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Posts tagged ‘authenticity’

The Cult of Authenticity

Last weekend I went to a wedding in Napier, a village in the rural Overberg, about a two-hour drive from Cape Town. I saw a family of baboons sunbathing on the Akkedisberg mountain pass; went to a church bazaar and bought jam; and saw a shop (alas closed at the time) which sold ‘piesangs, psalmboeke en dinamiet’ (bananas, prayer books, and dynamite).

It was a very good weekend indeed. And made even better by the quantities of excellent food which I ate. I was struck, though, by the numbers of restaurants in Napier which advertised their menus as being particularly ‘authentic’. Napier is experiencing a kind of low-key gentrification at the moment, so this isn’t really all that surprising. But it was amusing how the idea of what is authentic was stretched beyond all recognition.

I had lunch at a place which specialises in ‘authentic tapas’ and was advised to order two items, as tapas are, well, small plates. I doubt that the vat of curried sweet potato soup and mound of salad, which included the best part of a head of butter lettuce and two avocados, I was served bore even the remotest resemblance to the tapas of Barcelona. But they were delicious.

I was wondering why, though, a café in a remote South African village would stake so much on serving authentic tapas. There is, I suppose, a kind of thrill in eating exotic, ‘real’ tapas. Even so, most of its clientele are unlikely to have sampled the real thing or, even, to care about the authenticity of their supper. (I don’t mean this in a patronising way. Travel abroad is expensive.)

This is part of a wider cultural trend, where people who describe themselves as ‘serious’ about food (I’m not entirely sure what that means) claim to be able to distinguish between those dishes which are really authentic – which are absolutely true replicas of the ‘original’ dish  – and those which have been adulterated through adaptation.

For instance, Cape Town’s best Mexican restaurant El Burro advertises itself as ‘authentic’ Mexican cuisine, and local reviewers go out of their way to emphasise just how authentic its menu is: here is no inauthentic Tex- or Cal-Mex cooking, but, instead it is the Real Thing. (How many of them have actually visited Mexico is open to debate.)

There is, really, no such thing as ‘authentic’ Mexican – or Italian, or Spanish, or Greek, or Indian, or Thai, or Norwegian – cuisine. These, and other countries, have a range of cuisines, which differ from region to region, and which have also changed over time. As Jeffrey Pilcher argues in his recent book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, it is more accurate to refer to a number of Mexican cuisines which exist simultaneously both within and without the borders of the country.

The problem with trying to identify ‘authentic’ cuisine is that it’s rather like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The same dish will vary from area to area – from household to household – in one country. I have seen recipes for ‘authentic’ risotto which assert, with equal vehemence, that it should be so thick that you can stand a spoon in it or, equally, that it should be liquid and flowing. My mother’s recipe for bobotie – a South African delicacy – contains grated apple. My friend Carina’s mother’s recipe has no apple, but, rather, raisins. Which is the authentic version? Both. Neither.

Food changes over time. In the early twentieth century, the medical doctor, poet, Afrikaner nationalist, and Buddhist C. Louis Leipoldt recorded a recipe for bobotie which, in today’s terms, would be understood as a meatloaf: it was not the dish that, today, we think of as being bobotie – a layer of spiced, slightly sweet minced meat underneath a buttermilk and egg custard. Although according to the European Union, authentic Cornish pasties may contain only beef, swede, and potatoes, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Cornish miners in the past had a range of ingredients in their pies – and not only this holy pasty trinity.

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There is also the problem of anachronism. Mexico became an independent state in 1810 and its borders changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Should only those dishes which were made within the country’s present boundaries be considered ‘Mexican’? The state of Texas remained part of Mexico until 1836, and significant numbers of Mexicans settled in the United States – particularly in New Mexico, California, and Arizona. Should we consider Texan cuisine to be Mexican? And, surely, it would be churlish somehow to consider the cuisine developed by Mexicans in the United States as somehow being of less value than that prepared by Mexicans in Mexico (whatever we may mean by ‘Mexico’)?

