Friday, January 31, 2014

food and culture and authenticity or don't come near my guacamole with that creme fraiche

quite random food photo that doesn't really have anything to do with the post. other than being food.
just when you thought we'd abandoned our MIT food & culture course, we're back with another installment. this is the beauty of the availability of these online materials - you can do it in whatever time frame suits your mood/schedule. we've made it to section 7, "good food is culturally authentic" and i thought i'd share a few thoughts on that before i actually delve into the readings.

but first, i have to back up for a second. recently someone shared some links to some interesting articles in a comment on a rather old post here on mpc on how racism was becoming more and more overt in denmark. one of them was a rather scholarly piece on racism in denmark, which makes the distinction between old-fashioned skin color racism and cultural racism - which is more solidly based in religion and the nation-state than in skin color. and i can't help but think of this cultural racism in connection with food (tho' the article does not). it strikes me that we have a much easier time taking on another culture in food terms than we do in religious terms or other everyday lifestyle terms. we are open to eating all kinds of foods - chinese, italian, lebanese, turkish - in ways that we aren't all that open to accepting chinese, italian, lebanese or turkish culture. send us your food, but stay away from us, will you?

i actually often think about authenticity when i'm cooking. if i'm making an "ethnic" danish meal - like frikadeller (meatballs) or flæskesteg (a pork roast with the cracklins on top), can it ever be authentic? or if i make an "ethnic" american dish like turkey with stuffing in denmark, with the ingredients i have at hand, is it authentic? and why can't danish mexican restaurants make guacamole that doesn't include creme fraiche? it's just wrong! we have many notions of what constitutes authentic, but where do they come from?

i recently defended my position on no-creme-fraiche-in-the-guacamole by saying that real guacamole, which i learned to make when i lived in arizona, where there is a high percentage of people of mexican descent, does not contain dairy products. i had been properly tutored in the making of the real thing in a place with credibility and was thereby an authority and it was therefore perfectly ok for me to be disdainful of some kind of green milky chip dip masquerading as guacamole. denmark is simply too far from mexico to produce proper guacamole. but what if guacamole in denmark contains creme fraiche? my cultural snobbery does not allow for variations on what is authentic, at least where guacamole is concerned. i would actually argue that they shouldn't be allowed to call it guacamole, but that they would have to call it something else, as their version adulterates the very notion of guacamole.

you can see these are strongly held feelings. triggered by food. we are firmly entrenched in our notions of food culture. food is near and dear to us and it has a right and wrong. and while we are willing to try new things, we still have firm categories of authentic and inauthentic in place and they can be quite immovable and ingrained.

photo from facebook
i wouldn't normally use someone else's photo, but this was too awesome to pass up.

there is a similar strong culture around the danish open-faced sandwich (smørrebrød). danes will put a veritable feast of delicious things to put on bread before foreigners and invite them to partake, telling you that there are no rules. but should you decide to eat sausage or pate before fish or put the shrimp on rye bread instead of light bread, you will quickly be made aware you have made a cultural faux pas. and heaven forbid that you should put a slice of cheese with your ham. that simply isn't done. so despite their statement at the beginning that you can do what you like, in actuality, if you want to be authentic and true to the norms of the culture, you cannot. you must eat the delicious shrimp and egg and herring and sausages and cheese in the right order or risk committing crimes against danishness itself.

i'm not sure i'm any closer to knowing what's authentic. i have learned how to make both frikadeller and flæskesteg and i can even get the cracklins crispy every time (husband recently remarked that i was thoroughly integrated now because of that) and i know in which order you should eat the smørrebrød. but whether they are truly authentic or whether they have quite a lot of me and my baggage (if you will) in them, i'm not sure. maybe i'll go read those articles now and come back with an answer.


Miss Footloose said...

Creme fraiche in guacamole? Oh,no! I love this post about food authenticity. Having left my native Holland years ago, I still make the traditional foods the old-fashioned way, but in Holland they have often become "corrupted" with foreign elements. For instance, a potato-sauerkraut-sausage dish now sports pineapple chunks and raisins. OMG! That is so wrong! And traditional meatballs are now fancied up with curry powder, or Mexican spices, or Itaian herbs.

Actually, I think it is all great fun and often quite delicious. Fusion cuisine, why not.

julochka said...

karen, i've thought about that too - whether i'll effectively be preserving certain american dishes because it's how they were made when i moved away from the us - i actually quite like that idea! :-) and i love fusion cuisine as well - perhaps it's just as authentic in its own way.

Unknown said...

I can understand using the term, "old-fashioned" but applying the word 'authentic' to any human activity is troublesome.

Everything evolves and changes ... words, such as authentic, pure, clean, true, observable, timely, accurate ... change as we go through time and space.

What could be a generational meal tradition could change with one visit from an out of town, long-lost friend who lives in a different country and just happens to bring a not known about vegetable as a holiday gift.

As simple as that, next week's Sunday dinner changes... and the new version of the meal would be 'authentic' ... for awhile.