Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Twisting yourself into an authentic food knot

Restaurants - Group using chop... Digital ID: 1681381. New York Public Library
Group using chopsticks at New York Worlds Fair, 1939-1940 - via the NYPL Digital Collection

When my friend David recently visited my exotic homeland of Staten Island, he told me that he was taken out for Pizza at Denino's and was told it was one of the best in town. Yes, Denino's and my old neighborhood joint of Joe & Pat's both get listed in many sources as the Best Pizza in NYC, if not the country. 

There are times that I miss some of those amazing pizzas of my homeland: white pies with garlic and clams, real fennel seed-laced sausage bits mixed with the onions and peppers or even sliced broccoli, slices of just-charred meatballs on top of that fresh mozzarella, semi-sweet red sauce made with just enough chili flakes and a jar of oregano on the side to sprinkle on top, the trail of grease running down the side of your hand as you pick up one slice and fold it in two down the middle using your finger....I could go on for a while. I know I'm only a ferry ride away, but I guess Streamlined Ska Librarians shouldn't be traveling just for that.

I think we all taste food of our childhood as "authentic." I know that being raised in NYC has made me pretty snobbish about pizza and bagels, even though you are never likely to find two people in one room who can agree which pizza and bagel are the best or "only" ones to eat.

[Note: I do admit that Montreal bagels are pretty darn good, too. Not only do they prepare them properly (adding malt, boiling before cooking, not making them the size of a plate), I think their similarity to NYC bagels must be the Hudson River water. It definitely adds something.]

But is my own authenticity in regards to food really what makes something real? Was my mother's attempts at stuffed cabbage (embedding the stuffing into one big circle of cabbage) less authentic than my grandmother's (individual leafs rolled about small bits of stuffing, then boiled in broth until dead)? Are disco fries in NYC more real than poutine in Canada? Is Joe & Pat's a more authentic pizza than Lombardi's in Manhattan?

My time living in Japan was eye-opening, food-wise, as well. My NYC neighborhood is surrounded by Japanese restaurants and sushi is about ubiquitous in America as hamburgers. But sushi is Japan was a surprise: it's so very simple. No mega mix rolls, no insane combinations...just one piece of fish, one oblong of rice and a hint of wasabi underneath. And that was ALL they served at sushi places. The Japanese restauranteurs coming to NYC were being "authentic" to Americans wanting sushi, not Japanese people. 

And yet, people swore that THIS NYC sushi was more real than sushi gotten someone in the Midwest. Why? Had no Japanese people ventured anywhere between the coasts?

And then my acquaintances in Japan were shocked...SHOCKED...when I mixed traditional flavors in non-traditional ways. Wasabi with peanut butter? Dan-san! No! (Yes, they called me "Dan-san.")

I won't even go into Japan's idea of pizza. With corn and mayo.

Obviously, there is no authentic solution. So why do the foodies crave to find those places that reek of "authenticity," especially when it's not indigenous to our particular region and or culture? Why do so many food bloggers and Yelpers and localvores seem intent on changing the idea of how we view good food solely based on authenticity? 

I find it quite annoying nowadays. Especially as I'm cooking a lot on my own and people continue to ask what special kind of diet I might be using. It's "Dan-thentic!" The best weight maintenance plan out there....for Dans!

So I was happy to come across a blog post by one of my new favorite reads, Emily Sarah at Tangerine & Cinnamon. Her recent post, The Cult of Authenticity, takes on just this topic. I strongly suggest you read the entire piece which addresses the ideas of authentic food and class structure.

But she nails it pretty well with this statement:

"There is, really, no such thing as ‘authentic’ Mexican – or Italian, or Spanish, or Greek, or Indian, or Thai, or Norwegian – cuisine. These, and other countries, have a range of cuisines, which differ from region to region, and which have also changed over time."

And then rounds it off with: 

"The mania for ‘authenticity’ helps, inadvertently, to force our attention to how people cooked and ate in the past – to look at methods, ingredients, and cultivars which we may have forgotten. We shouldn’t try to return to the past, but we can certainly learn from it."


And you think that would be the simple answer. But some people just have to take that a little too far. The other week, the NY Times had an article about Michael Pollan and Michael Moss putting together a lunch to show how simple it really is to create a healthy alternative to the pre-processed food we usually see. Now I'm a fan of both of these authors, I appreciate the overall message they are trying to spread and I understand that this article was probably more along the lines of promotion for their latest works. And I will not discount that perhaps the reporter set up this tone...but cripes! Could they have sounded any more pretentious and unaware?

With quotes like:

“By the way, what are we engaged in now?” Mr. Pollan deadpanned, as he tended to the pot. “This supposedly impossible drudgery that is just soul-crushing?”

Ho ho! Those poor unaware working stiffs too unevolved to think that cooking and it's preparation can be unexciting! Household chores are not drudgery! Take that, you Betty Friedan reading suffragettes!

And then this ditty:

Mr. Pollan said. “I’m cast in this role of dietary superego, and I really don’t feel that way at all.” He has even begun to receive confessions, as if he had ascended to a sort of food priesthood. “You don’t have to tell me if you like your Cheetos,” he said. “That’s between you and your cardiologist.” 

Wow. Judgmentally Passive-Aggressive much?

There are many days when even I, who find cooking to be the most therapeutic and enjoyable activity there is, can also have days where I do NOT have the energy and inclination to make dinner, let alone spend an hour cooking lunch. How many of us have this time to leasurely shop to ensure we can find organic, local, GMO-free food at a reasonable price? Should I only be buying NYC area shellfish and salt? Mmm...smoggy.

A search on weekly food prep shows so many websites out there of how, dare I say, real people (or as real as you can get blogging) use one day a week to prep a variety of things for dinners, their kids' school lunches, etc. And they don't treat it as some anthropological expedition to lord over the poor unfortunates. They do it to save time and money and to, yes, try to be more aware and healthy in their food intake.

In other words, THESE people are bring more authentic in their approach to food than the biggest Yelp reviewers or Pollan and Moss. This is, I beleive, the message these authors are trying to get across in their books. But it didn't seem that way in the article.

I'd love it if there were cheaper, more accessible, less processed food that was easy for everyone to acquire. But instead of snickering at or snarkily condemning those people who are trying to make the best of our current situation or dismissing them because they (like me) put dashi in yogurt to create a veggie topping (Dan-san! No!), they might actually be more aware of what actually exists for people and that authentic living situations call for realistic solutions.

Be as authentic as you can be when it comes to eating better. THAT'S the Dan-thentic way.

But I do draw the line at localism. I'm NOT a localvore! Can't get behind it. The Streamlined Ska Librarian needs coffee and that ain't being grown in downtown Manhattan!


“The Cult of Authenticity.” Tangerine and Cinnamon. Accessed May 2, 2013.
Weinstein, Emily. “Making Lunch With Michael Pollan and Michael Moss.” The New York Times, April 30, 2013, sec. Dining & Wine.

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