So which version do we accept as being the ‘real’ version of a dish? Which one is ‘authentic’? More often than not, a range of factors not particularly linked to food influence our decisions over what is considered to be properly authentic. There is a connection, for instance, between nationalism and cookery books. During the nineteenth century, middle-class Mexicans living in the United States used food both to maintain links with Mexico, as well as to assert the sophistication of Mexican culture. Encarnación Pinado’s El cocinero español (The Spanish Chef), published in 1898, described a Mexican cuisine made using modern technology, and incorporating dishes from Mexico, European, and the Mexican-American borderlands.

Something similar happened in Italy, as Tim Hayward explains:

‘Authentic’ Italian food has an even odder story. Pellegrino Artusi was a writer with a political desire to unify the regions of Italy into a single country and thought, quite logically, that food might be a way to do it. In La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), 1891, he combined all the regional recipes he could find and in doing so artificially assembled what we regard today as ‘Italian’ food.

In fact, a lot of what we consider to be ‘real’ Italian food today, was created in a dialogue between Italian immigrants in the United States and Italians at home. Even relatively poor immigrants could afford the tomatoes, dried pasta, olive oil, meat, and dairy products which constituted the feast dishes of the homeland. This invented ‘traditional’ cuisine was used to construct and delineate new immigrant Italian identities. Overseas demand for the products of ‘home’ stimulated the Italian food industry – and the mass production of tinned tomatoes and other products made them more easily available in Italy. This American connection of Italian identity with a particular kind of Italian cooking was also exported back to Italy.

Authentic cuisines are, then, heavily constructed. There is no direct, unmediated way of accessing the food of the past. Indeed, it is also pretty difficult to replicate the cooking of foreign countries at home. Rachel Laudan notes that if she were to write a cookbook on ‘authentic’ Mexican cooking, she would have to take into account the difficulty of finding many ingredients outside of Mexico:

I’d probably leave out the spinal cord soup, the sopa de medulla so popular in Central Mexico (fear of mad cow disease makes that a no-no) and I’d leave out quelites, the mixed wild greens sold already cooked in the markets (too difficult to get hold of in the States). I’d probably also leave out tripe, sugar milk and fruit confections and aroles, the family of thick gruels that warm Mexicans on cold winter mornings (not at all to my conception of Mexican taste).

Also, she argues that she would be constrained by middle-class Americans’ own ideas around what should constitute Mexican cuisine. The cult of authenticity is informed not only by snobbery (being able to identify and cook the ‘real thing’ is a marker of sophistication), but also by a powerful nostalgia for a pre-industrialised food past where all cooking was done from scratch:

I’d include photos of colourful fruit and vegetables stalls but not my neighbourhood supermarket shelves stocked with Danone yogurt and cornflakes.

I’d ignore my friend’s mother’s recipe for lemon Jell-O with evaporated milk. I’d pass over dishes that used Worcestershire sauce, pita bread and Gouda cheese, as well as recipes for Cornish pasties, hot cakes and biscuits, even though all of these are commonplace in Mexico.

This is a nostalgia produced by anxieties around change and a perceived homogenisation of the world’s diets. It is partly as a result of this concern that old ways of cooking and eating are being ‘lost’ that the EU introduced a protected geographical status framework in 1993, which provides legal protection to certain dishes and products in the EU, preventing them from being copied elsewhere. So only sparkling wine produced in Champagne can be called ‘champagne’, and only Prosciuitto Toscano made in Tuscany can be called Prociutto Tascano.

For all that this is an attempt to preserve a food heritage, as the philosopher Julian Baggini makes the point, the EU actually decides what is authentic and what is not:

For instance, ‘traditional stilton was a raw-milk cheese up until the late 80s,’ says Dominic Coyte of Neal’s Yard Dairy. But when the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association got PDO protection in 1996, they stipulated that it be made with pasteurised milk. Hence the irony that the raw-milk stichelton, first produced by traditional methods in 2006, is arguably the most authentic stilton available, but it cannot carry the name.

Similarly, UNESCO’s recognition of Mexican cuisine, the French ‘gourmet meal’, the Mediterranean diet, and the gingerbread craft of Northern Croatia as the ‘intangible patrimony of humanity’ in 2010, fixed these culinary traditions in aspic. Also, the Mexican application focussed on only one regional cuisine, the ‘Michoacán paradigm,’ which, interestingly, happened to feature the home state of the President, Felipe Calderón

This recognition from UNESCO will boost the region’s tourism, and EU appellations have helped many small producers in Europe to continue to work in difficult economic times. The mania for ‘authenticity’ helps, inadvertently, to force our attention to how people cooked and ate in the past – to look at methods, ingredients, and cultivars which we may have forgotten. We shouldn’t try to return to the past, but we can certainly learn from it.

