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Authenticity and Food Rules August 30, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.
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Authentic stampCross-posted at Edible Arts 

Cooking is an art mired in tradition. Each nation has its food rules encrusted with the patina of age and each region within each nation has its way of doing things that seem natural and “right”, and violations are met with moral indignation and contempt.

In Italy, grated cheese is never added to seafood, oil and vinegar is the only proper salad dressing,  and coffee is never consumed during a meal. In France, salad is always eaten after the main dish, never before, ketchup is not a condiment for pommes frites.  Even in the “anything goes” United States, beans are part of a chili recipe only in certain regions of the country; and do not eat Carolina Barbeque in Texas.

But of what value is authenticity? Does it matter if these rules are followed or broken?

Italian chef Sara Jenkins points out that such “food rules” conceal more than they reveal.

Italian food and flavors changed dramatically after 1492 with the influx of the New World fruits and vegetables — tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes — that were gradually integrated over four centuries of gardening and cooking and are at the core of today’s version of Italian food. If we wanted to be really authentic with Italian food, shouldn’t we do away with all the invasive species? Doesn’t that make tomato sauce and polenta inauthentic?

“Food rules” ignore the fact that all food traditions have been influenced by outsiders, all are a hybrid hash of influences thrown together by the movement of populations. Whatever “authenticity” means it cannot mean pure or unadulterated.

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 violating the very identity of the tradition—its’ ability to be affected. That is, after all, what sensibility is. What makes traditions great—and this is certainly true of Italian food traditions—is 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. Jenkins wonders about whether innovations can be authentic:

I have found the combination of soy sauce and extra virgin olive oil to be delicious. Is that a bad thing? It’s certainly inauthentic right now, but will it be considered a standard element in Italian cuisine 50 years from now?

If there is something about Italian cuisine that is enhanced by soy sauce, then soy sauce will become authentically Italian. If I should hazard a guess it will gain entry as an addition to fig puree or the secret ingredient in a meat ragu. Or perhaps if Chef Jenkins is bold she will offer it as a variation on Florentine Steak.

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Comments»

1. Paul J. Moloney - August 31, 2012

If only Pope Benedict would apply this thinking to Catholic tradition and practice!

2. Nina Rosenstand - September 5, 2012

When I was in Europe in July, the media were buzzing with the concept of “umami.” I had never heard of it before, so I looked it up, and not only has it been around for a long time, it is even used commercially in our ever-enterprizing food industry. But the concept is fascinating: a 5th “taste” in addition to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, a glutamate which enhances tastes, particularly in combination with other tastes. So it appears there may be an objective cause of some combinations of familiar tastes being out of this world! Oysters and champagne; vanilla ice cream and chocolate; pizza and beer, tomato, vinaigrette and olive oil…I have no idea if they contain umami/make sweet umami together, but it wouldn’t be hard to convince me! :)

3. Dwight Furrow - September 11, 2012

Nina,

Yes the umami phenomenon is really interesting and I think most food scientists are coming around to the idea that it is a fifth basic taste. Oysters are loaded with it, so are tomatoes and parmesan cheese, so pizza is covered. But ice cream, chocolate, and beer don’t contain it as far as I know–we like them for other reasons. Soy sauce and mushrooms also have a lot.


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