Forkways #6: Authenticity
The desire to seek out and identify the authentic is a primary motivator behind many aspects of American life. Perhaps it is the focus on the individuality that is key to the American spirit that pushes us to celebrate the purity of creation by a single individual. Many studies have examined (1) the desire for the authentic, (2) the definition of authenticity, and (3) who is the ultimate judge. Every time we interact with food we have an opportunity for culinary tourism. Eating food can transport us to different places and expose us to different cultures. Culinary tourism is also the experience of traveling to another country or region and partaking in their food culture. Whether the food is a framework for the tourism experience or not is up to the eater, but there is no denying the way in which the two aspects of eating and travel are often linked. Authenticity, at it’s core, is essential to the sensation of transportation. But is authenticity a true marker of ethnic and regional cuisine or is it merely a social construction aimed at confirming socioeconomic stratification?
When searching for ethnic or even regional cuisine, authenticity can play a large factor in the choice of establishments for consumers. Authenticity plays a complex role in our framework for understanding food and identity. Food can be an informative way to sort people, even at the most basic level of similar to us or different from us. The concept of authenticity has been explored through various disciplines. Through these examinations, multiple frameworks for understanding and defining the elements of authenticity have emerged (Fine, 2003; Heldke & Thomsen, 2014; Johnston & Baumann, 2015; Long, 2013; Molz, 2007; Perales, 2016; Stowe & Johnston, 2012). Many sources also look specifically at the role of authenticity in cuisine. Whether it is about unadulterated ingredients or staying true to traditions, purity and authenticity seem to be on the minds of consumers.
Consumers take on many roles, but one is most commonly assigned to those who seek out certain culinary experiences; these people have been deemed foodies. It was Johnston and Baumann (2015) whose sociological analysis of foodies first introduced me to the construct of authenticity, and it fascinated me so much I decided to continue the exploration they started by defining my own framework for authenticity. The goal of this paper is to understand the desire for authenticity, to define and defend the six indicators of authentic cuisine, and to express the problems and concerns associated with the authentic quest. Part of this paper will focus on tourism and the concept of culinary tourism because it is the context in which authenticity comes up most frequently. I will also look at the tension between outsider and insider understanding and culinary knowledge.
Understanding the Terms
Authenticity can be viewed from many angles, but I will define authenticity through six indicators. Beyond a definition, the power of authenticity in food culture is unmistakeable. As Monica Perales (2016) writes, “Authenticity is the holy grail of popular food writing and foodie culture; it undergirds tourism and attendant ideas about region, race, class, and culture” (690). As a society we expect authenticity to carry so many qualities. It defines our culinary and tourism experiences. It helps with the understanding of region, race, class, and culture. But it also brings uncertainty. Authentic ethnic cuisine is a confusing topic for some, because the traditional origin point of a dish or meal is difficult to locate. Authenticity can vary by culture, identity of the eater, identity of the cook, and the intended identity of the establishment.
Ethnicity is often a difficult topic to understand and define. For the purpose of this paper, ethnicity is defined as being related to a subgroup with a common cultural tradition. Regionality has one foot in the understanding of ethnicity and the other foot in the understanding of cuisine. Cuisines are defined by the food subsystems often indicated by the agricultural ecology that creates access to ingredients.
The Desire for the Authentic
Why do consumers have a desire for authenticity and what are the benefits of authentic cuisine besides as a status marker after consumption? Authenticity plays a complex role in our framing of food and identity. Attempting to pursue an authentic culinary experience comes down to the way that the meals is “evaluated and valued” (Johnston & Baumann, 2015, p. 61). This evaluation of an authentic experience can often be more important than the enjoyment of the experience itself. The quest for authenticity can become a fetish or a celebration, and sometimes both. It could be the lack of an American cuisine that calls us to seek out authenticity in the traditions of others (Mintz, 2007, p. 98). Authenticity carries with it many influences on the culinary experience. First to consider is the relationship with the consumer to the self. Sometimes this aspect of the authentic experience is disconnected, but mindset in which the consumer approaches the situation is a key influence on the authenticity of the experience.