My problem with the cult of authenticity – other than its tedious pedantry – is that it conflates eating ‘authentically’ with some ability to make a meaningful difference in the world. More often that not, peasant food is labelled authentic food. Even the most passing familiarity with what most poor people eat will demonstrate that people’s diets improve as their disposable income increases. Peasant food in Italy before the mid-twentieth century was nutritionally inadequate: it consisted of bread and polenta with onions oil and, occasionally, cheap fish and vegetables.

There is nothing wrong with eating peasant food, but it is deeply problematic to believe that eating ‘real’ peasant food represents a solidarity with the struggles of the poor. In fact, it’s a distraction from the ways in which food and big agricultural companies exploit labourers and put small and peasant farmers out of business.

Food is political. Particularly if it’s ‘authentic.’

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A Messy Business

Adventurous readers! Today’s post is over at the excellent Review 31. It’s a review of Jeffrey Pilcher’s new book, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food.

Back to normal service next week.

Food Links, 07.11.2012

Well America, you had us worried for a moment.

What hurricane Sandy tells us about New York’s food supply chain.

New York’s chefs helping with the Sandy clean-up.

The implications of Sandy for New York’s bees.

Why food trucks won’t be a novelty after Sandy.

Three views on Prop 37.

Lester Brown on food inflation.

The state of the world’s harvests.

Land grabs are endangering food production.

Is this the year that the US food movement finally enters politics?

We’re facing rising food prices.

The French right wing hijacks the pain au chocolat.

The relationship between coffee shops, gentrification, and crime (pdf).

Evaluating Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign.

Michael Pollan on corn.

Sectarian traybacks in Belfast.

The strange persistence of the First Lady Bake-Off.

The doorless fridge.

Mary Berry biting into things.

The science of the souffle.

The fifteen professions that drink the most coffee.

Elif Batuman on Çiya Sofrasi in Istanbul.

How to crack black peppercorns.

In praise of the prickly pear.

Can you get thrown out of an all-you-can-eat buffet?

Reviews of new food.

The most beautiful coffee shops.

Behind the wine label.

The strange history of the spork.

Beautiful apples.

The link between chocolate consumption and Nobel laureates.

Beautiful paintings of food at the Bowes Museum.

The Middle Class Handbook on flat peaches.

Craig’s Artisanal Pickles.

The strange variety of McDonald’s meals.

Why drinking liquid nitrogen cocktails is a very, very bad idea.

Feathers fly in the South African fried chicken industry.

How to introduce a two year-old to Malaysian street food.

A nifty idea for storing fresh herbs.

A man makes beer from yeast found…in his beard.

To peel, or not to peel?

These are courtesy of my mum:

The fortified food conundrum in Afghanistan.

A coffee cup in the shape of a bird.

Japan’s themed cafes.

How to flip food in a pan.

Eight paintings of ham.

Artisanal mayonnaise.

The search for authenticity is futile.

Food Links, 02.05.2012

Books on booze.

As London prepares to vote for its new mayor, consider Ken Livingstone’s enthusiasm for breakfast.

Twenty ways to change the way we eat.

Five foods to save the world.

The latest craze in the food world: tattoos for chefs.

How coffee helps to revitalise cities.

Read more

Real Revolutions

When Keenwa opened in Cape Town last year, much was made of the fact that it serves ‘authentic’ Peruvian food. I put ‘authentic’ in quotes partly because I’ve read far too much Derrida and Foucault, but mainly as a result of some scepticism. I doubt that any of the reviewers who’ve eaten at Keenwa have ever been to Peru, and there’s something odd about deciding how a varied and changing cuisine can be made ‘authentic’. The bobotie I cook has grated apple in it, but a friend’s doesn’t: which is more authentic? Neither, obviously.

