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.