Along with any person goals an individual may have seeking out authentic cuisine, they might also have the mistaken understanding that once the ethnic food is consumed a complete understanding of the culture will emerge (Abarca, 2006; Long, 2013). Heldke (2014) calls those that see out this single point of understanding “cultural food colonizer” (p. 85). These colonizers forget the historical context that created these ethnic traditions and authenticity as a single transformative act. The lack of context is an oversimplification of both ethnicity and cuisine. The colonizer is often looking to have an experience that is more about status which can be used to establish a culinary capital among peer groups. Those who seek an authentic meal; colonizers, tourists, and general consumers, become enchanted with a romantic nostalgia that authenticity can represent for them. Monica Perales (2016) explains that “the obsession with authenticity is problematic because it sometimes celebrates a food past that never existed” ( 691). Obsession with the authentic creates a disconnect from the self and the ability to fully embody a new experience.
Indicators of Authenticity
Through the exploration of authenticity, I identified six indicators use to qualify authenticity of ethnic cuisine. Each of these indicators plays a role in both the exploitation and celebration of ethnicity and regionality of culinary experiences. These six indicators are simplicity, translation of self, sincerity, concept of historical origin, uniquely nonindustrial, and lack of training. How do these factors play into the understanding of authentic and what are the social implications of each indicator?
Simplicity requires use of basic ingredients. Straightforward is the best way to understand simplicity in ethnic cuisine. Because the food and establishments lack distractions the purity of the food is fully experienced. Simplicity should be embodied by the food, the establishment, and those that prepare the food. The marker of authenticity is effective because it plays off of the expectation of the consumer. This also requires that the establishment not get in the way of the food. The food is served and the consumer is left to enjoy and analyze it. Another benefit of basic cuisine is that consumers may believe that they can more easily gain an understanding of both the culture and their gauge of authenticity. The social implications of simplicity are ripe for exploitation. The word simple connects consumers with a lack of financial understanding and true knowledge other than as representatives of ethnic traditions. An emphasis on simplicity may create a lowered expectation of ethnic cuisine as a whole. The expected price points and experience will never rise to above a specific level. For consumers simplicity comes with a set price, if the price goes higher than expected the experience can no longer be identified as authentic.
Translation of self is the requirement of the ethnic cook to transmute their ethnicity into the food itself. The food must embody culture, love, and self. Without this translation of self the consumer cannot be connected with the true historical and cultural implications of the food. The food is seen as one of the limited opportunities the cook will have to express themselves and be understood by the world. When attempting to find authentic food that is a translation of the cook, the consumer is seeking out an artistic expression, seeing the food as folk art. The issue with authenticity of the Other is that it requires an individual to be the full representation of a history, culture, and ethnicity to the consumer. When the foodie or tourist expects the preparation of the food to create a dish that will impart a knowledge that can be incorporated (Fischler, 1988) through osmosis of a single experience, an immense amount of pressure is put onto the creator of the food to make sure that accurate translation happens.
Sincerity as a requirement of authenticity is about a consumer interpretation of the experience. There is a belief that no deception is being presented and that the food will carry with it the true weight of historic transition. Sincerity is also extending the requirement that the self be translated through the meal; it needs to be translated with honesty and a pure heart. For the foodie or tourist sincerity is a quality that is important in all aspects of cuisine and hospitality. The social implication connected with sincerity is the obligation of the food and the establishment to owe something to the consumer. Sincerity can be an important element in the enjoyment of food. But when connected with the other indicators of authenticity, the expectations of sincerity might be too high.
