Why 'Authentic' Food Is Bullshit
The problems started with the mole. Here I was, minding my own business, sitting in a Mexican restaurant brainstorming staggered humblebrags for my next Instagram, when I overheard my server describe the dish I'd just ordered to another diner.
"The enchiladas," he said, "are prepared in an authentic Mexican mole."
"Let it go, Kevin," I whispered gently to myself, but I couldn't. I kept thinking: "What exactly made that mole authentically Mexican?"
I tried to break it down: mole's name comes from the Nahuatl word for "sauce," so that also seems to check out. But then again, legend has it that the first "mole" as we know it was created by Spanish nuns in Puebla who mixed together non-indigenous ingredients to serve on turkey when the archbishop came to visit, and they were colonizers coming in from Europe. Is eating European food originally created in Mexico while in California authentic?
Or maybe it's the people preparing the food? The owners of this place are originally from Mexico, so does that help? Does it matter if one of the cooks actually preparing the food was born in America to El Salvadoran parents? Do the ingredients need to all be sourced from Mexico? What about the restaurant itself? Is it disqualified because the tile patterns kind of look Andalusian? Or because I'm pretty sure the wood in the chairs isn't Oaxacan?
And what about me? Am I fucking up the authenticity of this beautiful mole by sitting here obsessing over its authenticity? By eating it while being an Irish-American lapsed Catholic from Boston? Oh, also: is this food even any good?
In the American food scene, the word "authentic" is touchy. A certain strain of foodie scours ethnic enclaves, searching for "authentic" meals they've never experienced. Different groups battle over who "owns" a certain cuisine and what the "authentic" preparation for that cuisine is. Chefs seek to give diners an "authentic" taste of a type of food through the ingredients, preparation, and setting. Being able to recreate or experience an "authentic" meal (as either a chef or a patron) has long been a badge of honor in the American food world, a way to announce the seriousness of your intent as both an eater and a cook.
There's only one problem: authenticity, as we understand it, is bullshit. Complete and utter marketing garbage designed to allow eaters to smugly lord their food choices over others ("I feel sorry for those of you who've never experienced authentic khow suey"), and to permit chefs to hide behind the traditions of the past to escape criticism for unoriginal or sometimes downright mediocre execution. "How can you dislike this dish?" authenticity cries. "This is how it's been prepared for hundreds of years!" As if cholera hadn't been prepared the same way for even longer.
This isn't the first essay anyone in the food world has done on this topic. Todd Kliman’s Lucky Peach essay ‘Debunking the Myth of Authenticity’ is more eloquent; John DeVore’s take on Taco Bell is much funnier; Hua Hsu’s commentary on Chinese cookbooks and “the joy of inauthentic cooking” is in the damn New Yorker.
But here I am anyway, humbly hoping to finally put an end to this pox. I haven't always been this angry about the use of authenticity. But over years of working as a food writer, my ability to examine this subject with a cool, Aristotelian, logical sense has faded, replaced by the increasingly incensed awareness that we're using the word as a defense mechanism and trigger point, a way to pose and argue about ownership. Like the subset of foodie culture that idealizes it (let's call them foodie fundamentalists), "authenticity" is exclusive rather than inclusive. I have eaten this, and you have not, it announces. I have a right to cook this, and you do not. End of discussion.
My goal here is simple (or maybe extremely complicated?): to eradicate the use of "authentic" in our American food vocabulary -- not just because it's obnoxious and overused to the point of meaninglessness (like "gourmet," or "premium," or, okay sure: "foodie"), but because it damages the ideal that all food lovers should aspire to: quality, creative food that continues to evolve and up the culinary ante.
To help figure out how to slay this pretentious beast, I spent a lot of time talking to professional chefs originally from places like Africa, Europe, Haiti, and the remote river nation of Pittsburgh, plus food writers, academics, and even my mom to help get a grasp on the topic. And don't worry, I've been assured all opinions expressed were authentic (except for my mother's, which, it turns out, were muddled and not really worth including). But the rest were real.
Everything was silly in the '80s, but few things were sillier than arguing about authenticity in the American food world.
"Thirty years ago, chefs weren't willing to unpack and really break down that many cuisines for the diner," says Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster in Harlem. Save for a few outliers (Osho in Hollywood, the first sushi bar in the US aimed outside the Japanese community, opened in 1970, and the upscale Chinese restaurant Shun Lee in NYC opened in 1971), mainstream diners were really only getting French and Italian, and maybe some Mediterranean. For the most part, unless you were willing to seek the rest of the cuisines out on their home turfs, they got the dash makeover, becoming Chinese-American or Tex-Mex, giving the average diner only maybe a CliffsNotes reading on what that cuisine actually is like. (Hilariously, two of the hottest restaurants in New York in the '80s were regional American spoofs: Texarkana, described in the Times as a "Cajun-Louisiana" restaurant, and Arizona 206, a "Southwestern" restaurant serving things like barbecued foie gras with cactus-pear salad.)
