My Three Quarks Daily column this month considers the possible future in which great wines like a 1982 Lafite Rothschild can be reverse engineered and manufactured at a fraction of the cost of the original. Is that a wine world you want to live in?
Cooking 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.
The hot buzz word in the wine world over the past few years is “authenticity”, which Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop define as wine with a sense of place, wine that exudes characteristics that come from the vineyard, region or vintage in which the grapes were grown. Authentic wines have been gently handled in the winery so that the unique character of the terroir is not covered up or destroyed.
Making and drinking authentic wines requires a willingness to accept what the location or vintage is giving you even if it isn’t ideal.
I don’t have empirical data to support this assumption but I would guess far more people favor fruit flavors such as blackberry or strawberry over flavors such as cat’s pee, asparagus, or diesel fuel. Does anyone actually prefer bloody meat to lemon zest? (I do, but more on that in a minute). Yet, if we prefer authentic wines we must develop a sensibility that welcomes these less highly regarded flavor notes. Because sometimes and in some places, these less favored flavors are the more authentic—they are what the vintage or region is giving you.
Thus, someone who professes a preference for authentic wines assumes a certain burden—the task of learning to appreciate aroma profiles and taste sensations that are off the beaten track, assuming off course that they are in balance. This is especially true of emerging wine regions. Encouraging them to make wines that taste like Napa or Bordeaux robs them of that authenticity that so many wine lovers today endorse.
You really can’t have it both ways, demanding authenticity but only when it conforms to a conventional standard. The point of valuing authenticity is that the outcome is not just conformity to an ideal or standard but represents something distinctive or original.
As to my preference for bloody meat over lemon zest, I almost always prefer the quirky to the predictable. The fact that fermented grape juice can smell like bacon, sweaty saddles or tar is a source of endless fascination. Lemon zest is lovely but doesn’t scream originality.
For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily
Ordinarily I wouldn’t be much concerned about the closing of chain restaurants but this story caught my eye because of the clueless reasoning behind it.
Applebee’s announced this month that more than 130 of its restaurants will close by the end of the year.
The casual dining chain rebranded itself in the past few years as a modern bar and grill.
Applebee’s executive John Cywinski recently told investors that the company had hoped the effort would attract a new kind of customer.
The chain aimed to lure “a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset, including a clear pendulum swing towards millennials,” he said.
Applebee’s wanted to lure millennials with dishes like barbecue shrimp in a sriracha-lime sauce; chicken wonton tacos; and a pork, ham and bacon sandwich.
But that triple pork bonanza — and the rest of the company’s makeover — didn’t seem to catch on with customers. Sales at Applebee’s dropped more than 6 percent from last year.
The interesting part of this is the aim to attract “a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset,”
So young people with an “independent” mind set who are also “sophisticated” about dining are going to frequent a chain restaurant because chain restaurants just scream “independence” and “sophistication”. Because, of course, anyone who is independent and sophisticated immediately salivates when sriracha or pork-3-ways appears on the menu.
The intellectual standards for CEO’s must be dropping. People who are independent and sophisticated will avoid chain restaurants because chain restaurants by their very nature are homogeneous and cater to conventional tastes. It doesn’t help that Applebee’s was latching onto trends that are at least a decade old.
I “sympathize” with the plight of chain restaurants who want to capitalize on the food revolution. You can’t package and market authenticity and difference because, once packaged and marketed, it’s no longer authentic or different. I suppose they have to try to stay relevant in order to mollify shareholders, but it’s a losing proposition.
Which is why I argued in American Foodie that the food revolution might actually survive attempts to co-opt it.
The flap over Bon Appétit’s version of the Filipino shaved ice treat Halo Halo is an interesting case of cultural misappropriation. Wilma B. Consul in The Salt explains:
The homage recipe includes mashed blueberries and blackberries, lime juice, coconut milk, gummy bears and popcorn (popcorn?!?). First, halo-halo is not a smoothie. And it’s a mix that, frankly, feels sacrilegious.
What are the actual ingredients of at least one typical recipe for Halo Halo?
