Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Questioning Authenticity

Several people have raised questions about this issue of authenticity. For me, the word authentic conjures the idea that there is a true or real thing (or way) vs. ones that are false or imitations. There is an implicit value judgment, a presumed hierarchy of real-ness, that seems a bit dangerous because it pre-supposes that cultural expressions, such as foodways, are static and unchanging--even in their places of origin--and that adaptations made by choice or necessity are somehow inferior or wrong. Also, without knowing the deep history of a particular food it can be easy to presume something is authentic simply because it is the way we, our parents, and maybe even our grandparents remember it to be. Therefore, some foods or phenomena that we view as authentic might themselves be “fusions” created in earlier moments of exchange and adaptation.

An example might be the Chow Mein sandwich that Professor Lee has mentioned became popular in the Fall River, MA area. Here’s a description from an article in the Providence Journal:

“What is a chow mein sandwich? The chow mein -- a mixture of minced meat, celery, onions, and bean sprouts in gravy over deep fried noodles -- is placed between a hamburger bun and covered with brown gravy.”

And that’s only one version of the sandwich. Others in the region will claim their variation is the most authentic. For Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans who don’t come from the region the very idea of this concoction represents a violation of boundaries that Manalansan argues are markers of ethnic identity, i.e., acculturated ideas about what tastes, textures, ingredients, etc., do and do not belong together. So, is this food item “authentic”? For some people it is an “authentic” regional food and a unique marker of local identity that they remember from childhood. Yet, its history only spans a few generations.

So, in viewing the “Chinese Restaurants” series I didn’t think too much about what was or was not authentic. Rather, I was amazed at the ability of Chinese chefs and cooks to adapt their cuisine to a wide array of circumstances. Some restaurateurs seemed more concerned than others about compromising traditional foodways (I like that term better than authentic). For example, one of the people associated with Restaurant Huang in Brazil listed the popular dishes and said something to the effect of, “We say these are not authentic; they’re just to fool the Brazilians.” In contrast, some chefs like Collette of Chez Manuel in Mauritius were more excited about the creative possibilities of blending different traditions together. I thought it was interesting that she went to Hong Kong in order to learn more about traditional Chinese cooking. Did what she learn there reflect the traditions of the Hakka who had settled in Mauritius or would it have been reflective of other regional foodways within China?

Rye-Ji Kim and Melissa both raised good questions about the restaurants selected for the programs and whether it is a representative sampling of the Chinese diasporic experience with restaurant work. The series focuses primarily on places that are known as having really good food. As a result, there might be a tendency to focus more on restaurant owners who really love cooking and see it as an expression of their creativity, personality, etc. In other words, despite all the hard work, it’s more than a job to many of them. It’s a passion. The exceptions to this model were poignant, as in the case of Maria and the Little Buddha owners. For them, economic circumstance and barriers to other opportunities have trapped them in a profession that only seems to increase their marginalization within the dominant culture.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I find this post regarding authenticity fascinating. I tend to agree that I often dont think of food in terms of authenticity. Although, the documentary explicitly brings up the concept of authenticity. For example, during its segment on Madagascar I found it interesting that he would consider this restaurant authentic over the other won-tong soup places, especially when one learns that the owner of the restaurant has never been to Hong Kong and has learned most of her cooking from "Mrs. Fong's Cookbook". Does the food matter at all? What if one of the Won-ton soup places was owned by a Chinese person, then would it too be considered "authentic"?