The cult of food

With the pandemic lockdown has come a deluge of debate on the authenticity of food

Published - October 22, 2020 12:35 pm IST

While the lockdown might have given us some headspace to engage with it, we can safely say that the debate on the authenticity of food will outlast these times.

While the lockdown might have given us some headspace to engage with it, we can safely say that the debate on the authenticity of food will outlast these times.

The pandemic, social distancing and lockdown set off two distinct food trends on social media. The first was recipes that minimised waste and the second, traditional recipes. The trend on minimising waste seems to be fading off a bit; but social media is still abuzz with traditional recipes as we struggle to find comfort in food that is close to our roots, food that stokes familial memories during this time of social isolation. What came along with the deluge of traditional food was the debate on authenticity. While the lockdown might have given us some headspace to engage with it, we can safely say that the debate on the authenticity of food will outlast these times.

Authenticity has become both a hallmark and bane for several people involved with documenting food, especially recipes. In the world of quick social media gratification and instant Google research, authenticity has been used for quick personal gains. A few months ago, Kolkata-based food blogger Anindya S. Basu shared a very topical article in the Wall Street Journal titled ‘The Misguided Obsession With ‘Authentic’ Food’. This then led to a prolonged discussion about food, documentation and the authenticity of recipes. A few months down the line, and a pandemic later, I am still having the same discussion, with Anindya and other friends who research, write or blog about food.

Suspended in time

The WSJ article, said: “The cult of authenticity is based on the idea that recipes are suspended in time and place, like berries in an old-fashioned Jell-O mould.” It is one of those lines that you read and think, “Damn! I wish I had written that!” I love the analogy and like this coinage of cult of authenticity. I, however, politely disagree with the writer’s “hope” that “on the way out is the insistence on ‘authenticity’.”

It is absolutely beyond doubt that our exposure changes with every generation; more rapidly in today’s hyper-connected world. And with that changes our outlook, aspirations, taste and resource availability. The same applies to food, and every generation cooks and eats differently, changing the cookbook. Somehow the more we change, the more we remain the same. The debate or insistence on authenticity is therefore more complex and needs to be understood in relation to identity, and nostalgia. Trying to resolve it with “Modern apples tend to be sweeter than older varieties, so to make an apple pie that tastes authentically like one of the 1950s, you would need to use less sugar,” is a tad too simplistic.

The insistence on authenticity is both proactive and reactive to the sense of identity and the emotion of nostalgia. It is perhaps as old as civilisation. Logical as it is that food and recipes continuously evolve based on “ingredients and resources available and the tastes of the times,” it is also true that the will or desire to retain authenticity has remained. Penning cookbooks can partly be attributed to this desire. Or holding on to recipes as family heirlooms.

In the larger context, it gets influenced by questions such as: How strong is the sense of identity of the collective? How much does it feel threatened? How does identity assess its bargaining power? These questions are all deeply political and economic but manifest in everyday social life through various markers of identity. One of the strongest being food.

Personal emotion

Then there is the more personal emotion or that of a smaller collective, especially in cases of food — nostalgia. Authenticity, in such cases, gets shaped by how far in time our comforting nostalgia takes us. ‘My grandmother was extremely loving and she made this daal in the most authentic way!’ These words often get spoken together and that then becomes a benchmark for authenticity.

Nostalgia is deeply intertwined with sense of personal identity. The older we grow, the more unsettled or troubled we feel, the more nostalgic we become in a bid to hold on to our original, unadulterated identities despite the strong winds of time, jobs, families and all other variables that growing up brings with itself. Often, the steeper the obstacles we face, the deeper is the nostalgia and the stronger our attempt to hold on to our identities.

This is very evident in displaced, war torn, asylum-seeking and new migrant communities. This is the reason several charities and social enterprises across the world are using food and cooking skills to help refugees rehabilitate, fight trauma and form new networks. As a Syrian refugee at a refugee food festival held in Paris in 2016 put it, “People see refugees as numbers, but each person has a dream, a story, a family, a life.” Or as we hear personal anecdote of families forced by the lockdown to receive ration from government or benevolent donors ask for familiar food — like rice being preferred by families from east in place of the government ration of wheat. Here, food and the sense of authenticity linked to it becomes extremely important for the person or the community. It becomes a means of stability, assertion and a political currency. Here authenticity is reactive to the threat to self, stability and identity.

The bid of authenticity in food, however, can also be extremely proactive: in India, for instance, the Brahminical insistence on asserting that the vegetarian diet is the ‘authentic’ diet of the country or a family or a temple claiming their cooking method or recipe is authentic even if facts points otherwise. These come with a stronger bargaining chip, and an attempt at exclusion. They also come from a sense of threat to identity, no matter now imagined.

The cult of authenticity of food thus forms the bridge between what is deeply personal and acutely political. To oversimplify it or to deny it completely would be to deny nostalgia and overlook politics.

To say that evolution of recipes is linked solely to availability, especially in today’s globalised world, is myopic. It is an expression of creativity, an indicator of aspiration and assimilation, and a benchmark of how wide your window to the world is. I would say, in varied degrees, it was always so. What has changed is the pace at which the evolution is happening, owing to efficient global value chains, movement of people and technology. All these have brought the world closer, put it in a jar and given it a good shake, mixing our identities, cultures and foods. In that mix have also entered elements of subversion, misinformation and appropriation.

A shaking up

As the world becomes more and more connected, the logic that exposes the datedness and often farcical nature of authenticity of recipes becomes more and more evident. At the same time, as identities are threatened and diluted in an increasingly polarised and defensive world, the desire to prove authenticity of recipes also gets stronger. As has been the case during this pandemic and lockdown, when social interactions that we have always taken for granted has been shaken up, making us reach for roots, comfort, nostalgia and authenticity.

Quoting American author Jonathan Safran Foer, “Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity.” So no matter how patronising, irritating and illogical it is to some, the cult of authenticity is here to stay. All we can hope for is that the right credit goes to the right people and that it unites a fractured world.

The writer is part-time culinary historian, part-time development professional and full-time storyteller.

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