Food Rules and Authenticity

mostlyreal_thumbCooking is an art mired in tradition. Each nation has its food rules encrusted with the patina of age, and each region within each nation has its way of doing things that seem natural and “right”. Violations of “food rules” are met with moral indignation and contempt.

In Italy, the food rules say grated cheese is never added to seafood, oil and vinegar is the only proper salad dressing,  and coffee is never consumed during a meal. In France, salad is always eaten after the main dish, never before, ketchup is not a condiment for pommes frites.  Even in the “anything goes” United States, beans are part of a chili recipe only in certain regions of the country; and do not eat Carolina barbeque in Texas. [The rules are of course routinely violated—the food police carry no weapons.]

But of what value is authenticity when defined in terms of these rigid norms? Does it matter if these rules are followed or broken?

“Food rules” ignore the fact that all food traditions have been influenced by outsiders. All food traditions are a hybrid hash of influences thrown together by the movement of populations and the imperatives of trade. For instance, neither tomatoes nor polenta are native to Italy. Tomatoes and corn were brought to Europe from the Americas.

Whatever “authenticity” means it cannot mean pure or unadulterated.

Authenticity is not about origins but about the commitments people make and what those commitments reveal about their sensibility. There is a reason why tomato sauces marry nicely with pasta and why a tomato served with olive oil and basil is heavenly. Tomatoes may not be originally Italian, but Italians have done wonderful things with tomatoes. They committed themselves to tomatoes, discovered how they resonate with their local ingredients, and now there is a certain way with tomatoes that is uniquely Italian.

So should we just throw out the food rules?

I think not. It’s good that food rules exist because they set the table for innovation—they define the standards that innovation must meet. Food rules say: “If you want to violate this tradition it better be good.” Without tradition, innovation is just novelty.

However, anyone who is just a slave to tradition and rigidly conforms without entertaining new ideas is violating the very identity of living traditions—their ability to be affected. What makes traditions great—and this is certainly true of Italian food traditions—is their capacity to seamlessly absorb new influences.

Tradition and authenticity are not opposed to innovation–they depend on it. No tradition can remain alive if it does not innovate by accepting and transforming influences from abroad.

So if you’re dying to try miso polenta or achar-spiced pancakes. Go for it. You may be creating the food rules of the future.


One comment

  1. My friend Ricardo Ricci Curbastro, president of the Federation of DOC in Italy, has a wonderful explanation. A tradition is just an innovation that happened a long time ago!

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