Authenticity is one of those qualities that have proved especially vexing to those of us who are concerned with food matters. It is not simply the question of what makes something authentic, but also the question of what “authentic” means. Most often, what counts as “authentic” is imagined as an absolute state that can be quantified in some way, whether through aesthetic presentation, a specific combination of ingredients, sensory experiences, or the particular origin story attached to a dish or meal. Yet as Arjun Appadurai noted many years ago, authenticity is less an absolute state of existence than it is a relative category. More significantly, it is a relative category that is inherently and explicitly moral. As Appadurai wrote in his essay “On Culinary Authenticity”: “authenticity measures the degree to which something is more or less what it ought to be. It is thus a norm of some sort.” Appadurai then queried the nature of this norm: “But is it an immanent norm, emerging somehow from the cuisine itself? Or is it an external norm, reflecting some imposed gastronomic standard? If it is an immanent norm, who is its authoritative voice…? If it is an imposed norm, who is its privileged voice?” (Appadurai 1986: 25).
This issue of the moral, relative dimensions of authenticity plays out in many realms of food, whether in food production and consumption or in food scholarship. Most recently, it is front and center in a new set of battles over the dairy industry. Specifically, what counts as “milk” in the United States, and elsewhere, is under critical debate as conventional producers of dairy milk from animals (cows, sheep, goats) face stiff competition from producers of nondairy milk derived from soy, almonds, hemp, and coconut. At issue is what qualifies as “milk,” both gastronomically and legally, as evident in the so-called Dairy Pride Act legislation that was proposed by a lawmaker from Wisconsin, one of the United States’ most important dairy producer states, in opposition to producers of nondairy “milk”—most notably, California. This is not simply a clash over categorical distinction, however, but one that has profound financial ramifications, with cow’s milk consumption declining and almond milk consumption increasing. Quantifiable financial markers as measured in profit and loss are more important than claims on identity politics and regional heritage—except in the ways in which Wisconsin and California are dueling for primacy as the financial leader in “milk” sales. As these debates illuminate, what counts as “milk”—and what should count as milk and for whom—is far from clear.
The relative, contextual, and moral aspects of authenticity are themes that circulate throughout the articles in this issue of Gastronomica. In different ways, the authors investigate the underlying ideologies that have come to make particular foods and food experiences what they are today. More importantly, this attention to the processes by which authenticity comes to be also reveals the various values and expectations that have been associated with “culinary authenticity” and, by extension, its antithesis, at different moments. As these articles demonstrate, authenticity is both a state of being and a mode of temporality.
Scott Haas starts this conversation with his article on Japanese gastronomy. Haas interrogates the cultural ideologies that have informed a uniquely Japanese national perspective that Japanese food is superior to other nations’ food cultures. As Haas shows, Japanese cultural values of nature and harmony that privilege domestic culinary traditions are themselves political and historical constructs. Steve Estes continues this theme of political and historical contextualization in a fascinating discussion of a quintessentially American food: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or PB&J. Through a detailed history of the rise and fall of the PB&J in American society, Estes uncovers a complicated set of relationships among changing American family dynamics, socioeconomic structures, and health concerns. Who eats PB&J, when, and why is a story that is far more intriguing and complex than what is typically associated with a children’s school lunch item. American moralities of socioeconomic status, access, and family are at the heart of Maggie Dickinson’s article on emergency food relief programs in New York City. Through rich and vivid ethnography among volunteers at a food relief program, Dickinson examines the nature of ostensibly voluntary labor that comprises the caring economy of food relief. As Dickinson shows, material pressures such as poverty and hunger are embedded within a larger moral economy that privileges certain types of labor and volunteers over others. At stake are legal categories designating which participants count as “authentic” recipients and volunteers.
The relative, moral aspects of food are not merely material, but also sensory, as we see in the article by Ana María Ulloa, Josep Roca, and Hèloïse Vilaseca on “sensible knowing.” Detailing an experiment on sensory capacities that they conducted among the restaurant team at the Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, the authors argue that aspects such as awareness, imagination, and empathy are both critical skills and contextual ideologies that inform the experiences of food preparation and consumption, especially in the realm of more experimental cuisine. In this context, “authenticity” emerges as a sensory experience. Matteo Fastigi and Jillian R. Cavanaugh extend this attention to the sensory and sensible qualities of the labor that makes food authentic in their article on the growth of craft beer in Italy. By tracking the “revolution” of craft brewing in a place that has long been associated with wine, Fastigi and Cavanaugh suggest that there has been a shift in values of food work, most notably changing perceptions of what counts as “productive leisure” and “passionate production.” In this case, what counts as productive activity is also a moral determination about how that productive activity should be experienced—as enjoyable, as desirable—and by whom.
Michael Jackson and Damian Grace explore these themes of value, morality, preparation, and consumption by engaging with what makes an ideal, and even perfect, society as well as the person who inhabits that society. To explore this question, Jackson and Grace examine a deeper historical and philosophical moment than has typically been considered in food scholarship—that of Plato’s books the Republic and the Laws. By focusing on Plato’s recommendations for syssitia, or common meals, as an extraordinary part of daily life, Jackson and Grace show how these common meals were, in fact, essential parts of a civil society that privileged inclusivity, comportment, and civility.
Lastly, the critical reflections by Misha Volf and Eric Pallant bring us full circle in this inquiry into what counts as “authentic” and for whom. In a vibrant story about an African American baker who specializes in rugelach, a pastry more commonly associated with Jewish food culture, Volf opens up questions about how norms and expectations of cultural and culinary ownership rub up against other values such as taste, pleasure, and aesthetic appreciation. Who counts as the “authentic” producer in this context? Eric Pallant takes up this question by extending it to consider how norms of “authentic” production can be passed on, especially to individuals who are not already familiar with the food cultures they are learning. In this case, these learners are students in a university course on bread taught by Pallant. By detailing the pedagogical practices upon which he relied to design and teach a course that began with planting a field of wheat and continued through harvesting, threshing, grinding, and baking, Pallant reflects critically on how teaching “authenticity” offers students insights into larger intellectual and practical concerns.
As each contribution shows, the nature of food and of food experiences, such as exemplified in the “milk” battles, is always fluid and subjective. But more importantly, what these contributions reveal is that this fluidity does not disrupt or violate what counts as “food.” Rather, it is the flexibility of what counts as “food,” “culinary culture,” and a “food experience” that defines and even reifies the category itself and, in the process, creates a field with such a dynamic set of questions and conversations.
Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. “On Culinary Authenticity.” Anthropology Today 2(4): 25.