I’m from the Southern Tier of New York and I grew up eating spiedies, which are a regional specialty descended from the Italian spiedini. Cubes of meat are heavily marinated in a garlic-herb vinaigrette and then skewered and grilled before being served without condiments on white bread or a roll. Chicken is the most popular choice, but of course lamb is the best. For new initiates, a spiedie may look like it’s missing something: not many dishes nowadays have the courage to present meat and bread without further adornment. But when you bite into a spiedie, any scepticism is swept away by the impossible juiciness of the herbaceous and zesty meat, singing in perfect harmony with the smoky char imparted by the grill. The aggressive marination is a powerful ward against dryness. It’s important that a spiedie is served without condiments in much the same way that it’s important that Texas-style barbecue brisket is not coated in sauce. It is already perfectly balanced: any addition could only detract. White bread or a roll is the perfect vehicle precisely because it’s so plain.
When I think of foods from back home, nothing gives me a more deeply nostalgic yearning than spiedies. A spiedie is all the summers of my childhood distilled down to a sandwich. I live in Montana now, and I had the thought recently that I haven’t had a proper spiedie in a long time and maybe I should look into remedying that. I started searching online for recipes, and I found something that really disturbed me: one of the top hits was for a recipe that included garlic sauce. As I continued to browse, I found another top hit suggesting serving spiedies on rice. Having spent more than half my life in the Southern Tier, I have never once seen a spiedie slathered in sauce or anywhere near rice. When I read these recipes, I felt indignant, maybe even a little offended. That’s just not what a spiedie is. My nostalgic yearning demands the real thing, and the real thing is served on white bread without sauce.
I present this as a paradigm case of valuing culinary authenticity. I begin with this example because recent discourse about authenticity has focused entirely on food that is considered “ethnic”, and as a result the concept has become something of a quagmire. There have been a rash of recent opinion pieces drawing a connection between preoccupation with authenticity and the marginalisation of minorities (see, for example, Sara Kay’s recent opinion piece in Eater NY entitled “Yelp Reviewers’ Authenticity Fetish is White Supremacy in Action”). These authors have a point: people on social media are often very obnoxious about authenticity, and it’s not at all a stretch to think that attitudes about authenticity play a role in perpetuating racist stereotypes and worsening the lives of chefs and restaurateurs who serve food that is coded as ethnic. Diners often associate authenticity in such food with shabbiness and cheapness, which contributes to ghettoization and narrows the range of workable business plans for restaurateurs from minority groups.
The presumptive prescription for the sorts of problems Kay and others point to is to abandon concern for culinary authenticity altogether. Many commentators even express doubt that there is such a thing as culinary authenticity in the first place. They argue that there is rarely (if ever) a single correct way to prepare a given dish. Every chef, hawker, and grandmother have their own special version, and so there’s no one authentic preparation. There is a flaw in this reasoning, however: there may be more than one authentic variation, but it doesn’t follow that there are no limits. Surely there are some ways of preparing a given dish that would be readily agreed by all concerned to be inauthentic. It would be clearly inauthentic, for example, to add onions and garlic to a Vedic dish or make a Reuben with coleslaw in place of sauerkraut or sprinkle sumac on mapo tofu. These changes may in some cases be delicious, but there’s no question that they are inauthentic.
So, what is culinary authenticity? In the most basic sense, authenticity is a matter of category membership. When we ask whether something is authentic, we are asking whether it truly belongs to some category that it is purported to belong to. The boundaries of many categories are fuzzy, and in such cases, authenticity comes in degrees. Is an eighteenth-century violin that has been rebuilt with a new fingerboard an authentic eighteenth-century violin? We might say that it’s less authentic than an eighteenth-century violin that has never been rebuilt but more authentic than a twentieth-century replica. In other cases, authenticity is all or nothing. A purported bottle of French Champagne is authentic if it meets the well-defined criteria for counting as French Champagne and otherwise it’s not.
