Habits and Heresies: Authenticity, Food Rules, and the People Who Break Them

by Dwight Furrow


Chicken Tikka Masala

Dishes are a representation of the food tradition from which they emerge. But what counts as an authentic representation of a tradition and who decides?

All of us come to the table with a history of eating experiences that have left behind a sediment of preferences, a map of what goes with what, an impressionistic bible of what particular ingredients should taste like and how particular dishes satisfy. Food is the constant companion present when love emerges, deals are made, and sorrow weighs. Thus, food memories meld with emotional cues and are appended to the minor and major ceremonies that constitute the routines of life. Flavors acquire an emotional resonance and symbolic power that enables them to express the style of a culture and provide some of the prohibitions and taboos that signify social boundaries and status. There is a right and wrong way to eat and woe to those who get it wrong—you cannot be one of us.

Just as linguistic meaning is encoded in physical inscription (writing) and phonemes (speaking), food meanings are encoded in the flavors and textures with which people identify, a semi-consciously held template that says Italian, French, or low country. This template cannot be fully articulated in a set of rules; one knows the taste of home even if one can't say what home tastes like. Although the original association of flavors with identities is arbitrary, conventional, and driven by accidents of geography, once established they are no longer arbitrary but consciously perpetuated via resemblance. Cooks working within food traditions create dishes that replicate that template because their patron's map and bible generate those expectations.

Thus, the relationship between flavor and meaning is not merely an association but a synthesis. Moral taste and mouth taste become one.

When a server puts a plate of food in front of you, the dish confronts your map and bible. The dish may or may not represent your tradition, may or may not represent your map and bible, but it represents some tradition or other, and expresses someone's style, and thus poses a question about where and how it fits. The dish refers to other dishes as an imitation, interpretation, challenge, or affront. Is it an authentic extension of the tradition or a violation worthy of scorn?

What gives food traditions their staying power and capacity for repetition? Is it like a bad habit, something we've fallen into and repeat unthinkingly, or does it have some real authority? The fact that deviations from the norm are often met with derision, disgust, and hostility suggests that food traditions have genuine normative authority. They acquire such authority because they express one's cultural identity. Our self concept is in part derived from perceived membership in a culture—eating a particular style of food, as a matter of habit, for some people is a condition of membership and a badge of authenticity. But more importantly food traditions embody familiar flavors served in familiar ways, and familiarity has its own deeply felt emotional resonance especially when it involves taking something into our bodies. Food is a constant necessity and its procurement and consumption requires a robust social context, so it is deeply interwoven with our history and emotions, and is naturally associated with a sense of “at homeness”, of location, and intimacy. Food rules have normative authority because their violation is an affront to our self-concept and threatens our implicit sense of security that we expect from food. If you're Italian, don't eat cheese with fish or have coffee during dinner. If you're French, never eat salad before the main dish. Pennsylvanians know you can't get a decent cheesesteak in any other state, transplanted New Yorkers will give up pizza rather than eat that stuff from Chicago, and to a Texan any other barbecue does not even count as meat. Woe to the transgressors who violate food rules.

Thus, culinary travelers (“foodies” in the vernacular) take authenticity, strict conformity to the map and bible, to be a central aesthetic consideration. Only when eating the “real thing” does one gain access to that realm of intimacy and location.

But as I noted on this blog last month, food fights raise a paradox. The prevalence and vehement enforcement of food rules suggests that any transgression is met with disapproval. But history tells a different story, of unstable identities and porous cultural boundaries rendering debates about authenticity interminable and pointless. It was not until the end of the 19th Century that olive oil became essential to the cooking of Southern France. Pizza and pasta were originally eaten only in Southern Italy. Tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes, all staples of European cooking, had their origins in the new world. If identities are based on food preferences, those identities are ceaselessly changing. The map and bible are so tattered they seem incapable of supporting the vitriol spilled in their name. Given their shabby condition, why do food fights arise? Why worry about authenticity at all?

