Sunday, 16 December 2018

The Food Historian's Dilemma: Reconsidering the Role of Authenticity in Food Scholarship

Editor's Choice Monica Perales Journal of American History, Volume 103, Issue 3, 1 December 2016, Pages 690–693, Published: 01 December 2016 Matt Garcia raises important concerns about the nature of food studies—in particular, the role of historians in the development of this vibrant field. Rather than carve out distinct territories for popular food writers, interdisciplinary scholars, and historians, he makes a compelling argument for the necessary interplay among them. I applaud his willingness to break down these barriers; as he contends, it was (to a large degree) popular writers who “reintroduced the topic of food and politicized it in a way that has activated our students and piqued public interest,” but historians can—and should—bring a critical view of process and change over time. And while historians have long engaged the social, cultural, economic, and political meanings of food, the inherent interdisciplinarity of food studies has driven the scholarship in new and interesting directions. Given pressing global issues such as environmental sustainability and food access, we must employ the tools at our disposal to find solutions to our future food challenges. Our discipline can offer important commentary about how our food system came to be and how it might look in the future.1 Within the themes of production, consumption, and distribution that Garcia outlines, I would like to linger on another concept upon which historians can bring their expertise to bear: authenticity. Authenticity is the holy grail of popular food writing and foodie culture; it undergirds tourism and attendant ideas about region, race, class, and culture. Elusive but powerful, notions of authenticity have been central to my food scholarship and teaching. In part, this stems from my location in Texas, a state where stories about foodways are as epic and fantastic as other myths, and they prove equally difficult to dismantle. Yet Houston, where I live and teach, is an antidote to the popular obsession with authenticity. With the city now the most ethnically and racially diverse major metropolitan area in the United States, the idea that cuisines (and people) remain sealed off, untouched by outside influences, is hard to swallow. As John T. Edge, a noted food writer and the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, explains, Houston has “emerge[d] as the South's twenty-first-century Creole capitol, where Vietnamese pho is as beloved as Cajun gumbo and tandoor-cooked naan smeared with chutney rivals skillet-cooked corn bread smeared with butter.” More important, Houston is a place where those foods and flavors can be found on the same menu—and often on the same plate. That these foods not only coexist but also combine and collide reveals food's power to illuminate the changing cultural landscape of a twenty-first-century metropolis. Houston's dynamic and diverse food culture does not simply exist; it was created by the long historical processes of human migration and adaptation, transportation networks linking surrounding agricultural lands and the bounties of the Gulf of Mexico, and the city's emergence as an energy capital.2 Yet the obsession with authenticity persists among professional and amateur food writers, and among students as well. This is where interdisciplinary food scholarship and food historians can and should make critical interventions. For food scholars, the obsession with authenticity is problematic because it sometimes celebrates a food past that never existed. The food historian Rachel Laudan notes that in our quest for the wholesome, unadulterated foodways of earlier generations we lose sight of the fact that many of the foods we elevate as authentic are recent inventions resulting not only from industrialization and urbanization but also from the desire for convenience, security, and status. Authenticity is historically contingent and constantly defined and redefined. In tracing the contours of central Texas barbecue culture, the American studies and food studies scholar Elizabeth S. D. Englehardt and her team of oral historians found that what we consider “authentic” is actually fundamentally shaped by technological developments, capital flows, economic shifts, and powerful racial and gender ideologies. While a Yelp reviewer might comment on a restaurant's decor or location, the ingredients used for the food, or the racial background of people serving it, interdisciplinary food scholars and historians remind us that what we interpret as authenticity is the product of discrete choices, and that food purveyors—rather than being tradition-bound and static—re-create authenticity in conversation with factors such as customer demand, profit concerns, and technological innovation.3 Authenticity is especially problematic when applied to “ethnic” cuisine. The search for authentic food means the search for food that is “unchanged” or “traditional”; when applied to cuisines of other races or ethnicities, these ideas fuse onto the people. To paraphrase the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, food crosses borders that people will not, but the quest for authenticity through culinary tourism can verge on culinary colonialism. Such battles over authenticity are ultimately unsatisfying from a historical perspective because they render invisible and “sanitize” long histories of cultural appropriation and conquest. The food studies scholar Meredith Abarca argues that authenticity is a double-edged sword: when we fall into the trap of labeling something authentic and claiming the authority to do so—whether or not we are from the represented