A Conversation Prompted Questions About Authenticity and Tradition
I had an interesting conversation the other night with a chef, Tom, who lives outside of Louisiana. He’s a really sharp guy who is cooking food inspired in large part by his experience living and cooking professionally in New Orleans.
I have pages of notes from that conversation, and I hope at some point to flesh it out into a broader article about him, but among the interesting things that came up is the question of authenticity and whether there’s a practical difference between cooking “authentic” food and cooking in a cuisine’s tradition.
I’m a simple man, and sometimes topics like these cause me pain between the ears, but I think I’m coming down on the answer to that question being “yes, there is a difference.”
I have not tasted the food the chef in question cooks – or at least not to my knowledge; I suppose I could have eaten at a restaurant where he cooked when he lived here. So I cannot say with any certainty that the guy is a legitimate cook but if he’s not I’d be shocked enough to adopt another cat.
He makes a remoulade sauce that’s more in the traditional French repertoire than what we make here, but that’s hardly unheard of and the dude makes his own Creole mustard. He makes his own olive salad and he’s worked with a baker in his area to make a bread that works for muffalettas. He does pretty much everything from scratch and almost everything he told me he did would fit into our traditional cuisine if he was cooking it here.
But he’s not cooking it here. He’s cooking it several states away and while it sounds like he’s had a great reception for what he’s doing, he’s also had Louisiana natives question some of his choices.
I have had the experience of dining in “Cajun” or “Creole” or God forbid “N’awlins” restaurants several times when away from home. Some of those restaurants were good, some were mediocre, and some made me very angry. The major complaint I had about the last category was that there was nothing true about the food. It wasn’t just that they used kielbasa in their gumbo or some sort of abominable “hoagie” roll for their po’ boys; it was that there was no soul to the food.
From talking to this chef, I am convinced there is soul to his food, even if he takes some detours from what we’d consider the classic versions of several New Orleans/Cajun recipes. That’s because the detours are within the tradition of what we do here.
I thought it was an epiphany at the time, this idea that there’s a distinction between authenticity and tradition, but I’d had a couple of glasses of wine by that point in our conversation and now I just think it’s an interesting topic. Here’s how I break it down: “authenticity” has to do with whether the dish is true to the canon. “Pastalaya” is not “authentic” under this definition.
But pastalaya can be compatible with our cooking traditions as long as you get the spirit of the dish right. That doesn’t mean I have to like it – I don’t actually see the need for the dish to be honest – but I can respect it if it’s done well.
I often use poblano peppers in my trinity instead of bell peppers because I prefer poblanos to bell peppers as a general rule. Poblanos are not authentic, but they are well within the tradition of using a reasonably mild chile pepper as a part of the trinity/sofrito/mirepoix/etc. that forms the base flavor of a dish.
Following this line of thinking gets me into some sticky wickets. I’m a straight, white man and I am writing about how we view authenticity and tradition when one is cooking another culture’s cuisine. The very last thing I want to do is sound aggrieved or to pretend that I’m not in a position of privilege, but if your duck a l’orange sucks is not because you weren’t born in France. If you’re a good cook and you care about the spirit of the food you’re cooking I don’t care where you or your ancestors were born.
When I was thinking along these lines I started thinking about Saffron, one of my favorite restaurants. The owners told me when I first interviewed them that their take on Indian cooking was perhaps not what someone born on the subcontinent would expect. But it’s what they want to cook and it’s delicious.
Is it “authentic”? I’ve studied Indian cooking for decades and I still don’t feel like I can answer that question, but I do believe it fits squarely into the tradition of Indian cuisine. As they put it, they’re “communicat[ing] the evolution of Indian cuisine” with their menu.
That’s what I think makes the distinction. Traditions evolve. We discover new ingredients, recipes or methods of cooking and we adapt them to what we like to eat. Once you get past the idea that only certain people should cook certain foods the question becomes, “is it good?” and if the answer is “yes,” then you need enquire no further.
A final note; when I was talking to Chef Tom I kept thinking of another chef with whom I’ve had fascinating conversations: Chef Chris DeBarr. I mention that mental connection because Chris has a new Patreon website, and if you have enjoyed his writing as much as I have over the years, you may want to check it out.