This week, since I haven't heard any whining from anyone else, and my only whiny question is why the Tribune thinks it's good food journalism to tell its readers NOT to go to a new sandwich restaurant in South Jordan (don't we have a long enough list of places not to go in Utah?) I'll get on the soapbox and talk about the issue of authenticity.
Authentic just means genuine, but in a food context, it's generally used to compare a version of a dish with someone's Proustian memory of that dish as they ate it originally. Pizza in Naples. Tapas in Barcelona. Peking duck in Beijing. Funeral potatoes in Utah.
Linguistically, there are two kinds of translation: literal and correct. "J'ai faim" literally means "I have hunger." But who says that? So we translate it as "I'm hungry."
And really, food is the same as language, all intertwined with people, community and place. Once you take a cuisine out of its country or region, can you call it authentic?
Once you remove the crumbling bell towers, the olive groves, the sound of spoken Italian at the net table, a lot of your culinary experience is gone. Once you're using olive oil and flour from a different region, fruit and vegetables and animals grown and fed from a different soil–well, you're translating a dish, not re-creating it. Is that authentic?
(Anyway, Americans don't have a huge heritage of culinary authenticity. We're a young country and we're a culture based on movement, not staying put. Our cuisine has been based on replication; we want the same hamburger and Coke in California that we do in Connecticut.)
Back to the question; I'd say no. The best we can hope for is a good translation, and as in language, the literal translation is not always the best choice. What you want is a restaurant, or a chef, that can convey the spirit of the cuisine and the soul of a dish, To do that, a chef/restaurateur has to be steeped in the culture of the cuisine and have a feel for how to convey that culture to diners via their tastebuds.
I don't mean to be splitting hairs here, really I don't. And I'm sure I've used the word authentic when that's not what I really meant. Who is able to point out an error they haven't made themselves?
But as food becomes more global, as we talk more and more about "local," if the word "authentic" is going to be used as a yardstick, it's worth thinking about what it really means.
What do you think?
May 02nd 2012