The historical origin of ethnic cuisine provides the destination for cultural food colonizer. Upon arrival the foodie does not always have a clear context behind the origins of the culture and food, but they still require the authenticity to speak of true historical origin. It should be up to the consumer to come to the ethnic experience either informed or ready for adventure. The establishment may provide historical context for the dishes being offered, but proving authenticity should not be required. The desire for historical origin from consumers can push ethnic establishments to pre package their experience and only appear to be providing a sincere and historically accurate experience. Combined with this is the expectation for the cook or chef to be the same ethnicity of the establishment in order for the food to be truly representational. Authenticity can require a stagnation. Innovation and breaking from tradition is discouraged by both the insider and the outsider. But the problem with tradition is that it doesn't usually have an identifiable origin point.
An indicator of authenticity is the food and the establishment should be uniquely nonindustrial. In order to understand authenticity it is sometimes contrasted with elements that seem to the consumer to be inauthentic. Commercialized and industrial kitchens that do not produce handmade items are of limited interest to foodies and culinary tourist. The concept of nonindustrial combines also with the indicators of simplicity and translation of self. Authenticity rests in the small batch, personalized, and individualized experience. When considering the authenticity of an establishment, a consumer might appreciate that the cook have a lack of training or be informally trained. This lack of training allows for the self, sincerity, and simplicity to shine through because training can influence the purity of the culinary experience. The issue that can arise because of the desire for this indicator is the assumption that the owner of the establishment or cook is generally uneducated and to undervalue the information and experience they may be able to provide. The lowered expectations can often create a false sense of authenticity because the expectation was so low in the first place.
After examining the desire for an authentic culinary experience and looking at the six indicators of authenticity, it must now be determined who is allowed to proclaim a dish or establishment as authentic under which circumstance. It has already been established that foodie might not be the best judge of culinary authenticity. It may be a challenge for a foodie to get out of the cultural food colonizer mindset. So then, who gets to decide the authenticity of ethnic food? Often when a foodie enters an establishment they look for representatives of the culture or ethnicity of the restaurant there are consumers. This seems to be a confirmation of authenticity. Perhaps only a person of the specific ethnicity can speak on the authenticity of the cuisine. When an individual is looking for an authentic culinary experience, it is possible that they forget the multiple regions within a country. Regionality is clearly defined within the context of American food, but this insight is overlooked when looking at other countries and ethnic subgroups.
Consumers have the ability to identify what foods they enjoy and to share that knowledge with others. But they do not always have to knowledge to gauge the authenticity of a dish or establishment. Abandoning the obsession with authenticity pushes consumers “to question what it means to engage, authentically, with a meal, or an experience, or, indeed, with a culture” (Stowe & Johnston, 2012, p. 474). This shift allows foodies and tourists to explore and celebrate the food of other cultures. Foodies must experience their culinary authenticity with respect, and not merely as a vehicle for status progression. Food consumption is layered with experience, but “the concern with authenticity starts with a recognition that food consumption, in addition to being about sustenance and visceral pleasure, is also about status” (Johnston & Baumann, 2015, p. 82). The key to shift this is understand the context of the history, place, and individuals who own and run the establishment.
An individual of a said ethnicity may provide great insight into authentic establishments and experiences, but it is important to remember that any individual has only ever had a limited number of experiences. They may not know all of the regions of the country with which they share ties. These individuals may more easily judge authenticity but sometime get their own set of blinders when food does not align with their unique, individual experience. Both insider and outsider culinary knowledge can bring different levels of enjoyment to an ethnic food experience.
Those that produce and prepare ethnic food often should have a say in the true authenticity of the meals they prepare. This is where sincerity and simplicity come into play again. Consumers are often willing to take an establishment at their word. If they have a sign stating that something is authentic, many consumers do not question the truth of that statement. Foodies, more specifically, might be more apprehensive and try to find something with a more genuine presentation of ethnicity. Authentic experiences might not always have the ability to be replicated because they rely on the mental state of the consumer, the indicators of authenticity, and an openness of experience to come together in harmony. Especially when combined with the sense of self the consumer brings into the experience. But at the end of the day, if the food was enjoyed does it matter if it was authentic?
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