Friday, October 2, 2009

Authenticity and the Girl (Julia)

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“Oh I am so anxious about serving real sambar to an authentic South Indian,” a professor once told me at a grad school potluck. Nevermind that she specialized in Indian culture, nevermind that she was born and raised in India, my issue with the statement was her use of the words authentic and real. In the former, one finds the implicit belief that there is an incontrovertible actual. Everything else is measured up to the control specimen. Authentic is predicated on black and white truths. But how much of the world falls into a simple duality.

How do you quantify who has the credentials to nominate the real, the actual? Let’s do a little math. My prof was half-Indian and she had spent her childhood in Bombay. Thanks to the fact that my parents came to America from Bombay almost forty years ago, I was raised in Cleveland. By the time potluck, in my 23 years, I had been in India for a total of maybe 60 weeks and never once was I allowed to do any cooking. After all, if I was cooking, when would I have time to eat all the food my various relatives were preparing to fatten me up appropriately. Which one of us is more likely to know and make the real sambar is anyone’s guess.

Of course, then there is the implication in her statement that there is but one real sambar. My mother and her three sisters all grew up together in a food obsessed family. (Money on the fact that they are all either eating or planning what to eat right now.) In a head to head contest, I could always tell my mother’s sambar. Who is going to tell my aunties that theirs isn’t the real one? (They may seem congenial, but don’t cross them.) Not me. There is not one real, not one authentic.

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During the last Daring Cooks Challenge, discussion ensued about the dosa recipe chosen. Reading both sides I felt ambivalent. The recipe was not traditional for sure. And, its derivative nature did give me the same bad taste I get when patchouli-doused hippies and curry loving old white guys try to speak to me in yoga Sanskrit and make assumptions about knowing Indian culture. (Manisha at Indian Food Rocks has a great post on dosas.) But, at the same time, dismissing the recipe out of hand as wrong struck me as problematic. Derivations and permutations are some of the best bi-products of our global food culture (the recipe was from a vegan-friendly restaurant in Toronto). I might be an authentic South Indian, but I knew nothing of vadouvan until I was in college; and they do make for some delicious Thanksgiving brussel sprouts. And, I can’t be the only Indian-American who decides that Thanksgiving is a little bland without some spice. Does that make my Thanksgiving inauthentic? The issue with the Indian dosas challenge was calling or thinking they were Indian instead of embracing the fact that they were something else.
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Nominating the right way to do things is like picking a moving target. An article in the Times recently reviewing Ginette Mathiot’s Je Sais Cuisiner (I Know How to Cook) discussed how Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon was French restaurant authentic , and from a particular time period, not housewife authentic. In a follow up article, the Times explored the debate about Julia in general in the French cooking establishment. Here was a woman who was helping American’s appreciate French food but the food she was highlighting was but portion of what was French food culture (and now perhaps only a sliver.) In the end, Julia’s boeuf and the Fresh restaurant dosas highlight for me that authentic and real are slippery concepts, perhaps even illusory.

(This whole post was supposed to be about Julia’s Boeuf as that was the Recipes to Rival Challenge this month. And, yes, I can be an Indian authentic or not and eat beef.)

15 comments:

shaz said...

Love this post and completely relate to it! My father's family is South Indian, my mother's family is (Hokkien) Chinese, I grew up in Malaysia and now explore "Western/Australian" food. Authentic or not - i can just say that mealtimes are never boring :)

FoodJunkie said...

Well, you definite;y have a point there. My take on the subject is that it has to TASTE original. For example if you put curry powder while preparing a Greek moussaka, it will taste of India, not Greece. But at the same time, there are so many "authentic" recipes for moussakas in all of Greece, I wouldn't be able to pick one and tell you this is it. I know my mother's moussaka, and that is what I cook. I think traditional cuisines are like languages. They change and evolve and cannot stay the same,and that is the beauty of human evolution.

lisaiscooking said...

I think I've finally come to terms with the idea of authenticity in food. I used to search for the 'perfect' recipe of one dish or another. Now, I know there are a lot of perfects, and things like weather, ingredients, and who's at the table make each dish different every time. Great post!

Anonymous said...

your writing leaves me breathless....i come everyday...hoping for a post.

Twyla the Magnificent said...

i found this blog while searching for saomething else' which is how I find most of the good things I read. I have a question for you: how long do you spend on your blog post each day? Is it something you work into your daily schedule, or just something you do ... whenever you have a second in the day or week?

Krysta said...

i thought alot this. being half italian, half scottish... if i make haggis (which i have never made) is it authentic because i am scottish? what about when i cook italian? and to really mess with my mind with a last name like guerrero and i make mole is that even authentic? my father in law says it tastes like his mother's but by all accounts i'm a gringa. so i just think to hell with authentic... it's authentic because it's my food... it's authentic to me.

Chou said...

The authenticity debate. I tried to open my students minds up a few weeks ago to the nuances and scandal implicit in the word, and think I only half succeeded. Can I send you a few papers you might enjoy?

Lori said...

Love the leaf with the water droplet. Pretty and thoughtful.

People get bent out of shape about authentic sometimes. In my book, authentic, diverse, fusion, its all good- different but good.

Johanna said...

I find that creating traditions is just as much fun as following them - otherwise I would eat very dull vegetarian food considering there are not many vegetarian traditions in my family - likewise I imagine that being Indo-American change you should embrace some of the local food even if you did want to keep up Indian traditions

Temperance said...

Authentic needs alot of qualifiers to be accurate and real is one of those subjective terms, so I will stick with favorite.

I love how a recipe can inspire such deep thinking. Good job :)

Natashya KitchenPuppies said...

Those old hippies are my parents! Frightfully embarassing. My (Irish Canadian) mother teaches Kundalini yoga.

Your stew looks very tasty, and I just adore the wooden fork!

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

I like this post about authenticity. I think in cooking there is no black and white, and part of the fun of cooking is learning about how other people cook the same things that you cook. I never cook the same thing, the same way...so I guess I am about as un-authentic as it comes! :)

maybelle's mom said...

thanks for all the thoughtful comments--I almost feel like we need a seminar class.

maybelle's mom said...

also anon, I am fairly confident you are either my mom or someone my mom paid. Either way, thanks for the compliment however hyperbolic.

Manisha said...

I think the problem lies with the word authentic and that it is still interpreted as "authoritative", even though that meaning is now considered obsolete. I prefer trustworthy, reliable, genuine, bona fide - being actually and exactly what is claimed.

When it comes to food, my family's food habits are very different from those of my parents' siblings. My father was transferred to remote places in India and my mother picked up nuances of regional cooking traditions and applied them to her own cooking. She also stopped using as much coconut. I cook what she cooked because I liked what cooked and to me, it is authentic. It's what I grew up with. It is not authentic to my cousins who always feel something is missing: yeah, coconut and chillies. Kind of like why your mother's sambar is more real to you.

Indians migrated to the West Indies and they have their own version of Indian food. In Malaysia, too. It is not any less authentic. When we moved to Kenya, my Kenyan friends told me chapati is their food. It is. It has Indian roots but they adopted it along with the name. Food travels and evolves just like cultures do.

The DC recipe? It's a fusion recipe developed by a restaurateur who traveled to India a couple of times. Lest I be misunderstood, I would like to clarify that I have nothing against fusion food. I quite enjoy marrying flavors but let's not pretend that what we're eating is steeped in culture or has evolved beyond something the cookbook author came up with. There would have been no problem with the DC challenge if it had been called, say, a Canadian dosa. That would explain the need to make it vegan because really, what part of a dosa is not vegan to begin with? I wish I was as lucid and eloquent as you...