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Jan 12, 201711:35 AM
Haute Plates

Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene

Authenticity

And why it is over-rated.

When I first became interested in food, it was at least in part because of my neighborhood Chinese restaurant. That restaurant was the Great Wall, on Metairie Road, though I suppose I’d eaten “Chinese” food from the Takee Outee on Veterans before that.

The food at the Great Wall was novel to me, and I loved it. But after a few years, when I started reading about Chinese food, I recognized that what we were getting in New Orleans was not what you’d find in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, let alone China.

From that point, I sought out “authentic” dining experiences wherever I went. Because this was the 1980s, and because I lived in New Orleans and Memphis, this was not a fruitful search, for the most part. When I found a restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee that served Cuban food, I was there at least once a week. Same for the “Thai” restaurant on Union. In retrospect, neither of those restaurants were particularly “authentic,” but I enjoyed them.

What prompted me to think about this topic was an article I read on NPR’s website. That article was written in response to a piece at Bon Appetit about “how you should be eating pho.”

Try to read the apology the Bon Appetit editors wrote without doing a “Valley Girl” voice in your head:

 

Over the past few days, several of us editors at Bon Appétit have been talking to each other about how we screwed up and what we can do about it. On Tuesday, we posted a video about Vietnamese pho that emanated from our September magazine Best New Restaurants Issue—we liked the food at this restaurant and wanted to give it some love. But if you were to have watched the video (which has since been taken down), you never would have known the origin of the idea or why we chose the new restaurant we did. Instead, when we titled the video, we relied on a tired journalism trope, "so-and-so-is-the-new-so-and-so!," comparing it to ramen, the Japanese noodle soup it has nothing in common with. And then, to make matters worse, we layered on the title of “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho”, a riff on the tired internet motif of “You're doing it wrong!” But who are we to tell you you're doing something wrong? A fact made abundantly clear in all the comments the video elicited.

 

Man, that’s a mea culpa, isn’t it?

It goes on, including a comment about “cultural appropriation in food,” which the magazine said would be a topic the “editors at BA” would discuss, to figure out what role a “mainstream brand” like “BA” should play in the “discussion” about “cultural appropriation in food.”

If one magazine or another wants to comment on “cultural appropriation in food,” I have no problem with it. I may even read such an article. I’m just not going to care very much. Because I don’t care whether the folks who are cooking my food happen to have been born in the place where the food they’re cooking was born.

I just want the food to taste good.

If you serve me fresh pasta with pancetta and a runny poached egg, I’m not going to demand to see your Italian passport before I dig in. You make me a great omelette, I’ll eat it even if you’re not French. I’ll even eat gumbo cooked by someone from New Jersey if it’s good.

I don’t even know what “cultural appropriation in food” would entail. Can I make tacos without culturally appropriating Mexican cuisine? Does it matter whether I use “traditional” ingredients, or is it only appropriation if I use an ingredient you’d never see in Mexico City?

Can I make sauerbraten? Hummus? Pad Thai? Goulash? What if I make Goulash, but I add cayenne peppers? What if I make hummus, and I substitute blackeye peas for garbanzos? Those would not be “authentic” versions of the respective dishes, but if they taste good, why do I care?

There was a time when “fusion” was a bad word when used to describe restaurants. I don’t think that’s the case any longer. Because as much as we all say we’re locavores, and all of our produce was raised within four blocks of the restaurant, and all of the animals who gave their lives so that we can present you with this pork/beef/fish/chicken plate were raised humanely and only killed after they were read selected verses from the Bhagavad Gita that rendered them unconscious, most of us still want to eat a wide variety of things.

I love the explosion of “ethnic” cuisine in New Orleans. I wish things were even more diverse. I’d love more Thai, Chinese and Indian restaurants. I’d love to see a resurgence of Greek, Spanish and German restaurants.

But if none of that happens, and I’m left to eat Goulash when it’s a special at one restaurant or another? As long as it’s good, that’s okay with me, and it makes no difference to me that the person who cooked it was named “Gonzales” rather than “Szabo.”

Your mileage may vary, but if it varies too much, you should have your mechanic take a look at your odometer. 

 

 

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Haute Plates

Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene

about

Robert D. Peyton was born at Ochsner Hospital and, apart from four years in Tennessee for college and three years in Baton Rouge for law school, has lived here his entire life. He is a strong believer in the importance of food to our local culture and in the importance of our local food culture, generally. He has practiced law since 1994, and began writing about food on his website, www.appetites.us, in 1999. He mainly wrote about partying that year, obviously.

In 2006, New Orleans Magazine named Appetites the best food blog in New Orleans. The choice was made relatively easy due to the fact that Appetites was, at the time, the only food blog in New Orleans.

He began writing the Restaurant Insider column for New Orleans Magazine in 2007 and has been published in St. Charles Avenue, Louisiana Life and New Orleans Homes and Lifestyles magazines. He is the only person he knows personally who has been interviewed in GQ magazine, albeit for calling Alan Richman a nasty name. He is not proud of that, incidentally. (Yes, he is.)

Robert’s maternal grandmother is responsible for his love of good food, and he has never since had fried chicken or homemade biscuits as good as hers. He developed his curiosity about restaurant cooking in part from the venerable PBS cooking show "Great Chefs" and has an extensive collection of cookbooks, many of which do not require coloring, and some of which have not been defaced.

Robert lives in Mid-City with his wife Eve and their three children, and is fond of receiving comments and emails. Please humor him.

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