Monday, June 27, 2011

Keeping it Real: Do you care if it's "authentic"?

Google search: authentic cuisine

Insert "...'s" in front of each web site's Google link:
  • Authentic Recipes, Food, Drinks and Travel
  • Natural Authentic Indian Cuisine
  • Authentic Mexican Food
  • Authentic Russian Recipes, Cuisine and Cooking
  • Authentic Thai Cuisine
  • Authentic Italian Cuisine
  • Authentic Greek Cuisine
...and on and on, for about 50,000 pages (just an estimate) of restaurants, recipes and articles.

What is "authentic cuisine" once you have left the country of origin? Hell, once you have left the region in the country of origin, the neighborhood in the region of the country of origin, or the grandmother's house in the neighborhood of the region of the country of origin you're totally out of the context of "authentic". Not to mention points in history. Or "terrior". It's not just the ingredients but where they were grown that counts towards "authentic".

"Escoffier didn't add it." Alex Guarnaschelli (here) doesn't render an opinion, but in this context, her sauce speaks for itself.

Michael Bauer (here) believes the "not authentic" card is played is when the dish when, "...the one we deem as “authentic” is the one that is most familiar or appeals to us."

Recently I read a blog entry about Vichyssoise which included the statement that it was an American invention. I hadn't thought about Vichyssoise as not being a French dish (and I'm definitely not a food history scholar). It's named after a city, but then again so is a Niçoise salad and about a million other dishes. Zipping immediately to  Wikipedia, (...where I am reminded of the day I told my much younger-than-now nephew that information found on the internet was not necessarily factual and he looked at me like I was a complete idiot) and looked it up. According to Wikipedia (and a couple of other sources), Louis Diat, in 1917, presented Vichyssoise on the menu at the Ritz Carlton in New York. He is quoted as saying, "In the summer of 1917, when I had been at the Ritz seven years, I reflected upon the potato and leek soup of my childhood which my mother and grandmother used to make. I recalled how during the summer my older brother and I used to cool it off by pouring in cold milk and how delicious it was. I resolved to make something of the sort for the patrons of the Ritz." He called it, "Crème Vichyssoise Glacée".

It also notes that Jules Gouffe published a similar soup (although served hot) in a cookbook in 1869. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1806) personally presented a potato to Louis XVI as an example (in a contest, yet) of "vegetables that can replace those currently used" based on his time as a prisoner of war in Dresden. Louis made him wait 14 years before he was granted permission to grow potatoes (longer than Parmentier was a prisoner of war). Parmentier worked hard to prove to the powers that be that potatoes were a great way to feed large numbers of people (as well as a source of nourishment to cure dysenteric patients) when many in France believed that the potato caused leprosy or was suitable only as hog food. He also started soup kitchens to feed the poor. Interesting guy - he has a Facebook page (natch) here that links to his Wikipedia page.

Did hot potato leek soup become authentic when the recipe was published? If you don't find and follow Jules Gouffe's recipe to the letter, are you an unworthy sham?

I have no problem with fusion cuisine (although the phrase makes me shudder a little), deconstructed classics, ethnically-eclectic menus, high-tech preparations and I don't care if you include the word "authentic" in the name or description of your restaurant. It's so ubiquitous as to be pretty meaningless anyway unless you have the balls to back it up with documentation down to the nonna, γιαγιά, abuela or grand-mère's name who made it - and even then, what if nonna was a crappy cook? If I am looking for the origins or a recipe, I won't take yours at face value, I'll do some research and if I think my modifications will taste better, I'll make them.

Even if Escoffier came back from the dead to personally tattoo "Authentic" on your ass, your food has to be honest and good. That is all that matters.

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