I was thinking about this a month ago when I had supper with my friends Katherine and Ricardo in London. Ricardo is from Cuba, and cooked us a Cuban-themed dinner. The only Cuban food I’ve ever eaten was at Cuba Libre, a restaurant and tapas bar in Islington. It’s the kind of place which people recommend by saying ‘it’s not authentic, but….’ I haven’t the faintest idea if it’s authentic (whatever that may be), but it was certainly fun.

The food that Ricardo made showed up the problem with the mania for ‘authenticity’ particularly well. We had fried plantain, tortilla, and congrí. This is, to some extent, the kind of food his family would eat in Cuba, although because he and Katherine are vegetarians, we had tortilla instead of the usual, more meaty accompaniment to the meal (hurrah – I love tortilla), and the congrí was pork-free. It was delicious, but was it any less authentic? You tell me.

Christiane Paponnet-Cantat describes the food eaten in Cuba as ‘contact cuisine’, a concept borrowed from Mary Louise Pratt’s conceptualisation of the colonial space as a cultural and social ‘contact zone’ which ‘treats the relations among colonisers and colonised…not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practice’. She suggests that Cuban, and colonial cooking more generally, is a manifestation of the complex relationships between different groups of people in colonies.

Congrí is an excellent example of this contact cuisine. As in the rest of the Caribbean, Cuba’s indigenous population was eradicated – by disease and conflict – after the arrival of European colonists during the seventeenth century. Slaves were imported from West and Central Africa to work on sugar plantations. In the nineteenth century, indentured labourers from India replaced slaves. Along with foodstuffs introduced by the Spanish – like rice in the 1690s – these groups brought with them a variety of cuisines.

Congrí – at its most basic, a dish of rice and beans – can be found in various forms around the Caribbean. It’s a version of moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians) and rice and peas. And jollof rice, popular in West Africa, is similar too. The term congrí seems to have originated in Haiti and is a combination of ‘Congo’ and ‘riz’ (the French for rice), suggesting its African origins.

The recipe that Ricardo used for his congrí was by Nitza Villapol. To my shame, I’d never heard of her until Ricardo mentioned one of her best-known recipe books, Cocina al minuto. This was published in 1958, four years after Cocina criolla, the Bible of Cuban cuisine. Villapol seems to have been a kind of Cuban Delia Smith or Julia Child: she was as interested in writing about Cuban cuisine as she was in communicating it to people. She had a long-running television series which aired between 1951 and 1997. (She died in 1998.)

Villapol would be interesting simply on these grounds, but she was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution. Born into a wealthy family in 1923, she was named after the Russian river Nitza by her communism-supporting father. She spent her early childhood in New York, returning to Cuba with her family at the age of nine. During World War Two she trained as a home economist and nutritionist at the University of London.

This experience of wartime rationing proved to be surprisingly useful. In Cuba, Villapol began her career during the 1950s by teaching cookery classes to young, middle-class brides and her earliest recipe books emerged out of this work. But after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, she devoted to her formidable talents to teaching a kind of revolutionary cuisine. Tellingly, editions of her recipe books published after 1959 no longer included advertisements for American consumer goods.

Under the new communist regime, food distribution was centralised, and rationing was introduced in 1962. People collected their allowances of food – listed in a libreta (ration book) – from the local bodega, or depot. Villapol’s aim was to teach Cubans how to cook when they had little control over the quantity or the nature of the ingredients they would receive at the bodega. She taught a cuisine developed to underpin the goals of the revolution. Unfortunately, I don’t read Spanish and I haven’t been able to track down any substantial scholarship on Villapol. From what I’ve gleaned, though, it seems to me that she was interested in cooking a form of a ‘traditional’ Cuban cooking – but the cooking of ordinary Cubans, rather than those at the top of the social scale who would, presumably, have favoured American or European dishes as a marker of wealth and sophistication. This elevation of ‘every day’ Cuban food would have meshed well with the aims of the revolution.

By writing recipes for favourites like congrí and flan, Villapol created a kind of canon for Cuban cooking. The popularity – and possibly the ubiquity – of her writing and television programmes meant that not only was she seen as the authority on Cuban cuisine, but she also became the source for all that was (or is) ‘authentically’ Cuban. The irony is that this happened during a time of rationing, when what people ate was determined by supplies available to the state.