Identities, whether based on food or some other characteristic, are unstable because they confront a variety of oppositions that have already mounted an invasion and taken hostages. An explicitly articulated, self-conscious identity is not something one needs unless that identity is under threat, when trespassers have already taken their liberties. When identity requires continual assertion because it is persistently being challenged then it must become consciously held and forcefully asserted. At that point, the concept of authenticity becomes decisive. One needs some way of separating what is really mine from the imposters who have crossed the border. Thus, food becomes a symbol of pride and contest. The British love of beef, in part, gets its authority from its ability to mark a difference from the French, who don't consider it essential. But this would not be necessary unless French cuisine had not already gained a foothold among the British. Italians differentiate themselves from and even look down on others because of their belief that no one eats as well as they do, but only because they had been fighting encroachments from the Mediterranean and northern Europe for centuries. Food fights presuppose a contest that makes the assertion of identity necessary, defining oneself via a contrast with what one is not, as different from the other. But the other is setting the agenda, forcing the issue. Flavors cross borders easily and the attractions of food-induced pleasure, even when foreign and unfamiliar, are hard to resist, authenticity notwithstanding. The battle is joined after the war is lost.

Traditions represent a common stock of knowledge and use rituals, symbols, and ceremonies to link people to a place, a common sense of the past and a sense of belonging. But at the same time, the idea of local culture is a relational concept and the act of drawing a boundary a relational act that depends on situating oneself within a network of other localities that already have exerted influence. Modern food identities, in fact, must reverberate in two directions. They must unify a country and give it prominence on the world stage while relentlessly focusing on the local. This is why pasta is such a powerful national symbol for the Italians. It is ubiquitous in every part of the country and usually made with the same ingredients. It has become the dominant symbol of Italian food. Yet the particular shape and texture of pasta is governed by an array of local norms that determine which shapes are to be used and with what condiment, thus providing a cultural boundary to identify outsiders.

In contemporary life, this assertion of identity has taken an interesting turn. The greatest threat to all food traditions is the increasing homogenization of food. Food cultures are becoming homogeneous as global food corporations expand across the globe. The ubiquitous hamburger, especially as interpreted by McDonald's and a plethora of other fast food chains, Coca-Cola and other soft drinks, snack foods, and processed foods made identically by global corporations are common in every industrialized nation on the globe. In chain restaurants, novelty and surprise are minimized. The decor and menus must be familiar, with only minor adjustments made to accommodate local tastes, and interactions with the consumer are scripted regardless of locale. Today in major cities across the globe virtually any food can be found anywhere with no connection to a particular location, often in combinations that juxtapose many cuisines on the same plate. Even haute cuisine is threatened by homogenization with pricey restaurants from New York, to London, to Tokyo serving very similar dishes to a business class seeking familiarity. The culinary traveler can remain at home and find most of what she can imagine.

Thus, today, the authority of tradition comes from its ability to assert distinctiveness in the face of this homogenization. Food identities root us in the local and particular as opposed to the global, homogenized, bureaucratic world, and authenticity is perceived as a cure for excessive homogenization. Modern food identities presuppose a discourse of taste that implies that “natural”, rooted, artisanal products taste better than mass-produced ones. Furthermore, knowing the producer adds an imaginary value to the food which helps it to taste better. The fact that a particular person made it contributes to its quality.

But we return to the problem. What counts as genuinely authentic, embodying a real awareness of actual history and geography? Too often appeals to authenticity select only portions of the past to remember and what is remembered is highly idealized, as manufactured as the corporate food it seeks to displace. Unfortunately, any return to the past will be a narrative reinvention—an account of the past as it looks to us after the fact, satisfying a need for romance and imagination, but having little connection to “how it really was.”

Before the emergence of mass transportation, food cultures had essential properties determined by the necessities of agriculture and geography. Today food cultures are more imaginary—ways of constructing opposition and projecting strength. So they must react and be negotiated. There is no pure past available for the taking—all memory is influenced by the living present. This means that traditions must change because they are continually confronted by new threats, encroachments, copiers, and pretenders, and so they must find new ways of asserting identity.

This is where the chef as artist comes into play performing the delicate balance between innovation and tradition. Restlessness toward the status quo is essential to being an artist. They may be inspired by the past but their aim is seldom simply to emulate it. Any work of art is an experiment that strives to reach beyond what has been done. However, the artist's audience will be the ultimate arbiter of success and the culinary artist is no exception. Chefs must negotiate their way through maps and bibles—the expectations of diners. In the edible arts, awareness of tradition is essential and must be preserved.

