is for Authentic, a state of being that is essential to writers, but a word sorely lacking the literary libido to provoke that glorious condition. When one stands firmly in what is real, the past and the present, the individual and the collective, the manifest and the imagined merge and flow as righteously as the Mississippi.
It is the only place from which to write. Writers slog through a lot of fantasy to achieve firm footing in what is genuine, universal, and enduring. The ache for the state is constant. Using the word pushes the ache to root canal level pain.
“Authentic” trills from restaurant menus, book covers, bill boards and travel brochures; from advertisements for blue jeans, whiskey, luxury roadsters, and animal-skin Manolo Blahniks. A jar labeled “Authentic Thai Red Curry Sauce, Simply Add Fish, Meat or Vegetables” blares from a shelf in the grocery store. The word married a marketer and became a Stepford Wife.
Avoid eye contact. One blink and you’ve fallen for simulacra, a finely wrinkled word whose complexity has been nipped and tucked to a smooth nothing. Such is the cruelty of au courant cliché. Your every mitochondrion is straining toward the vibrant, the vital, and the enduring. You wake up next to a dead tuna.
Throw it back. However, don’t toss the yearning for authenticity out with the word. The yearning is a blazing ball of energy. It is the blind belief that capturing a moment in words, which is not unlike capturing fireflies in a jam jar, will allow others to see what you saw, a glimmer of transcendence, a pathway through the limits of a particular time and place.
In an era in which access to the idiosyncratic and the real is limited; authenticity equals transcendence. This helps explain the mania to write about food and read about food. The palate is one of the last wholly opinionated, uncolonized and completely singular “shit detectors” left. Taste is today’s Walden Pond.
A writer capable of identifying the disparate sensations in a single taste,the flashes of memory, both personal and collective ; strands of knowledge, both instinctual and acquired;and connecting them to her own time and place, is holding a fine jar of fireflies. The challenge is keeping the fireflies alive.
Imagination and evocation tend to work better than definition. Write: “A jar of Photuris lucicrescens“ and you’ve limited yourself to a science display. Write, as the poet Liliam Moore did “A jar of tiny stars,” and you’ve made the world bigger.
Expansiveness is the essence of authenticity. In food writing, the term is used to represent flavors unsullied by time, geographic remove, or, most often today, industry, mass-production, and the false economy of scale.
As a stand-in for “old-fashioned,” “naive,” “innocent,” “pure,” “unadulterated,” and “genuine,” the word “authentic” leans heavily on history and indigenous folk-ways. In this sense, it is time-travel, in-situ, un-exported. It is an unchanging recipe. It is also a misuse of the word.
Things that stay the same are traditional. Tradition is shaped by culture. Traditional cooking, writes Marcella Hazan, is “formed over time by the consensus of a group, it is entirely the manifestation of a territory, of its social organization, of its political and economic history, of its climate, of the configuration of its land and sea, of the unique products native to each. Traditions can evolve, but with immensely slow and irreversible progression, immune to judgment.”
Authenticity on the other hand, is an individual response to an ever-changing world, it is ceaseless improvisation, unedited, raw, risky, unpredictable, and impossible to duplicate. It is scarce and imperiled today and therefore, the thing that people –and those who want to sell them things –want most. In this climate, the nostalgic aspects of authenticity are exaggerated. Authenticity is the great-grandmother you never knew, the Eden that most certainly existed before the asphalt was laid. It is the conviction that things used to be better. It is the possibility of a do-over, a get-it-right-this-time. To dwell solely in the word’s backward glance, however, however, sells authenticity short.
From the ancient Greek autos (self) and hentes, (worker, doer, or master), authentic is more about active engagement than it is about passive pining. It is more about the here and now than a backward glance. It is the risk of originality, the ongoing act of mastering. For food writers this means tying tight to the senses — sight, sound, taste, touch, smell are the mooring of the genre — and letting imagination out to play.
Authentic holds the past like a handful of fallen stars, throws them up in the air and starts again, alone in the dark, naming the sparks, the smell of the heat, the taste of night on the tongue.