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July 10, 2007 / Tony

There is no authentic food out there

Slate has an interesting article about sushi.  It’s a fine read; two authors of recent books respond to questions about the history, issues, and future of sushi.  I recommend spending a few minutes out of your day to increase your sushi IQ.  But here’s the part of the article that interested me:

I think there’s this myth-not only with sushi but with most food-that there’s this path that existed before commerce and global influence. To some degree, the slow-food movement embraces this idea that we can return to a pure moment in our food past. But if you look at the story of sushi, it never existed without commerce. It started with fast food and the big commercial industrial city, Tokyo, in the mid-19th century. It grew as Tokyo became the capital of one of the world’s dominant economic powers. Tuna was worthless to the Japanese-especially the fatty cuts that are now the most prized-until the postwar period. Then, the Japanese, during the American occupation, were introduced to the idea that their occupiers were bringing in red meat-beef-which had never been seen as part of the Japanese diet.

Fascinating, right?  Tuna, what is my favorite fish to eat at a sushi restaurant and what unquestionably exceptionally popular, was worthless to the Japanese.  But what’s more interesting is the myth that there was a “pure moment in our food past.”  I’ve had this thought before especially when thinking about foreign cuisine, although I was thinking of it in terms of authenticity.  No matter which term is used, I think that the concept is the same: at what point in time is a cuisine considered pure or authentic or in some sense unadulterated from outside influences?  I think the answer is never. 

Let me first state my objection to even exploring this question.  I don’t particularly care about authenticity or purity.  Those concepts are fine for food anthropologists or their ilk but for a cook those concepts are secondary (I hope) to the real goal: good food.  I would much rather make an inauthentic dish that I enjoy than a dish considered “pure” that doesn’t taste so good.  Authenticity is interesting but it should be a source for culinary inspiration instead of the goal of cooking.  We should use authentic foods like we use history-as a basis for learning but not as a model for what we need to achieve. 

As far as knowing what authentic or pure cuisine is, I think we can’t find it.  Think about your own life.  What is the authentic cuisine for your life?  I bet it isn’t one thing because it’s always changing.  Tastes change, the foods available to you changes, and (hopefully) culinary skills change.  Now apply that to an entire culture, dispersed over time and area.  At what point in time and place can we say, “Aha! Here is the authentic cuisine of ____.”  We can’t exactly.  We may be able to make some broad generalizations but the idea of definitely saying something is pure or authentic seems to be out of touch with reality.

For example, let’s take a classic American dish: meatloaf.  Surely, that is “authentic” American cuisine right?  Something enjoyed by rich and poor all across the nation.  Ok, so how do you make “authentic” American meatloaf?  Is there a “pure” recipe.  No!  Take a look at this meatloaf-recipes-with-linked-titles.pdf showing some differing meatloaf recipes I found.  What a variety of ingredients and techniques.  Should I just use ground beef or do I need to use veal, pork, sausage, or a combination.  Do I need a starch in it?  Should it be fresh or dry breadcrumbs or even oatmeal?  What spices?  What vegetables?  What is the authentic recipe?  Where is that “pure” American meatloaf?  It doesn’t exist.  There is no one recipe that is purely American. 

I think this can be said for just about any food.  It can be cooked in an infinite number of ways.  There are just so many variables: heat, seasoning, ingredients, technique, and service, to name just a few.  And all of these are dependent upon the society in which a person lives.  The average American has access to an unbelievable amount of ingredients, tools, and information about cooking.  This has changed “American” cuisine just as Japanese cuisine was changed when beef was introduced to their culture. 

So what I think is important is not whether or not a culture strives to stay static with what it considers to its authentic cuisine, it is what a culture does with what is new.  The Japanese, for example, not only tolerated the introduction of beef into its culture, it embraced it to the point where, reportedly, it produces the finest beef in the world (it’s called Kobe beef).  I hope we can say the same about America.

ADDED:  In the comments, AYT links to this article: http://www.slate.com/id/2117567/

What I loved about the article was the notion of change-not only of the cuisine but of the clientele of the restaurants. “Chinese” food adpated to the uniqueness of America just the same as Asian food adapted to the changes wrought by the modern world. I also liked the definition of authenticity, “It is and isn’t a return to the way things were at the beginning.” Which to me says that there is no going back to beginning; there is no going back to authenticity. Yet, in some mysterious way, it exists and it is a tool to use in our current lives.

ADDED:  Here’s an article from the Discovery Channel.  Apparently, Mexicans have been eating the same food for over 1500 years!  But wait, read the article carefully.  The researchers don’t really know what they were cooking back then.  The chile peppers, while domesticated, were not the same as our modern peppers.  So, I have a hard time with the article’s initial sentence.  What I think the article is really saying, if you read between the lines, is that Mexicans have had many of the core ingredients of their cuisine for at least 1500 years.  Obviously, things have changed, and so has the cuisine.  Exactly what I was saying in my original post.  The thought that the cuisine is the same is, I think, an insult to modern Mexican cuisine.  Modern Mexican cooking has had the benefit of technology and 1500 years of culinary experience.  It must have changed unless one takes the untenable position that food tastes and techniques don’t change along with the culture. 

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2 Comments

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  1. AYT / Jul 10 2007 11:38 am

    While we’re on the subject, Slate also had an article on the history of Chinese restaurants a few years back.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2117567/

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