands on? Is it inauthentic to drop the stuff you never really liked anyway? Is it authentic to cling unyielding to old ways and traditional ingredients? There are foods I'd never make if I had to make them the way they are supposed to be made. I simply don't have the patience to make pesto using a mortar and pestle. I don't have the arm strength and coordination to make mayo without a food processor. I make Swedish meatballs with whatever ground meat I happen to have on hand, not the specific blend of beef and pork that's typical (except chicken, I don't think I'd ever use ground chicken for Swedish meatballs). Traditional dishes have to be open to adaptation, to the creativity and the imagination of the cook, to the ingredients that are available. The way a person makes food reflects his or her family history, personal history, the season, the location. It's a complex palimpsest of layer upon layer of thoughts, feelings, images, tastes, scents, and memories partially smudged and aged until no single influence is perfectly in focus. And really, isn't it more interesting that way?

So where do I finally come to rest on the topic of authenticity? I guess it comes down to the words of a pompous old fool of a character: "This above all: to thine own self be true." But I also suspect that my thoughts and feelings about the topic will evolve.  

(And if you didn't read my review of The Lucky Peach, here it is.)

UPDATE 6/7/12: Here's another take on authenticity in food. Francis Lam and Eddie Huang discuss the fairness of other chefs taking on other cultures' food. It's kind of a long discussion, but it raises a lot of issues.

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