When I blundered into the food world around 1964, my goal was to recreate the dishes I had eaten as a student tourist in Europe in the summers of 1960 and 1962 with my own hand in my own American kitchen. With Julia Child (vol. 1) in hand, I sought to cook the unadulterated, unabbreviated, unadapted real thing.
Later, following my mentors Ellen and John Schrecker and their Sichuanese cook, I tried to do the same thing with the spicy food of her home province. The Schreckers were aiming to write recipes that would bring the “true taste” of Sichuan food within the grasp of American cooks working in American conditions.
In both cases, like hundreds and thousands of other American home cooks of that era, I was searching for authenticity. My kitchen experiments were intended to reproduce as exactly as possible the traditional recipes of Paris and Chengdu. Underlying this project, which the success of the Child book inspired publishers to back a spate of ambitious avatars for the food of Italy, Morocco and other cultures admired for their cooking, was the unexamined and rarely mentioned notion of authenticity.
Like other important abstract principles, authenticity meant many things at once. Its vagueness and broadness made it hard to define and harder to attack. Not that anyone in those days that I ever met regarded “authenticity” as a problematic idea. If you had asked me in 1972 when I was reviewing restaurants for The New York Times, what do you look for in a restaurant? I would without hesitation have responded that I was in search of authenticity. By which I meant that I wanted a French restaurant to duplicate the food I had eaten in France, as well as the atmosphere of restaurants I had been to there. If you had pressed me further, I would have argued that the authenticity I was promoting represented a culinary purity that had evolved over the ages, a lasting tradition preserved not only in thousands of kitchens but in Bibles of cuisine by Escoffier and by Julia Child’s unavowed bourgeois model, Madame Saint-Ange.
But in that same year, 1972, I went back to France and discovered a revolution in important kitchens run by Paul Bocuse and Michel Guerard. As the spirit of this nouvelle cuisine percolated across France and then the entire world, it became difficult to continue to believe in the unchanging value of culinary authenticity. Where once a great chef had earned his reputation as a purveyor of the foods of the past, the young Turks of the profession increasingly won praise for their innovations.
In our current era of Top Chefs straining for originality before huge audiences on television, the very notion of authenticity as a plausible value may seem quaint. But it remains a watchword for many righteous authorities in the contemporary food world, especially lovers of the food of Italy, where the craze for change that has swept through nearly every other culture has had barely any effect on local foodways. Similarly, while the most advanced sector of the foodie universe has embraced the radical inventions of the science-based wizards of modernist cuisine, Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Catalonia or Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck outside London, a faction of traditionalists continue to mock this avant-garde.
As far as one can tell, these last-ditch defenders of traditional “authentic” cookery are offended by violations of the food heritage of the world, by hysterical dabblings with dishes that evolved over centuries and shouldn’t be meddled with.
The problem with this debate—between modernists and traditionalists—is that it rests on a false idea of primordial culinary traditions under vulgar contemporary attack. Authenticity in food, like similar notions of authenticity in ethnic makeup, or national character or culture, doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny as a historical principle. Even the most worshipped dishes of Italy were invented by someone not that long ago. Although the actual names of the cooks who first brought the tomato into Italian cooking some time after it arrived from the New World in the wake of Columbus are unknown, their recipes are roughly datable. Polenta, the cornmeal mush of the Italian north, brought a Mexican plant to a region of Europe sunk in poverty, where its adoption by peasants unfamiliar with its nutritional properties led to an epidemic of pellagra. Plentiful records show when this classic vitamin b3-deficiency disease swept over a population newly dependent on corn and ignorant of the need to process the grain in an alkaline medium to make its niacin available to human digestion.
Another way to undermine one’s faith in millennial culinary authenticity is simply to look at the French cookbook tradition and to observe the difference between dishes recorded over the decades between Careme, the father of modern French haute cuisine after the revolution to Escoffier, the last codifier of tradition in the early 20th century.
Rural and bourgeois traditions also evolved over time. Hearty stews with potatoes were offputting novelties not so long ago.
And yet, the authenticists are not just whistling Dixie. When you cook a coq au vin following an “authentic” recipe, you will end up with pretty much the same dish someone else will produce using a basically similar set of directions. It doesn’t really matter that almost no one today will be duplicating the “original” coq au vin, which would have been based on a rooster and probably would have included its blood as a thickener. That medieval civet is not the authentic dish anyone in our gastronomic era has in mind. Our authentic coq au vin is the one we ate in France in 1960 or cooked from a recipe of that period reliably written down by someone preoccupied with preserving the true taste of a widely admired dish of that moment.
For me, anyway, culinary authenticity reflects vernacular practice in a culturally coherent region at a particular time. Getting those recipes right is not, or at least wasn’t, a delusionary mission. Julia’s cassoulet is an authentic version of a regional bean dish of southwest France, as it was cooked in Julia’s time. Does it continue to be a regular feature of vernacular gastronomic life in the region today? Will it be bubbling away on farmhouse stoves in 2030? This is an authentically unanswerable question.
Just relying on some woolly presumption that authentic foods sprang from the soil of Burgundy or the Dordogne when Roland was fighting off the Saracens, and will always be the only legitimate foods of France, is a mistake. An intellectually inauthentic error.