This started to change in the late '80s and '90s, with the advent of what Samuelsson calls "gatekeeper" restaurants, like Charles Phan's Slanted Door in San Francisco, Wild Ginger in Seattle, Jaleo by José Andrés in DC, Wolfgang Puck's Chinois in LA, and Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago. "These early-bird restaurants," Samuelsson says, "created a conversation that wasn't happening in the mainstream."
All of a sudden, more and more people weren't only talking about these types of foods -- they were interested in digging deeper themselves. Helping the cause was a wave of influential cookbooks exploring less talked about cuisines (Paula Wolfert on Morocco and the Eastern Mediterranean, Diana Kennedy on Mexico, Madhur Jaffrey on India, etc.) and restaurant reviewers like Jonathan Gold, Robert Sietsema, and Ruth Reichl, who delighted in seeking out and publicizing the tiny restaurants cooking those types of food.
This coincided with the rise of the Food Network, and eventually, the internet. Chat rooms and then forums like Chowhound helped food nerds find each other and brag about their culinary exploits, and internet fares for newly launched discount airlines made it easier than ever to seek out regional cuisines in their native lands. "If you cared enough, you weren't just going to the Southeast Asian neighborhood in your city," says, Vitaly Paley of Paley's Place in Portland. "You were going to Southeast Asia."
From there, things have just gotten deeper. If you want to learn Nordic pickling techniques or how to make Burmese mohinga, you can watch YouTube videos and see ingredient lists on Reddit, and even hire a local Burmese person off of Craigslist to teach you. The breadth of information available to the layperson is staggering.
The problem is, it's also made the layperson insufferable. Just as the rise of CCTV and digital videos from phones has turned thousands of people into would-be armchair sleuths in real crimes, the open information on every sort of food has tacitly given permission to an entire populace to enter into a Cold (Noodle) War to all become quasi-food experts on their own, seeking out the most "authentic" and obscure foods imaginable to display as comestible trophies on their Instagrams, Twitters, and Snapchats, or to patiently wait in the wings of comment forums like the OG Chowhound, or Hungry Onion, Food Talk Central, Opinionated About Dining, eGullet, and Mouthfuls for someone to trip up in their description of a true curry laksa, or naively claim that the best Cantonese food they've had was in New Hampshire.
And what started as a democratic experiment now frequently devolves into an ugly fight over who even has the right to start the conversation. At Oberlin, students accused the campus dining hall of, as the Times put it, “a litany of offenses that range from cultural appropriation to cultural insensitivity” for poorly executed Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese dishes. Before that, Hillary Dixler's essay, "How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining," melted the brains of many people in South Carolina, partially because it explored how Charleston owed some of its cuisine traditions to the West African people who'd come there as slaves, but mostly because the author herself was writing from the North. Caustic comments came in from all over Charleston and beyond, and as John T. Edge explained in the introduction to a follow-up essay, "Who Owns Southern Food?", it took an ugly turn when, on Twitter, Jeff Allen, a white writer/farmer, told the primary source, Gullah descendant Michael Twitty, to go back to where he came from, stating that "Charleston knows its past, we don't need help understanding it."
This is one of the central issues of the food authenticity discussion in America. The first reaction is to look where that person is from, and how long they've been there, and use that information as the sole basis for determining the legitimacy of the argument being advanced. It's like a trial lawyer searching for a reason to dismiss a contention, rather than countering it. Or a politician launching a personal attack to deflect a hard question.
It also happens to be a classic hipster superiority technique, wielded like a cudgel by the new age of judgmental and insecure foodie fanboys engaged in a perpetual pissing contest over who is realer. "When I moved to ____ in _____, there wasn't _____" might as well be a Mad Libs template for this type of discussion, but, when it comes to authenticity, it also turns into "My family has lived in ____ since ____," collectively attempting to shut down any critical discussion by anyone coming after that, as if you're somehow grandfathered into winning an argument based on your ancestors' real estate decisions.
Foodie-ism, as it turns out, is subject to the rules that traditionally govern other forms of geekdom: there is an obsession with origin, a need to discover, and a need to own, and a tendency to use those three things to assert superiority over others. But there's more than that. It's something rooted in the American experience (and hell, quite possibly the experience of many liberal democracies of the West, since now they all have foodie assholes wearing weird backpacks).
