by Dwight Furrow
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?