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There is No Such Thing as "Authentic"

As a history teacher and anthropology buff, I find reading threads on authenticity extremely interesting. However, I have yet to find someone to point out the obvious. Authenticity, with rare exceptions, does not exist!
How can I come to this conclusion? People have been migrating since paleolithic times (at least 40-50 thousand years ago by boat, and probably up to 100,000 years or more by foot). When people migrate, they create cultural diffusion through trade and exchange of ideas. Obviously, this movement of people has only dramatically increased in the last few centuries.
Take "Italian" food for example. Can you imagine pizza sans tomatoes? Tomatoes were introduced from the New World, and most Europeans were afraid to use them for a long time due to fear they were poisonous. Even the ancient Romans imported spices and exotic ingredients from all over the known world, making an "authentic" ancient Roman recipe hard to find.
Indian food? It has been hugely influenced by the colonizing British.
Ok, how about West African food. Surely they have dishes that are more "authentically" African, without a big European influence. Actually, that would be hard to prove since all of Africa save for Ethiopia was colonized by Europeans in the 19th century (and then Ethiopia was invaded by the Italians who brought spaghetti in WWII). Even if you can find dishes that seem "authentic" , you foget that West Africa has had a LONG history of trade! Maili, Songhai and other Empires ruled the area, trading all over Africa and even to the Middle East!
Any thoughts?

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  1. Based on the supporting evidence that you propose, I think your point and title might be better phrased as: There is no such thing as "Native."

    1 Reply
    1. re: limster

      Agreed, Limster. As said elsewhere (ad nauseam), the argument made above only applies if the definition of authentictiy that is being espoused is place-bound. Mine isn't, and I think that goes for a lot of Chowhounds. I disagree that the OP's point is rarely made; many of us are perfectly familiar with the notion that political boundaries aren't culinary boundaries and that cuisines are living things that evolve over time with demographic and other shifts.

      Authenticity in that case, rather than being nonexistent, tends to be synonymous with tradition, but while the latter term is neutral, the former term is a convenient value judgment.

    2. Depends on under what circumstances you want to talk about "authentic". Usually on this board, it is a discussion about whether "foreign" food eaten where we are is "authentic". I suspect it never is under those circumstances, but I really don't care one way or the other.

      However, if you're saying that food develops over time pretty almost everywhere, then I agree. Trade has always brought new food ingredients that become incorporated into local cuisine. Countries have immigration which brings new dishes, new styles of cooking, etc. Populations are influenced by their near neighbours - it's no surprise that we Britons often use French terms in cooking, or that geography and climate means that British & Irish cuisines are pretty much identical.

      1. I was trying to word it, and the best I can do is: "authentic" is really just how someone remembered a dish from some place in time at one point.

        Not a great try, but it is more memory-based than say, anything written in stone. If someone tells me they want an "authentic" fried rice dish, I'm going to make them a fried rice that I have been making, that is derived from what my parents made, which is derived from one of their favorite Chinese restaurants, etc, etc, etc.

        1. As others have said, it would help if you defined what you mean by "authentic". Do you mean "the way it's always been done"? "the way it's been done for centuries"? If the paleolithic era is your starting point, sure, nothing could possibly be authentic.

          However, I think most people use the word "authentic" to mean "the way things are usually done by X people in X region". You could argue that this doesn't exist either, because there's no single correct pad thai or bouillabaisse or whatever. The problem with that is, I think a lot of people would say there is definitely a non-authentic version of those things.

          If your point is that it's silly to get hung up on getting the most authentic whatever at the expense of a good time - I definitely agree with you.

          8 Replies
          1. re: LiaM

            You bring up good points. The problem with the term "authentic" is very similar to the word "pornography". Many of us have a hard time defining it, yet we all seem to know what it is when we see it (or taste it). From a personal standpoint, I understand the feelings behind authenticity. I grew up with what I thought was "authentic" eastern European Jewish food. However, from an historical perspective, I've learned that this was largely a myth. The very essence of Jewish food in Eastern Europe was due to its proximity to German, Austrian and Russian influence. Then, once in NY, of all things, Chinese influence! (How else can you explain lo-mein at Ben's Deli?) I should amend my original post however, to include the exceptions I mentioned. There have been populations almost completely cut off from outside cultural influence for centuries. While I still would argue that "authentic" is still a vague term even for these situations, I can see an argument for an "authentic" Icelandic fermented shark recipe, if it has largely remained unchanged for centuries.
            Finally, I definitely agree that focusing too much on whether something is authentic or not, unless you are an historian or anthropologist, seems pretty silly!

            1. re: NicoleFriedman

              Nicole,

              How about just defining authentic relatively?? "Yiddish Food" is food that my bubbie would eat and say, "my, this is good yiddish food!" [maybe mid20th cen american/polish yiddish food, but...]
              Likewise, baba ghanoush is authentic if someone from the culture/timeperiod would consider it to be "proper" and not "weird".

              1. re: Chowrin

                Yes, because I have friends of Central and Eastern European Jewish origin (some Yiddishers, some Yekkes) brought up in France, and in Argentina. There are definitely points in common but also significant differences in what they see as "authentic" food of their backgrounds.

                That would tend to prove Nicole's point. I agree with her to that extent, but I do see an interest in authenticity as opposed to some rather woeful corporate versions, or versions prepared by people from afar who don't really grasp the food culture the dishes hail from. Authenticity doesn't mean stagnation. As historians we do know about change and periodisation.

                1. re: lagatta

                  Which side of the 'gefilte fish line' did their families grow up on?

                  http://www.myjewishlearning.com/histo...

              2. re: NicoleFriedman

                On the Chinese food-Jewish connection that is because immigrant European Jews in NYC in the 20th century found an immediate affinity with the Chinese: here was another "outsider" immigrant group who avoided dairy products and loved onions and celery among other food items. Well explained in Andrew Coe's "Chop Suey" book.

                1. re: scoopG

                  Have not read that; will do.

                  As mentioned downthread, I'm finally reading Save the Deli and another fascinating connection is that between Jewish- and African-American foodways. Pork notwithstanding, it's noted that a lot of urban neighborhoods were once Jewish enclaves and are now largely black—but their delis remain because, to put it (as the book does) glibly, neither group is afraid of cholesterol. More important, there's the diaspora angle...

                  1. re: tatamagouche

                    Fascinating! Coe explains that there is a tradition in Judaism of inventing loopholes to bypass the laws of kashrut - or kosher practices. "Safe treyf - unclean food but deemed OK - was created. So while pork chops were forbidden, pork chop suey was not because the meat was sliced into small pieces and "hidden under a mound of sauce-drenched vegetables."

                    1. re: scoopG

                      Too funny. I'm buying that book now.

            2. I remember my father going on a quest (more like a crusade) to duplicate his mother's pasta sauce, to be as authentic as possible, true to the ingredients and preparation. This went on FOR YEARS without any success. My grandmother was from southern Italy (my father was born on this side of the pond, but only by a few months) but she spent all of her adult life stateside, short lived by the Spanish influenza epidemic. We as a family benefited greatly from this quest as all the sauces came out great and it was always terrific eating at home (attested to by all the weight I lost after leaving home). Anyway, he was never satisfied with the results and I'm sure it added to his ( and the human condition) remorse in the style of "you can never go home". So I guess that's my round about way of agreeing with Nicole that there is no real "authentic". Everything is of the moment, as in "you can never step in the same river twice". What time and place doesn't change, faulty memory and point of view does. BTW - I remember my first trip to Europe and how fresh and alive everything tasted, smelled and seemed to be, and how subsequent visits always lost a notch or two each time. ç'est la vie