Blah, blah, authenticity, blah, blah, shtetl

Food poverty and authenticity - woman on a bike in a modern-day shtetl in Ukraine

Things recently noted on the food front, all courtesy of the New York Times… (The short version, if you don’t want to scroll down – we have issues around food poverty and authenticity.)

Exhibit A

GROWING up in Montreal, Noah Bernamoff had an issue with his mother’s kasha varnishkes. “My mom’s had so much kasha with a noodle here and there,” he said. “I wanted to reverse the process to make it taste better.” Two decades later, in his Brooklyn delicatessen, Mile End, he is reinventing this Eastern European comfort dish in what he thinks might be the tradition of his ancestors. Clearly, his Lithuanian great-grandmother never purchased bow tie noodles at the supermarket, so in his commissary kitchen he pinches dough into butterfly shapes by hand. –Reviving Old-World Jewish Dishes –

No, she didn’t, and neither did my Russian great-grandmother. Clearly. But they weren’t trying to pass on a sense of authenticity out of the goodness of their hearts. Our grandmothers didn’t buy noodles at the store because they couldn’t. There were no store noodles to be had, and if there had been, they wouldn’t have had the money. What they got to do was spend an entire day in the kitchen making handmade noodles. Now, those same constricts of poverty have become laden with moral implications.

Food is important to me, and apparently our habit of cooking at home puts us in the minority. But I don’t want to spend my days in the kitchen, nor can I afford to. Discussions of food and authenticity—by which I mean the sheeplike applause that comes with every declaration of an authentic meal—always seem to skirt around gender and poverty.

As a woman, I find this willful forgetfulness, or tunnel vision, galling, insulting, and worrying. I don’t want to spend my days in the kitchen, and I’m grateful that I can afford to buy noodles in the store. And if my great-grandmother had a choice in the matter, she too probably would have bought noodles in the store. That’s why people left places like Tsarist Russia (and Ireland, and so many other countries), and that’s also why women fought for the vote and then fought for a laundry list of other gender rights. Those same women whose cooking we now so venerate.

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.

Update 1: On further thought, it occurred to me that the one person in this article who doesn’t fetishize old-world foodways is the one who actually experienced it, Samuel Rachlin, who grew up in Siberia. He’s quite content to maintain traditions and enjoy the comforts they bring—as we all do and should continue to do—without layering it over in nostalgia and morality. Foodies and hipsters alike, take note.

Update 2: To be fair, I should probably point out that I’m the type of person who feels completely insulted when Kaplansky’s, my local, downtown Toronto deli (yep, we finally got one) serves me a lean smoked meat sandwich, instead of the extra-fatty version I’d ordered. So you can bet I’ll be checking in Mile End deli at the first opportunity, despite the handmade noodles. Also, did I hear mention of pickle revival? Where do I line-up?

Exhibit B

I love this kind of coffee. It’s all I brew and buy. I’ve written about the efforts of roasters to put more money into the pockets of coffee growers, which I think is enviable and essential. But for this barista to justify the price entirely as benefiting the growers without even the barest acknowledgment of the serious markup his shop is making on top of it — I’m guessing between $16 and $18 of that $20 price tag is not ending up back in Central America—makes my eyeballs explode.

I don’t think the wagyu beef I’m buying is local. (It’s from the Northwest.) I don’t think that it’s grass-fed. I think that it’s delicious and fresh and convenient, and I’m buying almost none of it to feed three people for very little money. I’m a dad. I need options like that. I do not feel conflicted about this. …The chef began lecturing…I know how his life works: handsome young farmhands ferry delicately raised animals to his kitchen door, and he gets to mark that meat up to three or four times cost and sell it. What does he know about mine?…I could choose to buy grass-fed beef all of the time, but I don’t, because $5 matters sometimes, and time matters sometimes, and I like the burgers I make with this, the meat from the nice guys at the butcher shop around the corner from my house. –Grass Fed | A Few Beefs About Eating in New York –

This whole article is about one of the best things I’ve read on the madness engulfing our dinner tables right now. It covers the pretentiousness, the expense for average people, the lingering inequities of fair-trade, and, well, everything. Please go read it.

Exhibit C

Frank Bruni has a fabulously mocking piece about the ridiculousness of coffee culture, which, as he not-so-gently points out, is ultimately just “a caffeine delivery system.”

In these food-mad times, have the economically privileged among us gone too far in turning simple acts of nourishment into complicated rituals of self-congratulation? Must all shortcuts and conveniences be subject to so much epicurean bullying and such internal shame? I could be talking about instant oatmeal instead of the real stuff or jarred tomato sauce rather than something that has simmered for hours. –Loving Coffee Without Being a Drip –

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  1. Chantal B. on November 26, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    And in a reversal of fortune, it’s buying those noodles at the supermarket that has now become the option for those without the luxuries of time and money.

    This was fantastic, so fantastic, to read. Thanks!

    • Lea Zeltserman on November 26, 2010 at 2:18 pm

      So true, Chantal. You have to be at a certain income level to even think about this version of authenticity, completely removed from how that food even became that way. Saveur had a great article the revival of authentic Roman food, which touched upon similar class issues. I wrote about it a while back:

  2. Vicki on November 26, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Great post! Although in the articles that you pointed out, they have the same smug tone that a lot of the foodies do, especially the NYTimes blog one. I wish someone would write frankly about how they buy normal milk at a run-of-the mill grocery store and they don’t care where their meat comes from because it’s $1.50 a pound instead of $4.00.

    • Lea Zeltserman on November 26, 2010 at 2:19 pm

      But who would want to read about that ;)… Or even admit it.