In the case of food, people talk about authentic restaurants, dishes, and ingredients. The authenticity of ingredients is a relatively straightforward matter of correct labelling. Are these authentic Idaho potatoes? Well, are they potatoes that were grown in Idaho? Things get much trickier for restaurants and dishes. Restaurant authenticity is complicated. Often, people look to restaurants for an authentic cultural experience over and above the food, which raises issues of its own. For the purposes of this piece, I am only concerned with culinary restaurant authenticity: a restaurant is authentic in this sense to the extent that it serves authentic food.
So, what about dish authenticity? What does it take for a bowl of soup count as authentic New England clam chowder? There are lots and lots of different ways that clam chowder is prepared in New England, so there’s no simple answer. This is the root of the commonplace objection introduced above, according to which there’s no such thing as an authentic version of a given dish because there’s no single correct way to prepare it. But, again, surely there are some bowls of soup out there that do not fit the bill. A soup with clams, chorizo, smoked paprika, saffron, and no dairy, for instance, is not authentic New England clam chowder.
Unfortunately, there is not an authoritative list of rules written down anywhere. The key, I propose, is to rely on the expertise of people who are familiar with the dish and its variations in the original context. Someone who has lived in New England and explored the range of ways clam chowder is prepared in the region is going to be able to tell you whether or not a given bowl of soup fits into the category. They will also be able to tell you which features are important for determining authenticity and which are not. I recently showed a friend from Taiwan a recipe for braised pork rice in order to determine whether it’s authentic enough to give me a good idea of what the dish is like in Taiwan. He said that the inclusion of mushrooms and some of the spices is not typical but that the exact spice blend doesn’t matter very much. What matters more is using fried shallots as part of the flavour base, using pork with the skin still on, and cutting the pork a certain way. This is extremely useful information if one’s goal is to make an authentic version of the dish; some prominent online recipes appearing to be from reliable sources do not mention fried shallots but make a big deal out of including mushrooms. Without the help of someone directly familiar with the original context, it’s very had to know which parts of a recipe are negotiable and which aren’t.
This way of thinking about authenticity escapes the ubiquitous “there’s no one way it’s supposed to be” objection because it is flexible enough to accommodate however much variation actually exists within a category. If there are lots of different ways to prepare a dish then there are lots of versions that a local expert would proclaim authentic. I might prefer my dad’s spiedies to the ones my best friend’s dad made, but if you served me the other dad’s spiedies I would recognise that they are in fact spiedies. Serve me grilled meat on pita bread with garlic sauce, though, and I’d be able to tell you that it’s not a spiedie. My account allows that authenticity has boundaries without implying that there’s some one correct way to prepare a given dish.
What about cases where a cuisine evolves in various ways? Diasporic populations frequently change and adapt traditional dishes because of ingredient availability or to suit the tastes of a new market. Take, for example, the Chinese-American classic, General Tso’s Chicken. This dish features Chinese ingredients and is descended from a Hunanese dish, but is aggressively sweetened in a manner that makes it accessible for a typical American unfamiliar with Chinese flavours. Is Americanised General Tso’s Chicken necessarily inauthentic? It’s certainly not an authentic dish from Hunan or any other region of China, but Chinese-American cuisine has become a tradition of its own and a proper plate of General Tso’s can certainly be authentic Chinese-American food.
I agree with critics that authenticity talk is repulsive when it’s delivered with a tone of condescension: “Oh, look at the cheap plastic table cloth and the tacky waitress outfits! So authentic!” I think most of us have had the experience of feeling bile rise in our throats upon overhearing a particularly self-satisfied episode of authenticity-bragging: “Oh, you just had to be there. Cindy’s mother has been to Thailand and she ordered for us. It was so authentic down to the last detail. Sweet and sour pineapple chicken like you wouldn’t believe! Oh, this place doesn’t have a webpage, just drive to the bad part of town and look for the handwritten sign and the menus with no English.”
Philosopher Lisa Heldke has argued that talk like this is a way of leeching social status from the perceived exotic allure of food cooked by non-white people. For a second-generation immigrant who grew up being cruelly picked on for the smell of their parents’ food, such fetishism is apt to be infuriating. Imagine (if you need to) seeing the people who picked on you as a kid now fifteen years later decked out in hipster regalia, Instagramming the same food with the proud declaration: “#authentic #ethnicfood #foodie #yolo”.