Imagine red and black monggo (mung beans) at the bottom; yellow from cooked saging na saba (indigenous bananas), langka (jackfruit) or garbanzos; white from evaporated milk, nata de coco, (coconut jelly), macapuno (young coconut) and kaong (palm fruit); and orange from kamote (yams). Add in the translucent and chewy goodness of sago (tapioca pearls) and gulaman (like jello made with natural agar-agar). The crunch comes from pinipig (pounded and toasted glutinous rice).
Halo in Tagalog means mix – which is what you do when consuming this treat, whirling it together until it becomes one glass of beautiful purple.
In other words, Bon Appétit’s version not only had none of the authentic ingredients (except for coconut) but included ingredients that taste nothing like the original.
I devoted a chapter to the idea of authenticity in American Foodie. Traditions change and innovators have always been and will always be looking for new versions of traditional dishes. When cultures mix and exchange takes place there is no way to prevent, nor should we want to prevent, cultural appropriation. Change even when induced from the outside is what keeps traditions alive and growing.
But if an innovation is going to count as a new extension of the tradition it must maintain some continuity with it, making modifications that are still recognizable as a modification of the original. The homage recipe might taste perfectly fine, but it isn’t a “take” on Halo Halo—it’s a new dish perhaps inspired by Halo Halo but not a version of it.
Why does this matter? Well, it’s a matter of respect but also of logic. Presumably, this homage recipe was created to celebrate the food of the Philippines. Thus, logically to accomplish that it would need some connection to that food. It is hard to see what that connection is. (The faux pas was made worse by the fact that apparently no expert on Filipino food was consulted.)
This is not about being conservative. I’m OK with revolution. But don’t then call it tradition.
Ms. Consul has a reasonable take on the topic:
Still, something positive might emerge. For sure, millions more in this generation of foodies are beginning to embrace Filipino food and culture. And if nothing else, maybe this fiasco will teach those who want to recreate or modify tradition to cook carefully and respectfully.
In the U.S., the turn toward local, artisan, sustainable foods—real food with real flavor—over the past 40 years has been remarkable. It has made our lives immeasurably better. But will that revolution last or will the corporate behemoths of global capitalism find a way to co-opt it?
Deception is their biggest weapon and they are bringing out the big guns:
At a taco shop in Southern California, milkshakes are served in mason jars and a chalkboard menu lists “The 1%er” made with lobster meat.
The logo is a pink skull and instead of buzzers, customers are given license plates so servers can identify them when bringing out orders.
Nowhere is it evident that the U.S. Taco Co. is an outpost of a chain better known for cheesy gut bombs: Taco Bell.
Major companies are testing whether it would pay to tuck away their world famous logos in favor of more hipster guises: PepsiCo, for instance, introduced a craft soda called Caleb’s last year and McDonald’s opened a cafe that lists lentils and eggplant on its menu. The stealth efforts reflect the pressures on the country’s biggest food makers, which are contending with the surging popularity of smaller brands that position themselves as decidedly less corporate.
As the preference for authenticity and the thrill of discovering new food experiences attracts more and more people, big food companies have taken to hiding their footprint:
As such, Allen Adamson of Landor Associates, a brand consulting firm, said companies should keep the images for their latest efforts smaller and more niche: “You don’t want to scream from the mountain top that you’re Pepsi.”
McDonalds, Pepsi, Taco Bell, Anheuser Busch, Yum Brands all have spin-offs masquerading as hip, artisanal products making real food—chain restaurants with marketing designed to hide their essential “chainness”.
Will the “big lie” succeed in burying the burgeoning but still relatively small artisanal food movement?
I have my optimistic hat on today. The point of creating a chain restaurant or mass-marketed brand is to increase margins through standardization—supply chains, packaging, marketing, production, training, etc. all following the same rulebook produces efficiencies that translate into profit. By definition, such products lack uniqueness or individuality and cannot maintain a connection to the idiosyncrasies of particular locations without sacrificing efficiency, The idea of a local, artisanal, mass-marketed brand is a contradiction. The more popular these “faux-authentic” products become the more obvious it will be that they are just another corporate product. Not to mention the fact that standardized products just don’t taste good and the differences when compared to genuine artisanal products are usually obvious.
But my pessimistic hat is never far away. H.L. Mencken’s adage “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public” is surely still relevant. It takes some effort and attention to nuance to distinguish the genuine from the counterfeit and it isn’t obvious we are up to the task.
