The Meaning of “Authentic”
Today’s culinary word of the day is “authentic”.
Its a powerful, almost dangerous word. Armed with these three syllables, any self-proclaimed “Foodie” can judge you as not being “legit”. If they call you out, you feel like dropping your fork/chopsticks/food and cowering in a corner with a Snickers bar.
Even people who just like food, without the pretentious “ie”, genuinely seek the genuine. Whether its a bag of White Castle Sliders or a plate of fresh Huevos Rancheros, the “right” ingredients prepared in the “right” way are the essence of any dish. And boy, do people get mad, no, borderline violent, when its not done right (myself included). Friendships are put the test. Mothers and mothers-in-law pull kitchen knives on each other. Whole culinary kingdoms can fall over whether or not a dish is “authentic” or just an sad imitation.
But what is authentically authentic? When is it really real? Its all got to start and end somewhere.
The “Contradiction” Roll
I am fully aware that I am breaking cardinal rules of authentic Japanese and Korean cooking. At this moment, I can hear an army of east-asian mothers shaking their chopsticks and cleavers while chanting “NOH NOH NOH NOH, YOU DOING IT WRONG!” I didn’t glaze the rice with vinegar (makisushi) or sesame oil (kimbap). And my ingredients are all wrong.
avocado (california roll?)
cucumber (california roll, kimbap?)
deli turkey (what?)
smoky-link (like spam in a kimbap roll?)
sriracha (how did the Vietnamese get into this?)
Does this need justification? Maybe, maybe not. Almost everything comes from something that I’ve seen wrapped in nori and rice. Avocado and cucumber are traditional in mixed rolls. The pickle, I picked that up from a korean cooking binge I had with a friend this summer who learned it from his korean friend, though, at the time, we used cornichons (and washed it all down with Japanese beer). The Smoky Link is a substitution for Spam. Yes. Spam. After the Korean War, meat was a luxury item for all Koreans. So, for the older generation, Spam is a delicacy. This taste connotation stuck since its still popular today. And Sriracha, its my everyday food glue and enhancer.
But at the end of the day, it comes down to one thing. Necessity. Everything, save the produce, was bought with college meal points. Living in the dorm, I use my meal points to stretch my budget. Hence, the random addition of deli turkey (more protein). These ingredients are what I could get my hands on. And who’s to say what can be put in a roll and what can’t? Isn’t a roll, meaning something rolled up in rice and nori, valued because it is versatile item? Some might ask, how versatile? Ask Guy Fieri and his “Jackass Roll” (Tapioca rice paper, rice, BBQ pork, french fries, and garlic chili mayo sauce). This idea of necessity plays out in another veteran my food repertoire.
Spaghetti all Carbonara
Spaghetti (or Bucatini)
I don’t order this in restaurants anymore because its usually an alfredo or cream-based sauce served with ham or bacon. Carbonara is different from most pasta dishes that Americans eat because the sauce is an incorporated process, not a fabricated separate element from the pasta itself. (Who hasn’t had a tasteless red sauce spooned over limp spaghetti, served along side brown lettuce, and soggy garlic bread at a school function? In this tragic case, the spaghetti is just filler.)
Carbonara is special in that the residual heat of the cooked pasta coats the egg onto the noodles. The result is silky and delicious. This “process” showcases the pasta as the centerpiece. The onion and garlic provide accent and sweetness. I use thick cut “platter style” bacon because pancetta is too hard to come by.
However, the plot thickens with it comes to the rest of the dish. In my kitchen, its got to be Pecorino cheese. Pecorino has a light punget smell and flavor. Since its made from goat’s milk, it tastes much different from parmesan and asiago since these are made from the cow. On that note, I don’t use cream. A very skilled musician/cook that I know learned how to make carbonara from an Italian in Italy, and they used cream. So who’s right? Well, they are right. And so am I.
My guiding strategy (maybe, its a false ideal) for carbonara is that it is a peasant dish to be eaten by working people. Eggs, cured pork, cheese, and dried pasta are all things that the proletariat had in their pantries. The reason I use Pecorino and no cream is because dairy is a luxury item. Coming from a time without refrigeration, fresh milk is difficult to transport and keep. Goats, on the other hand, eat anything. Their graze free under the Italian sun in grass hills like chickens (and their eggs). In this way, I try and retain its pre-restaurant form. To feed four people, I spent $16.04. If its good for working-class italians, its good for “poor” college students.
Some of the most “authentic” dishes with the most cultural character are “necessity” dishes. Sausage was born out of the unusable cuts. Cheese was a way to preserve milk. Kimchi gives green vegetables all year long. I will proclaim this thesis. If you want to understand any group of people, whether they are defined by cultural, class, or social position, eat at their dinner table. With what they have, or don’t have, they express themselves by celebrating with food. No matter how rich or poor, people love good food with good people.
So at the end of the day, is “authentic” really what its all about? If someone isn’t doing it right, can it still be “right”? Should I wage war against Olive Garden because their Carbonara isn’t “authentic”? Maybe, authentic is just what people have or haven’t got.
If living-it-up means going to Olive Garden, then go be “family”.