American food traditions, like Americans themselves, are messy, complicated, and mostly just came from other places. We as Americans are proud mongrels and so is our food. There is little by way of purity or simplicity. Unlike the use of France's appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) and Italy's denominazione di origine controllata (DOC), which hold things in a specific region to a set of clear and specific standards, we do no such thing in America, outside of a handful of products, like making sure Vidalia onions are grown close to Vidalia, GA, recognizing bourbon as a "distinctive product of the United States" in a 1964 Congressional resolution, or ensuring that "100% Florida orange juice" does not contain any Sunny D or purple stuff from other citrus-growing states.
As food writer Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food/Fake Food, points out, "We have almost no original cuisine in the United States. Everything is a take on something from somewhere else." (And yes, I know Native Americans have their own honored food histories, but that's a whole different essay.)
Name the most "American" foods you can think of: Texas barbecue comes from German immigrants who sought out a pragmatic way to preserve their meats and sausages. Depending on who you believe, the hamburger is a sort of German-Russian-Mongolian hybrid with three distinct American origin stories. Hot dogs were also a German creation from Frankfurt. And that glorious beacon of apple pies was made by the Dutch, English, and Swedes who had to BRING THEIR OWN DAMN TREES across the water so they could have the proper apples over here.
Perhaps because of our motley heritage, there is a tendency to fixate and obsess over these foreign foods that have a more clear lineage (at least in our minds), an "authentic" purity that didn't clamber out of America's melting pot, covered in red sauce. In a way, it's almost a kind of nostalgic conservatism, like a guy who proudly refuses to listen to any record made after Dark Side of the Moon.
With the possible exception of barbecue, "authentic" is really only used in America as a descriptor for ethnic (usually understood as meaning non-white, non-European) restaurants, ostensibly to serve as a dog whistle for white people to understand that the food served there caters to them. As Nigerian chef and writer Tunde Wey puts it, "No Nigerian is going into a Nigerian restaurant in America and asking if it's authentic. They will eat the food and know soon enough."
This isn't a bad thing necessarily. On one hand, people shouldn't be discouraged from trying other ethnicities' cuisines -- on the contrary, as long as you're respectful, not treating the situation like the taping of a documentary in a far-flung corner of the world, and not knocking over people's drinks with your backpack, your business and curiosity should be welcomed and rewarded. But it's the chefs/restaurant owners themselves that need to realize that framing things as "authentic" not only condescends, but also misleads.
In discussions with Wey, I tried to parse out just why the word "authentic" felt so shitty. And, like most touchy subjects in America, it came down to evolution. Wey related a story he'd read about voodoo traditions in Haiti versus those in the US. Folks who emigrated to America came with the traditions as they remembered them from when they were in Haiti, but when the writer looked at the differences, the people who'd moved to the US were stuck using the traditional methods of the past, whereas in Haiti voodoo had evolved. The same goes for food. "When you take something out of its culture, you've truncated the possibilities for it to evolve," says Wey. "Authenticity speaks to the evolving nature of being from that place. It's not static. It can't be. So if you have a chef in America cooking food from another place, he or she can't be serving authentic food. The most they can hope for is 'traditional.'"
He continues: "I called my mom the other day to ask about some ingredients and she told me she put peas in the jollof rice. And I was like, mom, come on, we don't put peas in jollof rice. And she was like, 'Tunde, I cooked this last night in Nigeria and served it to Nigerians. I think I know better than you what I can and can't put in my jollof rice." He went on. "Authenticity can't be standardized."
Pittsburgh chef Sonja Finn won't abide this shit. One of the OG chefs whose modern pizza restaurant Dinette helped foment the breathless national food media riot on Pittsburgh (part-one story plug!), she can go off on any number of inane authenticity-related topics (ask her about the current obsession with VPN certification), but she says that it ultimately comes down to two things: "Quality of taste and texture are the only possibly objective means to judge food," she says. "Everything else -- authenticity, innovativeness, sustainability, value -- are personal preferences."
The idea, as a chef, of claiming your food is authentic, of deciding to dig into your Hungarian background and cook in the manner of your great-great grandparents and purchase old, dusty 19th-century cookbooks in the Széchenyi tér market in Pécs, translate them, source the ingredients, and whip up something while dressed in a caftan, is something you've chosen to do (just as the food nerd makes the decision to document all Mongolian khuushuur in the Pacific Northwest).
Your means to the end tells a story, and it is entirely useful for meals to have narratives, but when all is said and done, that end better be damn delicious. If the degree of authenticity overrides the imperative of taste, then there's a problem. The whole incentive system gets warped. Suddenly we're stuck with a galaxy of underwhelming expressions of cultural purity, and I'm stuck with a bullshit mole.
As for that mole, I sat watching it on my plate for a while, overcome by the layers of history and appropriation and just what it all meant. And then I did something crazy: I just ate it, liked it, and left.
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