Edible authenticity puts class politics on the plate

Authentic cuisine: Jewish Artichoke alla giudia in Rome

Artichoke alla giudia

Just who does “authentic” cuisine serve? Anya von Bremzen, writing in the April issue of Saveur, isn’t so sure.

I don’t normally buy food magazines for the articles on Italian food, but the April Saveur has a piece on Roman food, “Eternal Pleasures“, by von Bremzen, who also wrote one of my favourite cookbooks, Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook. I was in Rome a few years ago, so I picked up a copy.

It had been my first trip to Italy and I was looking forward to swooning over real Italian food (finally!). That didn’t quite happen. There were a few standouts (artichoke alla giudia, or Jewish fried artichoke, being one, proving once again that there’s nothing frying won’t cure), but when I first arrived I was drooling for a smorgasbord of the Mediterranean-influenced cuisine that is the staple of Italian restaurants and magazine covers here at home. Roman food grew on me though, and by the end of the trip I was in love. And who can complain when there’s always another gorgonzola pizza just around the corner?

von Bremzen details the low-brow origins of Roman cuisine and explores the revival of iconic dishes—hearty, simple meals like oxtail stew or spaghetti alla carbonara. Because Rome was the Vatican long before it became the Italian capital, its food evolved into the high-end ceremonial foods of the papacy and the impoverished food of the regular, not-so-rich folk. As von Bremzen discusses the chefs who are now reviving traditional Roman cuisine, and the routes their food take to get to the diner’s plate (small farmers, heirloom veggies… the works) she gets to the crux of the matter with our search for edible authenticity:

Does cucina povera lose its essence when you aesthetisize it? What is more authentic: to eat indifferent food prepared from frozen ingredients at a neighbourhood trattoria, or to revel in the newfound respect for tradition at bourgeois places that charge more than 30 bucks for a portion of tripe? …good quality Roman essentials like salt cod, offal, and fresh vegetables were once dirt cheap and as abundant as water. Now… one has to pay through the nose for that organic tomato. To preserve traditional cooking—this takes research, dedication, and money…

And there you have it. Yes, authenticity is a suspect quest, with its implications that there is a fixed point in time that equals Truth, which we just have to uncover. But leave that aside and look at what von Bremzen is really asking. What happens to food when we try to recreate the past? Where does that leave us in the face of an industrialized, global food system? It’s a variation of something we’re increasingly acknowledging here on our side of the ocean—good food costs money, while cheap, empty calories can be had for pennies. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be overweight yet malnourished.

Ah, irony—in order to save traditional food culture, it’s taken it out of the hands of the people who created it and survived off it, and up into the most rarefied strata of society. Equally ironic is that once upon a time, these same high-end diners would have turned up their noses at what the hoi polloi are eating. You could argue though, that that’s one fact that hasn’t changed—now that the commoners are eating those “frozen ingredients at a neighbourhood trattoria,” interest in their former worker/peasant grub has risen. I can imagine a future where the rush for authenticity will find us opening up a box of Kraft Dinner and charging a bundle for it because once upon a time, it too was authentic.

Variations on the theme are everywhere. An article in the Forward on sustainable Jewish delis led to a similar discussion among readers. The deli is enjoying something of a revival, partly because it’s been able to embrace the sustainability ethos to bring in a new generation of customers. But as it returns to its roots of independently made meat, pickles and bread, it becomes less affordable and accessible to the regular folk who once bolstered up the entire enterprise. Sure, you can still find loads of cheap sammies, but the food is factory fresh at best. In the meantime, if you want it old-school, made by small purveyors and such, you’ll have to dig deep into your wallet. People like the pickle man of Crossing Delancey no longer exist.

This authenticity phenomenon says something not just about our quest for authenticity on the plate, and the validity of that desire, but even more about our food system, where DIY is simply not at affordable as getting it from a box on the grocery shelf. A world turned upside-down indeed.

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  1. […] A dish is not any more authentic because the person making it lived in a time and place and economy where modern conveniences were unavailable and unaffordable. Once upon a time, we didn’t even know what noodles were. Food changes, evolves, adapts. […]