Authentic, or not …

Monday morning. We enter into another week of the return to shelter-in-place, hunkering downness brought about by the global pandemic, COVID-19. I also take great pleasure, when I venture out of the house, with the last remaining Poinciana blooms. In our part of town, the flaming blooms hold on a month or two longer than elsewhere. Slowly the creep of the green leaves has overtaken the orange and red flowers on the spreading branches. In our neighborhood, a few trees are still hanging on at this late date.

some blooms still holding on

Some of the zoom cooking shows I continue to watch have brought to mind a word used more and more frequently these days to describe a person’s personality – authenticity. This word and what it represents has been part of my professional life, though in my hard-headed way I don’t quite understand its current use.

Authenticity is sprinkled into conversations these days. People are referred to as “their authentic selves.” What else is there to be? Either you’re real, honest, true to yourself, or you are not. Authenticity in museums, my lifetime workplace, is a necessary component of the treasures that they preserve. It also figures large in the stories that accompany and enliven those materials. Visitors pay the price of admission to “see the real thing,” as a former boss once said in a contentious planning meeting.

Folklore (the academic training that has guided my work) also relies on authenticity. While traditional culture exists in many variations, the authentic, not some ersatz interpretation is what has value.

As you can tell, food traditions have been part of my folklore practice and I’m a sucker for the authentic. Many years ago, a friend asked for a recipe for a Greek dish that I did not know. I found it in a cookbook and passed it to her. She told me the changes she made for it to be more palatable to her friends’ palates. A while later I hosted a fund-raiser dinner featuring a feast of Moroccan food. When she saw the groaning table, her immediate response was, “Oh, you cook authentically.”

I guess I do, though lot of times I make changes, additions, adaptations. Not too long ago, I excavated my old recipe for ackee soufflé, one from my Jamaican Peace Corps days (see 3-21 post). What to do with the left over ackee? I worked it into a kuku, an Iranian herb omelette the family enjoys. Not too authentic, I’m sorry.

An early program in The Great Jewish Food Fest was about “the bread of the seven heavens,” a Sephardic bread made for Shavuot (see May 29 post). Over the past few years, this unique, intricate, symbol-filled bread has been written about quite a lot. It seems to be a revival of a tradition attributed to the Jewish community of Salonica, Greece. The enthusiastic presenter of the zoom program, Helene Jawhara-Piner, studies the culinary practices of the Jews of Iberia. She spoke briefly about how, at the height of the Inquisition, food traditions were used to detect and denounce conversos (crypto-Jews). Her variation of “the bread of the seven heavens” was unlike any I’d seen in the literature – Who knows what the “authentic” is.

I was struck in several other zoom programs of the migration away from the “authentic.” Bagels were the topic of one. Their 20th century history is interesting; apparently in the last fifty years, bagels have “come into their own.” Lenders put bagels into plastic bags so they could last longer on the supermarket shelf.

The bagel-forming machine decreased the work needed to prepare bagels. In addition, bagels could be shipped frozen and baked on the spot to appear fresh.

Bagels entered areas where people had no experience with them and they became victims of variation of size and flavors. No longer was this treat small and chewy with a hard crust, but a softer, more breadlike food. Case in point, for me the Panera bagels are just round bread. Purists are enraged by variation; they want their heritage bagel, small with no flavorings or toppings other than sesame or poppy seed.

As a child in Pittsburgh, far from the New York City mecca of my parents, I was raised as a bagel purist. Whenever friends went to The City, Mom placed an order for bagels and bialys to get the right thing, a real taste of home. Can you imagine what happened when California born and raised Aunt Ruth sampled the New York bagels she bought for Mom? She fell under the spell and ate almost all of them on the drive home!

Authentic … covers a lot of territory … a person’s character, a museum’s holdings, what we chose to preserve and pass on in our kitchens.

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