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"Authentic": what does that mean, anyway?


Chris Amirault
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I have seen discussions about "authenticity" on several threads (carbonara, Mexican restaurants, larb, etc.) but when it came up on the Next Big Food Trend topic, I thought it deserved a topic of its own. (Forgive me if this has been done and my searching didn't reveal it.)

What the heck does "authentic" mean, anyway?

In what contexts? "Authentic" Mexican or Chinese only has meaning, for example, if you treat those vast cuisines as monoliths -- which isn't a very authentic way to treat them.

Who wants "authenticity"? What does that desire mean?

Anyone want to start us off with a pleasantly assertive definition?

Chris Amirault

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What the heck does "authentic" mean, anyway?

In what contexts? "Authentic" Mexican or Chinese only has meaning, for example, if you treat those vast cuisines as monoliths -- which isn't a very authentic way to treat them.

Who wants "authenticity"? What does that desire mean?

Anyone want to start us off with a pleasantly assertive definition?

a quick down-and-dirty definition might include the synonyms bona fide, genuine, real, true, undoubted, unquestionable ....

used in the context in which I did in the food trends thread? Authentic Italian cuisine as opposed to American-Italian cuisine ... that was all I meant, chrisamirault ... :hmmm:

nothing either fancy nor convoluted ... :wink:

Mario and Lidia versus Chef Boyardee ... :laugh:

Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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"authentic" is whatever you want it to mean. I'm serious. authenticity means different things to different people, from a philosophical term (Heidegger) to genuine chili (some with beans, some without) to Italian-American classics (Chef Boy-ar-dee).

how's that for assertive?

Soba

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Not quite so fake?

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

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Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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I'll add a dictionary definition and usage note from http://www.m-w.com/:

One entry found for authentic.

Main Entry: au·then·tic

Pronunciation: &-'then-tik, o-

Function: adjective

Etymology: Middle English autentik, from Middle French autentique, from Late Latin authenticus, from Greek authentikos, from authentEs perpetrator, master, from aut- + -hentEs (akin to Greek anyein to accomplish, Sanskrit sanoti he gains)

1 obsolete : AUTHORITATIVE

2 a : worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact <paints an authentic picture of our society> b : conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features <an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse> c : made or done the same way as an original <authentic Mexican fare>

3 : not false or imitation : REAL, ACTUAL <based on authentic documents> <an authentic cockney accent>

4 a of a church mode : ranging upward from the keynote -- compare PLAGAL 1 b of a cadence : progressing from the dominant chord to the tonic -- compare PLAGAL 2

5 : true to one's own personality, spirit, or character

- au·then·ti·cal·ly /-ti-k(&-)lE/ adverb

- au·then·tic·i·ty /"o-"then-'ti-s&-tE, -th&n-/ noun

synonyms AUTHENTIC, GENUINE, BONA FIDE mean being actually and exactly what is claimed. AUTHENTIC implies being fully trustworthy as according with fact <an authentic account of the perilous journey>; it can also stress painstaking or faithful imitation of an original <an authentic reproduction> <authentic Vietnamese cuisine>. GENUINE implies actual character not counterfeited, imitated, or adulterated <genuine piety> <genuine maple syrup>; it also connotes definite origin from a source <a genuine Mark Twain autograph>. BONA FIDE implies good faith and sincerity of intention <a bona fide offer for the stock>.

What's really interesting is that definition #2c may be in conflict with definition #5. And what of definition #3, "not false or imitation"? Is imitation in cooking authentic whereas imitation of accents is inauthentic? Why? Because the accent isn't native? In which case, how "fluent" does someone have to be in the cuisine of a different country or region to have an "authentic accent" in that cuisine? Definition #2b is also interesting, because it begs the question of what features are truly essential to a regional cuisine.

It seems to me that, much as Soba stated, the meaning of "authentic" will vary in usage from one individual to another. Another way of saying this is that the meaning of the word is determined by usage, not by a consensus definition.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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For food?

"Prepared in the same fashion, with the same ingredients, as the original versions of a dish were prepared in the nation or region of its origin."

