December 8, 2006
What is Authentic?
By Jack Jackson
The concept of “authentic” ethnic food has always been something of a challenge for me, and I’m guessing it is for the rest of you, too. I mean, it’s been really, actually, authenticallychallenging me. There are two main reasons why the concept bugs me: 1) everyone in town argues over where you can find the most authentic Mexican food, yet no one can give you a straight, authentic answer; 2) that surly curmudgeon gastrophile Richard Ripshaw recently railed on me for ordering General Tso’s/Tzo’s/Dzo’s/Dso’s Chicken from Golden Wok because he did research on the dish which showed that that particular entrée was created in New York’s Chinatown sometime in the 1970’s, whereupon he smugly ordered Szechuan Chicken, which his research had shown to be an authentic Szechuan dish with authentic Szechuan peppers. I had no choice but to blithely applaud him for his excellent and authentic ordering skills.
What does “authentic” even mean? Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary says “not false or imitation : REAL, ACTUAL.” My Oxford Latin Dictionary says “authenticus” means “original.” My Oxford Greek Dictionary says “authentikos” means “principal, authoritative.” But none of those definitions really answers the more specific question of what “authentic” means in the world of ethnic cuisine. What does it mean, after all, to say that a restaurant’s marinara sauce is the “original” or “real” or “actual” or “authoritative” marinara sauce?
In ethnic food, it seems that “original” is the closest meaning for “authentic.” The question is often: “Was this cooked the same way, with the same ingredients, with the same tools, as the people of that culture originally (first) prepared the dish?” Not only is that often an extremely difficult question to answer with any meaningful accuracy, but I think the answer should generally be “Who cares?”
In music, especially in Jazz, we applaud the artist who builds on the work of earlier artists. We can enjoy the old Charlie Parker records, but John Coltrane offered us a more complicated and challenging sound. Was Coltrane an inauthentic sax player? Charlie Parker’s sound is like the first pizza in Italy during the Roman Empire: a flat round of dough slathered in olive oil, bay leaves, other herbs, and honey. It was not until several centuries later—the Middle Ages—when water buffalo, whose milk is necessary for authentic mozzarella cheese, showed up on the scene. The arrival of mozzarella on the scene was like the arrival of John Coltrane on the jazz scene.
Did the Italians kvetch that mozzarella cheese on their pizzas was not authentic and should not be allowed or at least denounced? I do not know. It would be silly if they did, and I still say, “Who cares?” I think mozzarella cheese on pizza is a nice change, just like John Coltrane’s innovative chord progressions were a nice change for jazz.
But just you look out! Because in the 1500’s another crazy thing happened to authentic Italian pizza: some dudes brought back tomato plants from the New World. That’s kind of like when John Coltrane said to himself, I’m going to play a fifty-seven minute version of “My Favorite Things” in Japan and it’s going to be unlike any other version of that song done before.
I do not know what brave Italian pizza-meister first bucked the fierce conservative anti-tomato movement, but I am glad it happened, nonetheless. He turned authentic Italian pizza into something I enjoy.
Now I know Mr. Ripshaw is going to be mad at me for writing this, but the last time I visited Chicago, we took some friends out to a nice authentic Neapolitan pizzeria. Do you believe, I mean, can you believe, that they served us what they called authentic pizzas, but actually those so-called authentic pizzas had mozzarella and tomatoes on them? I mean, where was the honey? Where were the bay leaves?
At what point in the history of pizza do we or can we settle on a definition of what is “authentic?” And don’t you all enjoy a nice slice of New York-Style Pizza? What is Chicago-Style pizza?
What are authentic barbecue ribs in America? What is authentic fried chicken? How many definitions will you get around the country?
India, China, and Mexico are big countries. How can any one restaurant provide a full panoply of totally authentic dishes, even if limited to a specific region? Is anyone in New York’s Chinatown still serving authentic General Tso’s/Tzo’s/Dzo’s/Dso’s Chicken?