It’s a crime we’ve all been guilty of at one time or another in describing food.
“It was so authentic.”
“The food wasn’t authentic enough for me.”
“It’s the best authentic (insert cuisine) food I’ve had in town.”
It’s something I’ve pointed out in the past but have since made a more conscious effort to stop using the word authentic when it comes to food.
I’ve been wondering over the past couple months how is authentic even a proper way to describe food and who gets to define it? Why is it even important? I bet a huge portion of people who are eating the food have never even 1.) Been to the country where it originated 2.) Had a homemade version of it or 3.) Know the true origin of the dish they are eating and why the chef created it.
I’m not writing this because it’s 2019 and everything has to be politically correct. I’m writing this because I think ‘authentic food’ is a farce, misconception and it’s far from being politically correct.
Over the years, I’ve seen restaurants get improperly accused of not being authentic enough. It happens often in Mexican and Italian food for example. Recently there was a post with someone making the same ‘inauthentic claim’ about Angelo’s. The owner came in and mentioned how many of his traditional family dishes were derived from more “peasant-based” recipes because they didn’t have the money for more lavish dishes. Does that make it any less authentic? No. I’ve seen Da Cajun Shak also get accused of this but he and his family are all from Louisiana and the dishes they serve are similar to what they made back home. Someone thought it was weird I didn’t like cheese or beans in my Mexican food because her concept of real Mexican food was much different. Like I said earlier, I’ve been guilty of the same crime but thanks to many people and chefs in town I’ve been able to get better insight on it all.
If you want authentic pizza, then get some flatbread and bake it in a mud oven like the ancient Babylonians, Israelites, and Egyptians. I seriously doubt it’d win any ‘Most Liked Pizza’ brackets. It wasn’t until the 16th century that pizza as we kind of know it would have toppings. Back then it was extremely basic with limited toppings as you see in a Margherita pizza. So to have these thick crust with loads of toppings, tons of cheese, hamburger meat, bbq sauce, and everything else on there would cause an outcry from the forefathers of pizza. People who admonish Piatto Neapolitan Pizzeria for being too scarce in toppings or having a crust so different may not realize what they are trying to emulate and bring to Wichita aside from the same old pizza that Pizza Hut has popularized.
I did some research and many of the dishes you see have been some combination of peasant-based recipes and the rich-people food of long ago, fused with modern technology and a different global food-supply chain. Much of what we eat is quite different from our ancestors. I’m sure the pho and other dishes my aunt from Vietnam made for me here in the states was much different than what her parents or grandparents made in her native country.
We’ve all become these armchair anthropologist who all the sudden have become scholars without any real knowledge outside of a quick Google search. Everybody knows every single region of Mexico and the different quirks of each dish and what makes one meal traditional to one area and not the other.
Food writer Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food/Fake Food, pointed out, “We have almost no original cuisine in the United States. Everything is a take on something from somewhere else.”
One line I read in an article really rang true on why “authentic” doesn’t even matter. Using the word to describe food damages the ideal that all food lovers should be focused on: quality, creative food that continues to evolve and up the culinary ante.
So why use the word authentic anymore when it comes to describing or judging food? Odds are you probably don’t even really know and ultimately it probably doesn’t even matter.
Join my efforts in removing the A word in the food world lexicon.