'Course, there's a lot of leeway there, as there are dozens, if not hundreds of versions of classics like chili, bouillabasse or cassoulet with reasonable claims of authenticity. Since most dishes arise organically from home-cooking or commercial cuisine bourgeois, and techniques and ingredients for the same dish can change from village to village -- even household-to-household -- there can be many authentic versions of the same dish, based on place of origin.

Culinary authenticity may be something like "legal proof." There's no mathematical certainty available, but we can render judgement beyond a reasonable doubt.

Is the dish based on a recipe from a reliable source?

Does it rely on ingredients available and appropriate to the dish, status and region in which it originated?

Do the ingredients used get into the pot in the same form in which they would have in their region of origin (ie fresh vs frozen or dried; raw or blanched, etc...)

Is it prepared in a fashion consistent with techniques available to its originators?

In a way, the search for authenticity is something of a snipe hunt. If you're in Mexico eating fish soup at a small restaurant on the beach, it's authentic almost by definition. And if you're not there, you can't ever really capture the taste and, dare I say it, the "karma."

And, if it tastes good, and you're not an anthropologist, who really cares?

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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"authentic" is whatever you want it to mean.  I'm serious.  authenticity means different things to different people, from a philosophical term (Heidegger) to genuine chili (some with beans, some without) to Italian-American classics (Chef Boy-ar-dee).

how's that for assertive?

Soba

Nope. Words don't mean whatever you want them to mean.

Pan: 2b gets it pretty good.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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So definition 5 ("true to one's own personality, spirit, or character") is not relevant to your descriptions of food? Could innovative dishes not be in that sense the authentic product of the chef?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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So definition 5 ("true to one's own personality, spirit, or character") is not relevant to your descriptions of food? Could innovative dishes not be in that sense the authentic product of the chef?

I don't think that's the way it's used. If you see "authentic" fried chicken and biscuits on a menu, the clear implication is that this is in the style some Georgia country cook, not the chef's own riff on the classic theme. You might expect that if you get "chef's special" or in a French joint "a ma facon."

So yes, "an authentic Keller appetizers," but no "Keller's authentic 'Peas and Carrots'" appetizer since, for that to be authentic, it would have to taste like a school cafeteria or someone's grandma's kitchen.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Not quite so fake?

Given that there are no true origins against which one can test "originality" (those cave people roasting tubers and small beasties on spits didn't write down their recipes, and everything since then has been a tweak of some sort or another), and given that pretty much most cuisine can be shown to be a revision or adaptation of some prior cuisine -- maybe Jinmyo's definition has a pleasingly jovial and comfortable relativism to it....

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Not quite so fake?

Given that there are no true origins against which one can test "originality" (those cave people roasting tubers and small beasties on spits didn't write down their recipes, and everything since then has been a tweak of some sort or another), and given that pretty much most cuisine can be shown to be a revision or adaptation of some prior cuisine -- maybe Jinmyo's definition has a pleasingly jovial and comfortable relativism to it....

Love those authentic Olive Garden dishes. :laugh:

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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The word that jumps out at me from that definition is trust. "AUTHENTIC implies being fully trustworthy as according with fact"

If you say something is authentic, in food at least, you imply that you have both knowledge of the real deal and ability to reproduce it.

What's wrong with peanut butter and mustard? What else is a guy supposed to do when we are out of jelly?

-Dad

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Yeah, I like the "trustworthy" definition, although "according to fact" doesn't exactly fit. I suppose that most good cooks make everything pretty much by taste, adjusting as needed, so in order to make a good reproduction, you may need to share some of their sensitivity to the taste that's "just right."

I see your point, Busboy. But basically, I think there are a lot of authentic versions of dishes and cuisines and certain things that make them inauthentic. I wouldn't think that using dried reconstituted instead of fresh mushrooms necessarily makes something inauthentic in every case. But the odd phenomenon is that there is such a thing as authentic Chinese-American food, even though that food is largely inauthentic seen from another angle.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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"authentic" is whatever you want it to mean.  I'm serious.  authenticity means different things to different people, from a philosophical term (Heidegger) to genuine chili (some with beans, some without) to Italian-American classics (Chef Boy-ar-dee).

