What constitutes authenticity in our modern age? The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery has voted to address this very question at next year’s gathering, and the discussion promises to be provocative. It’s unlikely that anyone will answer the question definitively—nor do I think they should, at least where food and recipes are concerned. If a dish is prepared according to family tradition, it is usually construed as authentic (especially if a grandmother makes it). But if we looked more closely, we’d discover that more often than not liberties have been taken over the years. Kitchen technology has evolved, and what’s more to the point, it was evolving even in Granny’s day. How many of us still cook polenta on the hearth? Let’s have a show of hands on that one! Ingredients have crisscrossed the globe, changing the nature of indigenous cuisines. With careful research in material and written culture, we can sometimes determine the Ur-recipe for a dish, which is definitely of historical interest. But why should we aspire to recreate this original concoction on our modern-day plate? Like beauty, authenticity should reside in the eye (and the tongue, and the nose) of the beholder—in this case, also the eater. If a dish resonates for us, evoking memories of another time or place, if it connects us with something beyond the present moment, then it should be considered authentic enough, even if its ingredients and methods have changed.
I’ve been thinking about authenticity more than usual, I suppose, since I’ve been traveling so much. Ever on the lookout for “real” food, I’m usually quick to dismiss any dish that doesn’t immediately express a sense of place, or a sense of the place as I construe it. But last summer took me to Russia and Turkmenistan, where I came face-to-face with issues of authenticity, especially in Moscow, which is fast recreating itself as a world-class capital of fine dining. In one day, I went from eating agaran—slightly fermented camel’s-milk cream—in a fly-filled restaurant yurt on the outskirts of Ashgabat to feasting on Salat Olivier, an architecturally crafted salad of hearts of lettuce, endive, caviar, crayfish, veal tongue, and chicken breast, at Moscow’s chic Café Pushkin. Which was the more authentic experience? Certainly, the Moscow restaurant featured the more self-conscious construct, but does that make it any less genuine? Café Pushkin is arguably as authentic an expression of Moscow’s current restaurant culture as the more ethnographic camel’s-hair yurt with its lack of pretense. All too often, whatever seems most foreign, most exotic, even most weird, appears to be more genuine, when, in fact, much of authenticity is just a guise.
The trendiest Moscow restaurants aim to sell not just food, but fantasy; indeed, some diners decry the experience of eating out in the Russian capital today as pretentious and false. But eating at these restaurants is as authentic a post-Soviet experience as can be had, one that brings us closer to an idealized vision of Russian cuisine. In its own way, it’s as real as the Soviet experience was, when a continual shortage of foodstuffs meant that housewives had to be creative and work with what they had, transforming grand, classic dishes into the shadows of their former selves. Yet Stolichnyi salat with its canned grey peas was just as authentic for its time and place as the original Salat Olivier had been; and in competent hands, it could even be delicious.
Within the (admittedly small) world of food, our quest for the authentic has taken on political meaning as producers who adhere to old methods are lauded, while corporate models are damned. Nostalgic, if well-meaning, writers and activists warn that if a recipe or product adapts too much to modern methods and ingredients, then our cultural inheritance has been irretrievably lost. The home-cooked meal has come to stand for many values we now fear have vanished. Yet rarely outside of a Norman Rockwell painting was that idealized family meal the perfect gathering it’s now made out to be.
Instead of seeking a fictive original, let’s admit that innovation can be authentic, too. Let’s let go of the anxiety of influence, which now threatens to infect cooks as it does writers. A recipe is authentic not only when it has been conveyed unchanged across the ages. Food can take new forms in different times and places yet still remain genuine in spirit. We should continue to pay attention to tradition, to understand what’s come before. But to remain vital, recipes, like people, need to change. If food comes from the heart, and if it tastes good, then why not just enjoy it?