Sunday, April 12, 2009


I have been reading a lot about authenticity recently. It has made me look at the food of New Orleans and Louisiana to try to define what may be authentic about it. I think that after many bowls of gumbo and many people's versions of red beans and rice, I have come to a conclusion. This is likely to be an unpopular notion.

When we are familiar with the cuisine, I think that we consider authentic to be what we know. That means what we remember from early family life - what Mom or Dad or Aunt Jane served - defines authenticity. So if my mother took shortcuts and used prepackaged shortcuts or added cream of mushroom soup to her oyster bisque (she didn't), I might find that to be authentic. The younger person may say, never, it is only authentic with cream and homemade stock. But neither of us was around in 1900 when oyster bisque was made in some other way to make it authentic.

So if we have no early memory of food to benchmark authenticity how can we do it? I think that if local people eat the food, even as it is evolving, then it is authentic. Yes, food can be made the way that it was in 1875. But just because it is historically accurate doesn't make it any more authentic than the way we make it in 2009. Food changes: we begin to add garlic, we begin to omit blood sausage, we add wine, we experiment. As food evolves it remains authentic because it is still eaten and identified by the people in the area.

No cuisine remains alive if it is static, so historically accurate does not define authentic - eaters do. I have eaten many version of Salade Nicoise in the US and in France. In Nice this salad is served tossed in a bowl or on a plate. It is not a composed salad, but a tossed salad. As I traveled west along the coast in France, I was in Provence when ordering the Salade Nicoise was composed. I would venture to say that dispite the fact that I know this as a composed salad, that what I ate in Nice was authentic.


Terrell said...

GREAT COMMENT. But when we add cream of mushroom soup to etouffee, it's no longer etouffee. It no longer follows the guide lines of what the dish is as described in its name. A smothered dish. [etouffee means to choke within it's self]

Ruth T. Alegria said...

Authentic - a land mine field when talking recipes.
Teaching Mexican cooking classes in the USA I always begin with ...
"as authentic" as we can. The foods are not grown in Mexico, the spices are totally different ( e.g. oregano, chilis..) and even in Mexico there is a multitude of variations from the different regions where even the chili names are different.
Authentic is in the eye of the beholder.

Liz Williams said...

Does it matter that a dish has moved beyond the definition of its name? I like pondering the the question. Then when we extrapolate to all cultural manifestations, we talk about immigrants transplanting and adapting ideas into a new culture. Very interesting to blur lines while still trying to remain within one's identity.

Rachel said...

I so agree with your thoughts! It is a personal feeling, I don't think that it can be quantified. I always question signs that said "authentic" food- Authentic to whom? Sysco? I agree with Ruth as well "Authentic is in the eye of the beholder"
It is all based on what each individual knows

Liz Williams said...

Yes, it is very individual, and yet collective - unorganized, yet collectively recognized. I love that it just is.

Terrell said...

ruth, I agree. Living in sonoma I'll call my gumbo sonoma gumbo [dungunish crab, tammals bay oysters, shrimp from mexico, veggies from my garden, wild calf bayleaf]ruth, I agree. Living in sonoma I'll call my gumbo sonoma gumbo [dungeness crab, tomales bay oysters, shrimp from mexico, veggies from my garden, wild calf bayleaf] It has left what is louisiana authentic gumbo all but in it's method. That's the key method, if we add cream of mushroom soup we are know longer following the method. If you chose to use a short cut. Then you are making Quick Gumbo or Etouffee.

A good example is chowder, "authentic" chowder is nothing like the chowder we get in restaurants across america or even new england. This chowder is now call "restaurant chowder".

I have use in describing some gumbo as "elementary school gumbo" not for the elementary cooking school skill used in the gumbo, even though that is contributing factor in its making. but, it taste like the gumbo I had in elementary school and not like my Mamare's gumbo.

SO, liz
I think it does matter.

Red beans and ricely yours,

Terrell Brunet

PO Box 2546
Sebastopol, CA 95473

home: 415.259.4515

Terrell said...

sorry I got part of my letter head in that last post

Rebecca said...

This is a great topic--I think authentic means made with love by the maker--there are as many recipes as there are cooks, each person modifies a recipe to their own taste or availability of goods. I don't think just because my mom's spaghetti sauce isn't what they make in Italy (an example) it's not as authentic--it is her authentic recipe.

Anonymous said...


Sheila Crye said...

If recipes were like words, could they be defined in a dictionary?

I like this simile, because like words, recipes evolve, and dictionaries describe each word's history, called its etymology.

I think the same principle could be applied to the study of the history of recipes.