This system functioned relatively well until the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989. Peter Rosset et al. explain:

When trade relations with the Soviet Bloc crumbled in late 1989 and 1990, and the United States tightened the trade embargo, Cuba was plunged into economic crisis. In 1991 the government declared the Special Period in Peacetime, which basically put the country on a wartime economy-style austerity program. An immediate 53 percent reduction in oil imports not only affected fuel availability for the economy, but also reduced to zero the foreign exchange that Cuba had formerly obtained via the re-export of petroleum. Imports of wheat and other grains for human consumption dropped by more than 50 percent, while other foodstuffs declined even more.

There was simply not enough food to go around. (A similar set of factors caused the famine in North Korea, a country as dependent on trade with the USSR as Cuba.) As a 1998 article from the sympathetic New Internationalist noted:

The monthly rations from the State for a family of four cost around 50 pesos ($2.15), almost a quarter of the average salary of 214 pesos ($9.30). Food from the bodega is not enough to live on and no-one, neither the Government nor the people, pretends it is. It may take you halfway through the month, but no more.

Even though he was shielded – to some extent – from the worst food shortages because he was in school and university accommodation during the Special Period, Ricardo described what it was like to live while permanently hungry – and entirely obsessed with the next meal, even if it was likely to be thin, watery soup or overcooked pasta. In fact, one of the most traumatic features of the Special Period was that staples like rice and coffee – things which most people ate every day – were no longer available. Some people seem to have made congrí from broken up spaghetti.

Drawing on her experience of wartime cooking in London, Villapol used her cookery series to show her audience how to to replicate Cuban favourites with the meagre rations available to the population. Ricardo mentioned one episode during which she fashioned a steak out of orange peel. She received widespread ridicule for doing this, and I think deservedly so.

Cuba managed to pull itself out of its food crisis by radically reorganising its agricultural sector. The state transformed most of its farms into worker-owned co-operatives which

allowed collectives of workers to lease state farmlands rent free, in perpetuity. Property rights would remain in the hands of the state, and [co-operatives] would need to continue to meet production quotas for their key crops, but the collectives were the owners of what they produced. What food crops they produced in excess of their quotas could be freely sold at newly opened farmers’ markets.

In addition to this, urban agriculture helped to provide a supply of vegetables and pork:

The earlier food shortages and resultant increase in food prices suddenly turned urban agriculture into a very profitable activity for Cubans, and, once the government threw its full support behind a nascent urban gardening movement, it exploded to near epic proportions. Formerly vacant lots and backyards in all Cuban cities now sport food crops and farm animals, and fresh produce is sold from stands throughout urban areas at prices substantially below those prevailing in the farmers’ markets.

Food may not be abundant now, and there are still occasional shortages of particular items, but no-one goes hungry anymore. Cuba does offer a model of a sustainable, largely organic and pesticide-free food system, and we can learn a great deal from it.

I’m interested, though, in how Cuban food has changed as a result of the Special Period. From a quick trawl of the internet, it seems to me that Nitza Villapol still exercises a kind of nostalgic appeal to some Cubans living in Miami – there’s even one woman who’s heroically cooking her way through Villapol’s oeuvre. But for those still in Cuba – and those who experienced the deprivations of the Special Period – she seems to be tainted by association. It’s certainly the case that despite Villapol’s best efforts, Cuban diets are more meat-heavy and vegetable-poor than ever before. I wonder if this is the effect of the hunger of the nineties: a diet which was based once mainly on rice and fresh produce, has become increasingly focussed around red meat because meat is associated with plenty – and with having a full stomach.

So where does that leave us on ‘authentic’ Cuban cuisine?

Sources cited here:

Mavis Alvarez, Martin Bourque, Fernando Funes, Lucy Martin, Armando Nova, and Peter Rosset, ‘Surviving Crisis in Cuba: The Second Agrarian Reform and Sustainable Agriculture,’ in Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform, ed. Peter Rosset, Raj Patel, and Michael Courville (Food First Books, 2006), pp. 225-248. (Also available here.)

Christiane Paponnet-Cantat, ‘The Joy of Eating: Food and Identity in Contemporary Cuba,’ Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 3 (Sept., 2003), pp. 11-29.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the Formation of Mexican National Identity, 1821-1911,’ The Americas, vol. 53, no. 2 (Oct., 1996), pp. 193-216.

Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.