The problem here isn’t with the concept of authenticity, it’s with the way it’s being valued. There are so many other ways of valuing authenticity that are both benign and worthwhile. Indeed, many of the deepest, most rewarding culinary experiences of my life have come at the end of an arduous process of authenticity-hunting. For one thing, there are contingent facts about American culture that keep the best food out of the mainstream. Typical American restaurants show a marked preference for boring, expensive, lean, easy-to-cook cuts like tenderloin and chicken breast over the more flavourful and interesting offal that is prized in many world cuisines. The same goes for spices, chilies, fermented products, and so on. In many parts of the country, restaurants that cater to immigrant communities are the only places aside from expensive fine dining establishments where you can get a plate of oxtail. It is to be expected that people who are interested in food will look to immigrant communities for authentic renditions of world cuisines that are simply superior to mainstream American food culture in important respects. Part of the reason that authenticity matters in this case is that deviations tend to go in the direction of appeasing boring American tastes and so to this extent are undesirable.
This is a contingent reason to value authenticity, but there are more fundamental reasons. The qualities we look for in food often depend on categorisation. There’s a whole world of custards out there, for example, and there are special qualities we prize in each. Panna cotta, Bavarian cream, and crème brûlée are different in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and the special pleasures of each depend on proper categorisation. Background familiarity with the category may be necessary for refined enjoyment; if one were served the most perfect panna cotta in the world for one’s very first panna cotta, one would have no idea how special it is, since one would have no basis for comparison or understanding of what a panna cotta is supposed to be like. Someone who had eaten a thousand versions of the dish might moan with delight at its cream-forward flavour and perfect amount of jiggle while a naïf might experience it as an unremarkable custard.
The other side of the coin is that the gustatory value of a dish can depend on the ways in which it deviates from authentic preparations. This is one of the primary modes of modernist cooking; taking elements of a traditional dish and somehow altering them so that the diner is surprised by the inauthentic variation. Consider, for example, the “Everything Bagel” dish formerly served at Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant wd ~50. By all appearances, it is a mini bagel covered with the traditional seasoning mix and filled with threads of smoked salmon. It has enough overlap with the breakfast classic to put the diner in mind of the dish, but with the very surprising deviation (unannounced on the menu) that what appears to be a bagel is in fact cream cheese ice cream. The whole point of Dufresne’s dish is the tension between familiarity and surprise. It looks like an everything bagel with cream cheese and salmon and it has the right flavours, but the texture and temperature are wild departures from the original. The special aesthetic qualities of the dish depend on the diner’s category-relative expectations, which in this case are purposefully defied. Categories matter to aesthetic engagement with food, and so authenticity matters, because authenticity is category membership.
Authenticity is broadly relevant to culinary aesthetics, but it is often most important to us at a personal, emotional level. We often care most of all about the authenticity of the food we grew up with. As long as such food is authentic, we rarely have occasion to think about it in these terms. I’ve never once thought about authenticity while eating spiedies in the Southern Tier. When the boundaries of authenticity are broken, however, we know it. The mention of garlic sauce made questions of spiedie authenticity salient for me. So why do we care? There are lots of reasons: personal nostalgia, cultural pride, respect for tradition, loyalty. When we strive to cook our grandmother’s recipes just the way she cooked them, we’re valuing authenticity. When we make the same traditional Christmas breads every year, we’re valuing authenticity.
Authentic restaurants in immigrant communities are of course not only for outsiders looking for a culinary adventure. These restaurants can play a crucial role in building a sense of home and belonging for members of the community. On its own, there is surely nothing wrong with outsiders patronising such restaurants in search of authentic foods from another culture. It is utterly reasonable that someone interested in food would want to try authentic preparations of dishes from around the world. Problems only start to arise when people approach these foods with condescension or fetishistic exoticism. By all means, spend money in immigrant-owned restaurants and open up your culinary horizons, just don’t treat these spaces like zoos. Work to decouple immigrant food from its coding as cheap and shabby. If you review or comment on a restaurant’s social media page, be mindful of these concerns. And most importantly of all: be willing to pay what the food is worth.