A lot of time spent in airports usually means one of two things for me. Either i get caught up on my music by tuning out the world and listening to my iPod, or I spend a lot of time thinking. Lately, it’s been the latter.
I’ve noticed lately some interesting trends in how taste continues to evolve – both personally, and culturally. In part one, I discussed the personal, as i shared my thoughts on some things that have been bothering me lately. Specifically, how information I had posted a few years ago has gotten stale, partly due because my tastes have continued to evolve and change. Trying to think of ways to manage this has left me with nothing but a headache, but discussions about this are ongoing and i feel hopeful that someone has an ideal solution!
Today, i want to discuss the idea of a cultural evolution of taste. What im referring to specifically is how a culture’s culinary traditions and tastes continue to change, and how that impacts how we look at food experiences, especially when it comes to the idea of “authenticity”.
Why do i care and what does this have to do with Foodosophy? Well, when sharing experiences, providing context is an important part of what you are describing. They are like signposts for the reader – identification of things that are important to them, and things that they don’t value. Adjectives all have some personal meaning to readers. So does the word authentic. I wonder though, should the word authentic never be used when discussing food?
I first became aware of the idea of culture evolution in a completely unrelated manner. I was on a trip to South Africa, and I met many Dutch travellers. With only a superficial, mostly historical understanding of the tenuous connection between the Dutch and SA, i inquired to try to get a better understanding of how the two cultures were still related. On the matter of language, one comment they made has always stuck with me: they felt that Afrikaans, which they understood as it’s roots are in Dutch, was the equivalent of speaking to a 5 year old Dutch child.
Now ignoring any of the cultural superiority implications, it got me to thinking. How did this happen? At some point, they shared the same language, and then diverged. While Dutch continued to change and evolve, developing their own idiomatic expressions, changes to language, along with ever changing colloquial terms, so did the form of Dutch that was the root of Afrikaans. It would be silly to assume that both languages continued to evolve in the same manner – and the differences today create some gap of understanding between the two, where one group perceives the offshoot as lacking authenticity, while the other group sees the shared roots that between the two.
The idea of authenticity in food seems to be important to people. When people ask questions about dining experiences, I hear the question “was it authentic?” as often as I hear “was it tasty?”. So if we assume authenticity is important in how we look at our food experiences, how do we measure this if cultures do continuous evolve in their food tastes?
With increased immigration and cross cultural mingling occuring since the 1800’s, there are many cases where food tastes and food culture have diverged, and then changed and evolved . In the past, if you look at Italian immigration to Argentina, you’ll find that many Italian immigrants in the late 1800’s brought all of their food culture with them, roots that are still very prevalent in Argentinian food culture today. Yet they have both obviously evolved – some what differently – and what Argentine tastes in Italian food are, are clearly quite different than what Italian tastes are. However, surprisingly to me, Italians i’ve met who have travelled to Argentina seem to feel that the pasta is of equivalent quality as Italy – authentic in the techniques and flavours used to create it – even though they have nothing good to say about the sauces.
In this case though, how do you measure an experience as authentic? If you have good pasta with bad sauce, do you say “it was authentically Argentinian-Italian pasta”? If you have good pasta with good sauce, is that suddenly “authentically Italian”? This is obviously a bit extreme, and tongue in cheek, but it illustrates my point – what the heck is authentic?
With a more recent example, we can look at the changes in sushi, a subject we seem to address ad infinitum here on Foodosophy. At one time essentially exclusively Japanese , you can see how Japanese chefs are taking sushi around the world, and then adapting and changing the cuisine to suit local tastes, and to push the envelope of a cuisine. In every culture i’ve visited, sushi has a different meaning. Some places sushi is traditional – zushi – neta and gari, minimalist, quality ingredients, high precision skill. In other places, sushi means maki – rolls of stunning color and ingredients, creative art palette expressions using anything edible. Sashimi. Temaki (hand cones). Different places around the world have very different expressions of sushi.
The thing is, what sushi was when Japanese trained chefs began to leave Japan has changed. If you assume that tastes can change reasonably quickly, if what was brought to North America in the 70’s and 80’s was maintained to the exact standard of authentic Japanese sushi at the time, it would no longer be authentic. Japan has moved on. Or does that mean what Japan currently serves as sushi is no longer authentic either, since it has changed from what sushi was 40 years ago? Or has the cultural changes in taste meant that what is now served in Japan is the standard of authenticity?
I remember having a discussion with Yasuda-san of Sushi Yasuda, and he felt that he had the most authentic sushi, and chefs in Japan had “lost their way”. Itamae’s on the west coast feel the same way about their counterparts on the east coast. Same goes for itamae’s in Tokyo who feel that way about what is happening in Kansai. Everywhere, people place great value on what is authentic, and hold theirs up as the standard by which things should be judged.
Authenticity in restaurants used to be very important to me – i think partly because it was a way for my palette to travel when my body was confined to one city. But by acknowledging that tastes will continually evolve, both personally and culturally, I feel that the word has lost any meaning in relation to food. There really is no such thing as “authentic” cuisine – just something you either like, or don’t like. Thoughts?