Innovative dishes thus pose a question—what is authentic? Are the violations of tradition that give a dish its originality and excitement indicative of the proper direction for that tradition? There is tension between chef and patron. The creative chef revels in the detour. Her customers want a straighter line, a place of respite, an end that is still recognizable according to her map and bible.

How do chefs and cooks work through this conflict? We need to question the very notion of authenticity that is presupposed by the conflict. Why should “authentic” mean that a dish is prepared exactly the way an insider from the past would have cooked it, especially when it is likely that insiders in the past did a lot of experimenting in responding to their local conditions. Every Italian grandmother will tell you she has a secret recipe for some staple dish which makes it utterly unique. But that conceit can possess a modicum of truth only if Italian grandmothers were experimenting, trying new approaches with the ingredients they had available. Who has the authentic recipe? There isn't one. There are as many authentic recipes as Italian grandmothers.

Furthermore, even if we could agree that a dish was prepared in an authentic manner using authentic ingredients, why think a diner has the ability to experience it as authentic? As noted, diners come to a dish with a history of experience that shapes their perception of it. People from outside a culture—or insiders who have had extensive experience as culinary travelers themselves—are unlikely to experience a dish in the same way as an indigenous, historical diner since they have vastly different experiences—a different map and bible. A work of cuisine is a different work for the cultural insider in contrast to the culinary traveler. Whatever authenticity means, it cannot mean a pure origin that can repeat itself over and over without variation.

So who gets to assert the authority of authenticity, insider or outsider, the indigenous cook or the diasporic cook? The diaspora represents a danger. It may be utterly cut off from the history and traditions of the homeland and thus inventions may lack any continuity with an original tradition. Transgression is easier in the diaspora, cut off from the experiences that gave rise to historical pressures to assert an identity. However, the diaspora can also represent multiple directions and modes of representation. Diasporic communities must try to make a difference within their cultures of residence often amidst a good deal of hostility. Thus, the diasporic cook is located between two histories and must invent a narrative in active relationship with the native culture. Furthermore, an historical reality wedded to a place of origin is not more “natural” or “authentic” than the experience of people who have been displaced and must create a plural identity. Reality from within traditional, indigenous cultures can be so differentiated that it is very much an invention. Diasporas are too real to be dismissed as aberrations—the connection between home and diaspora must be relational with neither having the authority to speak for the other.

None of this means that there are no criteria for authenticity. Instead of insisting that dishes be prepared the way they historically have been prepared in their native context, we should instead endorse cooks who recognize the limitations of their diners, cooking interactively by emphasizing unusual flavors in ways that show the connections between her cuisine and the map and bible of her diners.

Authenticity is thus a property not of the dish by itself but of the relation with a diner whose own map and bible is a given. Acknowledging this is not inauthentic but truthful. History shows that culinary insiders have no obligation to preserve their culture “as is” since no culture has ever been preserved in that way.

Authenticity is not about origins but about the commitments people make and what those commitments reveal about their sensibility. There is a reason why tomato sauces marry nicely with pasta and why a tomato served with olive oil and basil is heavenly. Tomatoes may not be originally Italian, but Italians have done wonderful things with tomatoes. They committed themselves to tomatoes, discovered how they resonate with their local ingredient, and now there is a certain way with tomatoes that is uniquely Italian.

So should we just throw out the food rules? I think not. Food rules must be respected because they set the table for innovation—they define the standards that innovation must meet. Food rules say: “If you want to violate this tradition it better be good.” Without tradition, innovation is just novelty.

However, anyone who is just a slave to tradition and rigidly conforms without entertaining new ideas is threatening the conditions that enable the tradition to persist—its' ability to be affected. The ability to be affected is, after all, what sensibility is. Traditions become great because of their capacity to seamlessly absorb new influences. Tradition and authenticity are not opposed to innovation—they depend on it. No tradition can remain alive if it does not innovate by accepting and transforming influences from abroad.

And so the edible arts, perhaps more so than any other artistic genre, have the capacity to gather the tribes through anchoring identities. But these are identities that gain their power from the differences they assert and assimilate. Flavor maps and bibles don't contain canons or rules; they are fields of problems that come seeded with new and unforeseen directions awaiting an event of creativity to express their potential.

In this respect, they are like other maps and bibles though that is seldom acknowledged by the bible beaters.

A steady diet of ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine can be found at Edible Arts.