When it comes to authentic recipes, the answer I always return to is that it’s just not that useful a concept.
There is no ‘most authentic recipe for beef patties’ for example, because like so many foods of diasporic communities, Jamaican patties reflect a culinary history and evolution spanning multiple influences, peoples and places coming together.
The beef patty was born of colonialism and migration. The English introduced the turnover to the Caribbean, their East Indian indentured servants in Jamaica added cumin and curries, and African slaves contributed the cayenne pepper. The firecracker taste of the Scotch bonnet, a hot pepper indigenous to Jamaica, sealed the flavor. The Washington Post For N.Y. Caribbean Beef Patty Co., Business Is Cooking
The problem with the term ‘authentic’ is that it imagines some idyllic version of a dish frozen in time.
In a way it’s an exercise in collective nostalgia. We pin foods to their origins to have something to hold on to because the truth is that memory does travel with tastes and tastes can be so specific to certain times and places. It makes sense that we would want to hold on to those tastes that speak to our pasts and our own origins as people and cultures. But culture isn’t static.
Writing about tacos and authenticity. Carbonara comes to mind from @lindapelaccio and @MoyerNocchi discussion on The Taste of the Past podcast episode 317. Exceedingly insightful. #foodhistory #foodblog https://t.co/15BOLHgCv0 pic.twitter.com/GWVvRCNd8B
— Cristina Rosu (@cristinarosua) November 5, 2020
Food culture in particular is a dynamic expression of prevailing norms – tastes, dietary preferences, availability of ingredients and so on.
Every dish is an expression of the specific context from which is emerges. In this way every dish has its own authenticity that refers back not necessarily just to the original form, but also to its own evolution – the specific times, places, and tastes that have shaped it.
Like most dishes borne of some mercurial mix of need, colonial history, and immigrant ingenuity, Ethiopian/Eritrean lasagna differs in preparation depending on who you ask. – tastecooking.com Ethiopia and Eritrea’s Long History With Lasagna
So not only is the concept of authenticity not very useful, but it actually can be harmful.
It can commodify culture, turn food into an ego-driven culinary arms race and peg people (especially people of color) into fulfilling artificial notions of culture as explained by food writer Jaya Saxena writing for Eater.
In a 2019 report on Eater NY, Sara Kay found that when it came to restaurants serving European cuisine, Yelp reviewers associated authenticity with white tablecloths, elegance, and an overall positive dining experience. However, authenticity at non-European restaurants more often meant cheap food, dirty decor, and harried service. White people were allowed to be both authentic and upscale, while cuisine from people of color had to stay cheap and lowbrow to qualify…. The minute Indian food is served in a fine dining setting, it’s maybe not as authentic anymore, and I just don’t understand why that artificial distinction has been drawn.” Jaya Saxena What did ‘authenticity’ in food mean in 2019?
Besides being plain unhelpful, authenticity also doesn’t account for the tremendous variations that exist between different households within a culture. Each family has their own way of making things. It was described perfectly by Rahawa Haile writing for tastecooking.com as quoted in my post on Ethiopian Lasagna.
But even within Ethiopian and Eritrean diasporic communities, there’s no consensus on how a standard lasagna is prepared….“I wouldn’t call it a regional difference,” says Rahawa Haile, who recently wrote on the topic for Saveur. “More like a mother’s fingerprint.”
If not authentic, then what?
So if we’re not looking for ‘the most authentic recipe’ then what are we looking for? For each of us taste is a very personal thing. It’s linked to memory, family, community and experience.
The best we can hope for is recipes that taste the way we remember or have in mind. And this might be different for different folks.
Further reading on authenticity and food
Why ‘authentic’ food is bullshit Kevin Alexander Thrillist
What did ‘authenticity’ in food mean in 2019? Jaya Saxena Eater
Chinese food and the joy of inauthentic cooking Hua Hsu New Yorker
Authenticity in food: What defines it and does it matter? Surekha Ragavan Timeout.com
Is authenticity ruining good food? Emily Monaco ecosalon.com
Who owns Southern food? John T. Edge and Tunde Wey Oxford American
Let’s call it assimilation food Soleil Ho Taste Cooking
“Stop Cooking Your Watered Down Versions of Asian Food” Erica Lovelace Medium
When Professional Cooks Often Feel Pressure to Cook ‘Their’ Food Patty Diez Eater