group—we silence other ways of eating and being.4 Historians must remind us of the ultimate power that has historically resided in our food and in the stories we tell about it. The fixation on authenticity can make us forget how conflict, want, and hunger are also important chapters of American food history. The historian Angela Jill Cooley shows how food could be a political tool for reinforcing racial segregation and white supremacy. Recent food studies scholarship that emphasizes hunger and difficulties in accessing nutritionally adequate foods—whether in urban metropolises or the remote areas of Appalachia—forces a critical examination of authenticity tales that take abundance for granted. Engaging authenticity compels us to contend more directly with the romantic notions of comity and collaboration at the table—to dig deep into the nostalgic origin stories that underlie our claims about foods that we eat. We can celebrate the humble origins of dishes such as fajitas or chitlins, but understanding the history of race relations helps us see how those foods illuminate broader social, racial, economic, and political forces.5 Labor history represents another important front where the debates over authenticity must be engaged. The historian Jeffrey Pilcher's work on the chili queens of San Antonio—the Mexican women who sold their wares on San Antonio's public plazas—revealed women's labor in family economies but also illuminated how the sight of them preparing food in public was deployed through travel literature and lore to entice tourists to Texas to consume an authentic San Antonio experience. In ceding the discussion of Tex-Mex cuisine to those searching for authenticity of ingredients, we miss the long history of women's food labor, entrepreneurship, and their social, economic, and political displacement in the Southwest. Likewise, the food journalist and activist Toni Tipton Martin reminds us of African American women's deep food knowledge and their food labor—work that is fundamental to American culinary history but that is hidden behind the cultural tropes perpetuated in popular imagery and memory. Moving beyond casual discussions of authenticity, we begin to illuminate how food encompasses complex racial, gender, and class hierarchies, defines power relations between and within groups, and provides spaces where women craft complex social identities.6 The enduring attraction to authenticity has much to tell us about how we see ourselves and the worlds we inhabit. We consume food for physical sustenance but also use it to define cultures and communities. Authenticity need not be thrown out entirely but must be engaged critically and historically. As the food scholar Allen S. Weiss contends, “the proper question to ask is not ‘Is it authentic?’ but rather, ‘How is it authentic?’ This is really to ask ‘What does it mean for such a version of a dish to appear at this time and place?’”7 Historians must be part of this conversation. Without interrogating what we mean when we look for authenticity, we miss the opportunity to understand the larger historical processes of politics, labor, race, and gender and we overlook people as adaptive and responsive to their own needs and, dare I say, hunger. 1 Matt Garcia, “Setting the Table: Historians, Popular Writers, and Food History,” Journal of American History, 103 (Dec. 2016), 656–78, esp. 668. 2 Michael O. Emerson et al., “Houston Region Grows More Racially/Ethnically Diverse, with Small Declines in Segregation. A Joint Report Analyzing Census Data from 1990, 2000, and 2010,” Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research, John T. Edge, “Savoring Mutt City: Why Houston Is Becoming a Top-Tier Destination to Eat and Drink,” Oxford American, 78 (Fall 2012), 16. 3 Rachel Laudan, “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food,” Gastronomica, 1 (Winter 2001), 36–44, esp. 39. Gavin Benke, “Authenticity: The Search for the Real Thing,” in Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket, by Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt (Austin, 2009), 90–95. 4 Lavanya Ramanathan, “Why Everyone Should Stop Calling Immigrant Food ‘Ethnic,’” Washington Post, Aug. 21, 2015, Arjun Appadurai, “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30 (Jan. 1988), 3–24. Amy Bentley, “From Culinary Other to Mainstream America: Meanings and Uses of Southwestern Cuisine,” in Culinary Tourism, ed. Lucy M. Long (Lexington, Ky., 2010), 209–25. Meredith E. Abarca, “Authentic or Not, It's Original,” Food and Foodways, 12 (no. 1, 2004), 1–25. 5 Angela Jill Cooley, To Live and Dine in Dixie: The Evolution of Urban Food Culture in the Jim Crow South (Athens, Ga., 2015). Katherine Leonard Turner, How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working-Class Meals at the Turn of the Century (Berkeley, 2014); Jane Ziegelman, 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (New York, 2010); Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt, A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food (Athens, Ga., 2011); Frederick Douglass Opie, Hog & Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America (New York, 2008). 6 Toni Tipton Martin, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (Austin, 2015). On how African American women's labor and culinary expertise inform American food history and culture, see Rebecca Sharpless, Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960 (Chapel Hill, 2010); and Psyche A. Williams-Forson, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (Chapel Hill, 2006). 7 Allan S. Weiss, “Authenticity,” Gastronomica, 11 (Winter 2011), 74–77, esp. 77. Emphasis in original. Issue Section: ROUND TABLE © The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: