The other night, my wife and I went to a lovely restaurant for our anniversary. Italian. Soft bread and herbed oil at the start. A lovely antipasto.
As I was enjoying my meal, I got thinking about Italian food. Where it came from, how it came to come here (the USA, in case you were wondering), and what made the food that I was eating “Italian.” While the restaurant made no claims regarding what it was or was not, it got me considering the word “authentic.”
As I was enjoying my baked noodles covered in cheese, Bolognese sauce, and sausage, I wondered how much of that was “authentic.” To analyze this, I’ve decided to break it down into its components: is it food? Is it Italian? What of it was actually Italian? How “authentic” was it?
Was it food?
It felt like food, which, in this country, is pretty important. Considering that a whole lot of food that is sold and consumed in the USA could probably no longer be considered real food – instead, we consume a series of food-like chemicals that greatly resemble food. So-called “organic” food is one of the most pure sources of real food nowadays, but even then, there are so many ambient chemicals floating around, or in the soil, or in the water supplies, that it makes me wonder if even that organic foodstuff could be considered “authentic.” But I digress.
I’m pretty sure that the entirety of my food was authentic food. If not, it did a fine job mimicking the texture, taste and smell of my expectations.
Was it Italian?
What defines our expectations of cuisine? I mean, though it’s almost impossible to separate pizza from the notion of American cuisine, it’s really – at heart – an Italian dish that has been corrupted by American culinary interpretation. So are we talking about ingredients, recipe, or intention?
Regarding the ingredients – I don’t think I’d be too off-base in saying that using all-Italian ingredients (ingredients from Italy) would probably make an American-based Italian restaurant prohibitively expensive. Some ingredients might actually come from the Boot, however: olive oil, salt, cheese, pepper, some of the herbs or spices. But the tomatoes? Meat? Pasta? One thing I liked about this restaurant was that it actually did advertise in-house pasta. Which meant one thing: American. Since logic would dictate that most ingredients would have had to have come from the USA, that meant that there were still some really good ingredients in this country. (Take that, my International students who are always complaining that American food is horrible!)
So far the meal is nearly entirely American. American food, mostly American ingredients. The recipe? Now that might actually be authentically Italian. Bur how do we define “Italian”? Does it mean “recipe that comes from Italy?” Or does it mean “recipe created by someone from Italy?” Or is it both of the above? And if we take a recipe from Italy created by an Italian person, but we give it to, say… a Chinese chef that has never made Italian food before, would that make it “authentic” Italian food? I’d say no, because while the recipe might be authentic, the artistic interpretation of that recipe would be different from what the original creator intended.
I guess, when you get right down to it, my conclusion is that anything that doesn’t come directly from the actual creator isn’t truly “authentic.” If I create a recipe for something, and am particular both about ingredients and how the food comes about, then that would make the end product “authentically Rob Queen.” Anything less – like my recipe but no me making it – would be unauthentic. It’s a hard standard to meet, and it would then make it impossible to reproduce. It also then stands to reason that any food one eats in the USA is most likely not “authentic whatever cuisine” but more “American with authentic international ideas, recipes, and chefs.”
Taking that one step further, it would then mean that any food we eat in this country becomes “authentically American.” And then we wonder if “American” means “cultural appropriator.” Discuss.
Maybe one of these days I’ll do an essay on the word “International.”