I do not think that meaning of "authentic" is what changes, I'm quite certain the abstract concept is not dramatically different in most people's definitions. What can be extremely different is the set of value that defines that meaning.

To make a simple example, when Melissa writes the following, I do not agree:

used in the context in which I did in the food trends thread? Authentic Italian cuisine as opposed to American-Italian cuisine ... that was all I meant, chrisamirault ...  :hmmm:

nothing either fancy nor convoluted ...  :wink:

Mario and Lidia versus Chef Boyardee ...  :laugh:

For my set of "values" Mario and Lidia are much closer to authentic Italian cuisine than chef Boyardee, but they're not authentic. Almost there, but not quite, for a series of reason which would be too long and off topic to describe here.

And yet I perfectly understand why Melissa made the example, although I might not have made it myself, and I find it appropriate.

Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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Yeah, I like the "trustworthy" definition, although "according to fact" doesn't exactly fit. I suppose that most good cooks make everything pretty much by taste, adjusting as needed, so in order to make a good reproduction, you may need to share some of their sensitivity to the taste that's "just right."

I see your point, Busboy. But basically, I think there are a lot of authentic versions of dishes and cuisines and certain things that make them inauthentic. I wouldn't think that using dried reconstituted instead of fresh mushrooms necessarily makes something inauthentic in every case. But the odd phenomenon is that there is such a thing as authentic Chinese-American food, even though that food is largely inauthentic seen from another angle.

I'm with you on the "many versions" point. In fact, in my less literal moments, I'd even consider that the idea behind the dish is as important as the actual preparation, to the extent that the farmwives or small restauranteurs who invent, say "hunter's soup" with mushrooms and pork weren't hewing to a formal definition, they were simply using a tried and true combination to make a good meal out of what was at hand. If you try to make the same thing, and you have dried, rather than fresh 'shrooms on hand and that's how you make the soup, that's pretty "authentic." Those farm wives would have done the same thing.

Now, if you tart it up with foie gras, you lose me. :laugh:

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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For my set of "values" Mario and Lidia are much closer to authentic Italian cuisine than chef Boyardee, but they're not authentic. Almost there, but not quite, for a series of reason which would be too long and off topic to describe here.

Inquiring minds want to know! What might move Mario down toward authenticity -- and who's standing there with arms crossed, proud in the knowledge that she or is is, truly, utterly authentic?

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Certain things are "authentic" and can be verified as such. The verification part is important when talking about authenticity. A Renoir, for example, can be verified as an authentic Renoir. (And even there, there's margin for error, but you get my point.)

But food? I think the use of the word "authentic" when the subject is food, or, to a lesser extent, recipes, is misleading, and often deliberately so. Sort of like the use of the word "artisinal." Yes, the word does have a "real" meaning. But the point seems to be that, aside from the actual meaning, the word and its connotations raise certain expectations, and those expectations are cashed in on, both literally and figuratively. So it seems that the Humpty Dumpty rule of word meanings applies -- but deliberate manipulation rules here.

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My take on it is this: Each culture has a unique set of values and pre-conceptions which reflect on everything from their art to their palate. An "adapted" dish is one that has taken the inspiration from one particular culture but has then moulded it or changed it to suit our particular pre-conceived preferences and notions about food. This might be similar to, say, translating Dante from the original italian into english or doing a remake of "The Office" set in New Jersey and with an American cast rather than a british one.

An "Authentic" dish, on the other hand, comes across intact and allows us to understand a culture of food that is different from out own. In this sense, The notion of uncooked fish in Sashimi would be authetic since it conveys something which is unfamiliar to the classical western palate. But each dish can contain authentic and adapted notions and I don't believe it to be an either/or type scenario. There is always a degree of authenticity. However, it's quite hard to talk about authentic and unauthentic in terms of the American palate since America lies at such a unique crossroads of the culinary scene that almost every culinary notion has been absorbed into it.

