The problem with ‘authentic’ food experiences

People of a certain social class love nothing more than an “authentic” food experience. It is the highest praise that they can heap on a restaurant. The ideal food is one that was perfected by honest local peasants in some picturesque locale, then served the same way for centuries, the traditions passed down from mother to daughter (less occasionally, from father to son), with stern admonitions not to dishonour their ancestry by making it wrong.

These diners are constantly in a quest for their own lost heritage, along with the traditions of other peoples they don’t know very well. We live, the lore says, in a fallen state, victims of Big Agriculture and a food industry that has rendered everything bland, fatty and sweet. By tapping the traditions of centuries past – or other, poorer places – we can regain the paradise that our grandparents unaccountably abandoned.

And who could be against wanting a more authentic, genuine food experience? I’m so glad you asked.

In fact, authenticity is an illusion, and a highly overrated one. Most of the foods we think of as “authentic” are of relatively recent vintage – since capsaicin-containing hot peppers are native to the Americas, any spicy cuisine like Szechuan or Thai is by definition a Johnny-come-lately invention. Or take artisanal breads, like that crusty, moist peasant bread that most of us eat too much of at restaurants: Nathan Myhrvold, the mad genius of the cookbook world, says that this is a new invention. Our peasant ancestors, who got a large portion of their calories from bread, did not make these richly hydrated doughs, because they’re a pain in the butt to work with. Ciabatta, another bread that America likes because it sounds very authentic, was invented in the 1980s to compete with the baguette. (Itself a product of Industrial Revolution bakeries, not the proud local peasant.)

The fact is that you wouldn’t want to eat like a European peasant of yesteryear, or a Chinese peasant, either. Sure, peasants ate well when the garden was producing and the harvest was ripe. A lot of the year, they ate pretty meagre, dull fare. Many of the spices we now take as ordinary – salt and pepper, for example – were pretty pricey. So were meat and cheese, which, like everything else, tended to get pretty scarce in winter. When you read about what people were actually eating most of the year, you realize that diets were dull, repetitive, and heavy on grains and legumes, lightly complimented by salted and dried things (home canning, like many of the other things we think of as traditional, was another Industrial Revolution contribution, and before modern farming practices, cows tended to be “dried off” in the winter to save the expense of the extra feed a milking cow needed). And this stayed true throughout the 19th century for large swaths of the population in both America and abroad.

The farther north you went, the more this was true – it’s probably no accident that Ireland and Scandinavia are not, let us say, renowned for their fantastic contributions to world cuisine. When your growing season is a short cloudy period between miserable winters, you don’t have the raw materials to construct amazing dining experiences. (Sure, every country has at least one or two really good fairly traditional foods. But the shorter the time fresh ingredients are available, the fewer culinary marvels you’ll be able to produce.)

Too, we must remember that not everyone was a good cook. Cooking was a job, not an absorbing hobby, and as with any other job, many people did it badly. Every farm wife could produce enough calories to feed her family (at least, if the raw materials were available). Not all of them could produce anything you’d want to eat. Modern food-processing technology has relieved us of that most “authentic” culinary experience: boring ingredients processed by an indifferent cook into something that you’d only voluntarily consume if you were pretty hungry. Even the memory of these cooks has fallen away, though you’ll encounter a lot of them if you read old novels.

These facts help explain the great paradox at the heart of the authenticity obsession: If those authentic old foods were so great, how come our ancestors were so eager to switch to processed foods? The culprit most often identified is the power-mad food scientists of yesteryear, who convinced the housewives of previous generations to give up the good stuff in favour of tasteless packaged foods. The people who write these theories have apparently not spent much time observing today’s food scientists in their tireless quest to get people to stop eating the junk they like to eat now. If they had, they might have asked why yesterday’s food scientists had so much more power to alter dietary habits. And after they asked that question, they might have come to the conclusion that our ancestors switched because they liked the new foods better than whatever they were eating before.

That’s because so much of what we eat now as “authentic” is mostly some combination of peasant special-occasion dishes and the rich-people food of yesteryear, fused with modern technology and a global food-supply chain to become something quite different from what our ancestors ate, or the ancestors of people half a world away ate. And that’s OK. The baguette is delicious, and so is that pricey “peasant” loaf. But they are no better for having been invented decades ago than something that was invented last week, nor would they be better still if Caesar’s legions had been carrying them across Europe.

Fine, you may say, but there’s still something to what diners are seeking: foods untainted by heavy processing, foods made with laborious hand-labour rather than a machine, full of vegetables and meat grown for flavour rather than bulk or shelf stability. And sure, that’s true. But even this standard is pretty slippery. A wheel of brie or a block of tofu is pretty heavily processed, yet we easily view those as authentic while rejecting a slice of Swiss cheese from the grocer’s refrigerator case as part of Big, Bad Food. There is some difference in the degree of processing, to be sure, but that’s all it is: a difference in degree, not kind.

What diners are really seeking is variety; hand-processed food will not be as consistent as the industrially processed versions, and those small variations reward us with a new experience with each bite. There’s something to be said for that. But it’s not quite right to say that these dishes have “more flavour” than standard American fare (a Dorito, after all, has a great deal of flavour, whether or not you care for it). What they have is different flavours.

I myself prefer hand-processed foods. But I try to keep in mind that that’s a culturally conditioned taste, not a moral imperative. I ate at an Olive Garden once and did not like it. I have never eaten Taco Bell and have no plans to start. But these are today’s everyday peasant foods – cheap, available year-round, readily satisfying. And for all I know, in 200 years, some fancy restaurant will be packing in the crowds in search of an “authentic” naked chicken chalupa, just like Great-Grandma used to eat.

H/T goodfood

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