The authenticity police? Who, what, me?

Would this be *authentic*? It was homemade on a farm in TuscanyI’ve just finished reading Turning the Tables | Restaurants from the Inside Out, by Steven Shaw, founder of egullet. I may fancy myself a foodie but this is where the big boys and girls go to play, and I’m usually too intimidated by their knowledge, cooking and dining experience to do much more than lurk. I mean [insert reverent whisper] Anthony Bourdain is known to post there.

Anyway. Lazing on my couch, finishing up the book, I sat straight up when I realized Shaw totally called me out. He’s talking about people who advocate for authenticity in food. I would’ve counted myself in that camp.

They advocate, to use the popular buzzword, “authenticity.” Despite allowances made for some evolution, authenticity as commonly understood refers to the preservation of “original” recipes, presented with some historical and cultural context. In the language of Merriam-Webster’s first definition, authentic means “conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features.”While I’m all for preserving traditional recipes, the authenticity brigade has gone too far. Preserving tradition and allowing for progress are not mutually exclusive, and both are important to progress in the arts. Yet, in the food world, the authenticity police are everywhere these days. Have you ever dined in an Italian restaurant with friends who have just returned from Italy? “Oh, in Italy they never serve pasta as a main course,” they’ll inevitably say. Or, “Cappuccino after dinner? That would be unthinkable in Italy.” (Amanda Hesser built a book on that premise.) Or, “You call this bolognese?” (There is nothing like a week in Europe or Asia to activate the authenticity chromosome.)

Ouch. I hope that I’m not so gauche at this point in my life to say something so rude to a dinner companion. But I’m sure I’ve thought it and maybe in an oh-so-helpful way, shared it with maybe just the closest of friends and family members. And with that annoying waiter at the Italian restaurant we used to go to in Lexington who persisted in earnestly telling me that olive oil poured into a saucer with balsamic and parmesan and herbs was “Italian butter.”

Shaw really made me stop and think. And he continues:

This attitude stands in stark contrast to the basic facts of human history: Italian cuisine did not spring into existence as a fully formed entity. There was no tomato sauce and there were no sun-dried tomatoes until centuries after the tomato first reached Europe from the New World, thanks to Christopher Columbus. When that beloved red fruit first appeared in Italy, did the local food cognoscenti protest, “We don’t use these things in authentic Italian cuisine”? If you dug really deep, you’d probably find that at some point in prehistory the very notion of cooking beasts over a fire instead of eating their bloody haunches raw was scorned for its inauthenticity, too.Since everything in the world of food likely had some precursory experience, wouldn’t it be smarter for us to make allowances for what “authentic” really means? If you ask me, such tolerance is necessary when you dine out in America.

I heed your words Steven Shaw. And family and friends, I promise no more subtle eye rolling or smirks the next time the Macaroni Grill waitress tries to sell me a Bellini made with rum … Well, I might have to at least give Brian a sideways knowing glance. I mean after all, we all know an *authentic* Bellini is white peach nectar mixed with Prosecco. ; )


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