The quest for authenticity is a worthwhile pursuit in culinary enlightenment but I think it's flawed to seek authenticity for authenticity's sake. Logically, adapted food must, on average, taste better than authentic food, for if authentic food did taste better, there would be no need to adapt. If it were not for adaptation, then Italian cuisine would be missing the pasta that originated from China and tomato that originated from America and would be much poorer for it.

PS: I am a guy.

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[...]

Logically, adapted food must, on average, taste better than authentic food, for if authentic food did taste better, there would be no need to adapt. If it were not for adaptation, then Italian cuisine would be missing the pasta that originated from China and tomato that originated from America and would be much poorer for it.

Well, yeah. I guess to take that argument to its logical conclusion would take us to the time before human beings learned how to harness fire for cooking. Most of us don't want that kind of "authenticity." :laugh:

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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.....

The quest for authenticity is a worthwhile pursuit in culinary enlightenment but I think it's flawed to seek authenticity for authenticity's sake. Logically, adapted food must, on average, taste better than authentic food, for if authentic food did taste better, there would be no need to adapt. If it were not for adaptation, then Italian cuisine would be missing the pasta that originated from China and tomato that originated from America and would be much poorer for it.

Shalmanese,

Very well put thoughts, I agree with almost all you say. There's only one aspect of your reasoning that misses, in my opinion, one important point.

It's not only a question of taste, at least not always. Adaption is often (if not always) needed when you move a recipe from one place to the other for the simple reason that the supply of ingredients is different, or the same ingredients, grown on different soil just taste different - Genovese basil for pesto is a perfect example. Even a few hundred kilometers can make a big difference. Moving to different continents makes the whole thing more dramatic. And that's a further reason why authenticity for authenticity's sake can be flawed, though always better than gross butchering of recipes of another culture.

Just to be a boring stickler: dried pasta came to Italy through the Arabs in Sicily and fresh pasta was there since Roman times. Forget the Marco Polo story.

Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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For my set of "values" Mario and Lidia are much closer to authentic Italian cuisine than chef Boyardee, but they're not authentic. Almost there, but not quite, for a series of reason which would be too long and off topic to describe here.

Inquiring minds want to know! What might move Mario down toward authenticity -- and who's standing there with arms crossed, proud in the knowledge that she or is is, truly, utterly authentic?

As I said, that is my view with my set of values, i.e. those of an Italian slightly obsessed by his own cuisine :smile: . With that I do not mean to criticize either Lidia Bastianich or Mario Batali, both are great pros and do a great job in promoting Italian food abroad.

The problem I have with Lidia Bastianich's work is based on little things, details maybe. I've seen a few of her TV episodes on PBS and have one of her books; I must admit I found myself shaking my head from time to time. For example: her take on southern Italian recipes is often missing the idea of cooking we southerners have. It's a minor thing maybe, but something important if you're one of the leading Italian food personalities.

Mario is different. He is the chef who divulges some of the most authentic recipes abroad, even if he does not see himself as a "missionary" of Italian cooking, in his words. I have a really high opinion of his work and, should I ever be in NYC again, the first thing I'd do is book a table at Babbo. I'm seriously intrigued by his menu.

The only two reasons why Mario is not 100% authentic Italian are somewhat hard to set in stone. Last week I was reading through his replies to his old Q&A here on eGullet and I couldn't help thinking that an Italian chef would have given different answers. Which is not a bad thing, I like Mario being Mario, just not authentic Italian to me.

Also, when I look at the somewhat more creative items on his menu, it's pretty clear to me he is influenced by American eating trends.

As to who's truly utterly authentic, if that even exists, most cooks in Italy fit the bill, but I guess that's not the answer you were looking for :wink: . I'd pick Claudio Locatelli as the most authentic, both for his recipes and his cooking "philosophy".

Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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Alberto, would you say Mario is being authentic to the spirit of Italian cooking in using local or arch-regional, New York ingredients in Babbo's cooking?

Interesting comments on Lidia. I haven't read enough of her books to notice that difference with Southern Italian cooking. I have noticed Marcella's "Northern" sentiments creeping in when she writes about Southern Italian cooking, though.

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