Paella is one of my favorite dishes because it is so versatile. For those of us who like to play with our food, it’s the perfect dish because you can endlessly combine ingredients while maintaining its basic integrity of a firm, medium-grain rice with sofrito and saffron. My favorite is my duck paella made with medium-rare breast, duck legs confit, and cracklings.
Apparently I’m guilty of prostitution. There is a movement afoot to “police” the making of paella:
Horrified by chefs making paella with ingredients including poached eggs and avocados, three men from Spain‘s Valencian region have banded together to fight what they call the increasing “prostitution” of one of the country’s most emblematic dishes.
Wikipaella aims to help “police” paella around the world, said co-founder Guillermo Navarro. “It’s a dish that’s really trendy these days. And there’s lots of people taking advantage of it and selling what they call authentic, traditional or Spanish paella.”
I’m fine with traditionalists insisting that the modern versions are not “authentic” if what they mean by that troubled word is something like “historically accurate”. I think we should strive to preserve historical tastes, as best we can, just as we preserve other historical artifacts. As far as I know the traditional paella was “hunter’s food” and included snails, rabbit and artichokes cooked over an open fire. No seafood. That’s tourist food. But there are many different versions from a variety of regions in Spain that claim theirs is authentic, and establishing a pure origin is impossible, especially since it was likely imported North Africa in any case.
But cuisines cannot remain static and unchanging if they are to survive and flourish, and it’s those tourists who encourage an interest in a region’s indigenous cuisine. It’s ridiculous to suggest that modifications to traditional ingredients are improper.
If this group is merely insisting that we not call modern concoctions authentic, I’m fine with that. The word “authentic” is virtually meaningless anyway. But if they want to insist that traditions should not change and grow, they are guilty of prostituting the idea of a living tradition. They should be celebrating Spain’s emergence as an internationally respected cuisine which can be sustained only if creativity is allowed to flourish.
So on the charge of prostitution, I’m happy to plead guilty.
This post by From Vinho Verde to Barolo With Love got me thinking, once again, about why wine is fascinating.
It seems that often those who love wine, also love food, and also love to travel. Because wine and food are associated with particular regions, they become a way of travelling, visiting a country, a culture, a people, learning their likes, their climates, their daily joys from a dish and a glass.
That surely is one reason. Matt Kramer’s recent essay in the Wine Spectator adds another dimension to that thought.
Kramer argues that we live in very interesting times because the world of wine is undergoing another revolution. The previous revolution, when Mondavi, Peynaud and Baron de Rothschild, came on the scene was about using new technologies to ramp up wine quality and mass produce consistent, clean, polished wine. Today’s revolution is not about technology but about “mentality”, a word invented by the Annales school of history that means roughly a shared way of looking at the world that governs the everyday lives of a people. According to Kramer, the “mentality” driving the wine world forward today is exemplified by biodynamic winemaking and natural wines. Both minimize technological interventions in the making of wine and both pay homage to the earth and flavors that exhibit a sense of place. Kramer writes:
This is not just a matter of fashion or “changing taste.” Rather, it’s reflective of an emerging cultural shift, a rethinking of wine beauty itself. What is it that makes a fine wine original? And not least, profound?
I don’t think Kramer’s thesis is about natural winemaking or bio-dynamics in particular. In terms of sheer numbers, grapes grown biodynamically are a fraction of the total, and wines made without the addition of SO2 or commercial yeast are even less prominent. I think what Kramer is getting at is that, along with the farm to table/slow food/and heritage movements in the food world, there is increased interest in locality, artisanal products that maintain a connection to their origins in a community. Small production, artisanal, family wines fit this ethos. Of course, small production, hands-on wineries have always been around, but Kramer is suggesting, I think, that instead of being an exception or afterthought, artisanal methods are defining our concept of beauty, setting the standard for what wine should ultimately be.
I’m not sure how persistent this shift will be or even how widespread it is. But what I find interesting about Kramer’s thesis is his view that developments in the wine world are driven by ideals of goodness and beauty, the same ideals that have inspired great works of art and literature throughout history.
Wine is interesting because unlike most other consumables it engages the mind. It’s not just a matter of taste, but taste shaped by imagination and reason that can express a way of life and cause us to create new ways of living.
That is a heavy burden for a glass of fermented grape juice.