October 27, 2013
Some blogs back (actually it was 2012) I posted a particularly obscure blog about Jean-Paul Sartre’s waiter. Sooo concerned about playing the role of the waiter to a tee, he was, in Jean-Paul’s existential lingo, trying to be a thing. And in doing THAT he was denying his authentic self, which is to be in process, to be as a project, as an action verb. Well, I know for a sure-nuff fact that the timing of that particular blog set at least one reader off the Thornapple mainline once and for all. Intellectual BS was the diagnosis.
Well I was making fun, ya know, but there really is a pretty robust line of jack in the food world on authenticity. And it’s not all that obscure, I assure you. I mean, hasn’t everyone been lured by that snazzy joint that promises authentic Italian? And you can be sure we aren’t talkin’ Chef Boiardi—Ettore Boiardi that is. Ettore Boiardi was a serious guy. Head chef at the Plaza before he started his own line of sauces. He rechristened his Americanized pasta dishes under the brand name Chef Boyardee mainly so all the good folks who were new to Eye-talian food would get the pronunciation right. Ettore Boiardi helped popularize pasta dishes in America, but it was not long before aesthetes started hankering for something more authentic.
By which they meant, more like one would be likely to get in Italy.
I’m not stupid enough to weigh in on the difference between Chef Boyardee Beefaroni and something you might get in Italy. I mean, I’ve been to Italy a couple of times, and I’ve certainly never had anything even remotely like Beefaroni when I was there. Yet I’d also be pretty hard pressed to condense all the variety of dishes I’ve had while actually inside the geographical boundaries of the Italian Republic into some archetype that I could call authentic Italian food. And this, to finally meander around to the point, is the rub when it comes to authentic food.
The fact of the matter is that most cooks don’t make anything the same way twice. When it comes to cooking, Heraclitus rules: You can’t step in the same river even once. Forget about twice. Sameness just ain’t the thing in food world. Difference, and then appreciating all fifty (or fifty thousand) shades of Grey Poupon. Everyone’s going to do things just a wee bit differently, and even the weather is going to make a difference. But while it doesn’t make any sense at all to obsess about the authentic bouillabaisse (does it have saffron, or not?) you can kind of get what people who want something a little more like they might actually get in Italy (or France or Germany or Mexico or China or Thailand—notice that no one ever talks about authentic Dutch food—are itching for.
So I’m not saying “Forget about that one off little diner or café claiming to do “authentic” whatever.” They probably are going to be as different from your average national chain as the gnocchi they serve every Wednesday in the cafeteria at the FAO down on Viale delle Terme di Caracalla is from Chef Boyardee. No, what I’m saying is, cut ‘em a little slack. Don’t judge them against any idea you have about what is and isn’t authentic. Just worry about whether it’s good.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University