The Inauthenticity of ‘Authentic’ Food Seeking

business_ethics_highlights_2Some people seek authentic foods for aesthetic reasons. Others do so for ethical reasons, such as striking a blow against food conglomerates that have allegedly corrupted our food supplies and dining traditions.

Here, Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle invites the reader to ponder the inauthenticities lying at the heart of our conception of ‘authentic’ foods. Her suspicion is that most authentic food seekers would reject foods that are actually faithful reproductions of what our ancestors ate or what people in far-off lands eat on a daily basis. Whatever the aesthetic merits of the inauthentically ‘authentic’ foods we seek, eating them, she thinks, is no grounds for moral smugness. >>>

LINK: ‘Authentic’ Food Is Not What You Think It Is (by Megan McArdle for Bloomberg)

Americans 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 dishonor their ancestry by making it wrong.

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.)

[S]o 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.

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.

What do you think?

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One comment

  1. Martin Bones

    Well this is only true in the narrow context of the authors definition of what is authentic food. The baguette is no less authentic because it came from bakeries as opposed a farmer kitchen two hundred years ago.
    What makes Fettuccine Alfredo authentic are the ingredients of just butter, pasta, and Parmesan Reggiano cheese. The fact that it was created in a restaurant kitchen on the Lido is irrelevant.

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