08 Mar 17 ‘Authentic food is not what you think it is’
Americans of a certain social class love nothing more than an “authentic” food experience. It is the highest praise that they can heap on a restaurant.
The ideal food is one that was perfected by honest local peasants in some picturesque locale, then served the same way for centuries, the traditions passed down from mother to daughter (less occasionally, from father to son), with stern admonitions not to dishonour their ancestry by making it wrong.
These American diners are constantly in a quest for their own lost heritage, along with the traditions of other peoples they don’t know very well.
We live, the lore says, in a fallen state, victims of Big Agriculture and a food industry that has rendered everything bland, fatty and sweet. By tapping the traditions of centuries past – or other, poorer places – we can regain the paradise that our grandparents unaccountably abandoned.
And who could be against wanting a more authentic, genuine food experience? I’m so glad you asked.
The fallacy of authenticity
In fact, authenticity is an illusion, and a highly overrated one. Most of the foods we think of as “authentic” are of relatively recent vintage – since capsaicin-containing hot peppers are native to the Americas, any spicy cuisine like Szechuan or Thai is by definition a Johnny-come-lately invention.
Or take artisanal breads, like that crusty, moist peasant bread that most of us eat too much of at restaurants: Nathan Myhrvold, the mad genius of the cookbook world, says that this is a new invention.
Our peasant ancestors, who got a large portion of their calories from bread, did not make these richly hydrated doughs, because they’re a pain in the butt to work with.
Ciabatta, another bread that America likes because it sounds very authentic, was invented in the 1980s to compete with the baguette. (Itself a product of Industrial Revolution bakeries, not the proud local peasant.)
The fact is that you wouldn’t want to eat like a European peasant of yesteryear, or a Chinese peasant, either. Sure, peasants ate well when the garden was producing and the harvest was ripe. A lot of the year, they ate pretty meagre, dull fare.
Many of the spices we now take as ordinary – salt and pepper, for example – were pretty pricey. So were meat and cheese, which, like everything else, tended to get pretty scarce in winter.
Scarce, dull, boring, badly cooked food
When you read about what people were actually eating most of the year, you realise that diets were dull, repetitive, and heavy on grains and legumes, lightly complemented by salted and dried things (home canning, like many of the other things we think of as traditional, was another Industrial Revolution contribution, and before modern farming practices, cows tended to be “dried off” in the winter to save the expense of the extra feed a milking cow needed).
And this stayed true throughout the 19th century for large swaths of the population in both America and abroad.
The farther north you went, the more this was true – it’s probably no accident that Ireland and Scandinavia are not, let us say, renowned for their fantastic contributions to world cuisine.
When your growing season is a short cloudy period between miserable winters, you don’t have the raw materials to construct amazing dining experiences. (Sure, every country has at least one or two really good fairly traditional foods. But the shorter the time fresh ingredients are available, the fewer culinary marvels you’ll be able to produce.)
Too, we must remember that not everyone was a good cook. Cooking was a job, not an absorbing hobby, and as with any other job, many people did it badly.
Every farm wife could produce enough calories to feed her family (at least, if the raw materials were available). Not all of them could produce anything you’d want to eat.
The modern paradox
Modern food-processing technology has relieved us of that most “authentic” culinary experience: boring ingredients processed by an indifferent cook into something that you’d only voluntarily consume if you were pretty hungry. Even the memory of these cooks has fallen away, though you’ll encounter a lot of them if you read old novels.
These facts help explain the great paradox at the heart of the authenticity obsession: If those authentic old foods were so great, how come our ancestors were so eager to switch to processed foods?
The culprit most often identified is the power-mad food scientists of yesteryear, who convinced the housewives of previous generations to give up the good stuff in favour of tasteless packaged foods.
The people who write these theories have apparently not spent much time observing today’s food scientists in their tireless quest to get people to stop eating the junk they like to eat now.
If they had, they might have asked why yesterday’s food scientists had so much more power to alter dietary habits. And after they asked that question, they might have come to the conclusion that our ancestors switched because they liked the new foods better than whatever they were eating before…..