As we outline on our project website, to designate a cultural product, like a particular food or drink, as authentic can be a politically, economically and culturally charged process, partly because the ways we think about time and history are deeply involved in this process. The slippery concept of authenticity is at the heart of our inquiry in this project, so I wanted to reflect a little on why we’ve chosen to approach this concept with a focus on foods and drinks, and on time and the past. Above all, we are concerned with how historical narratives, temporal categories and visions of the future give authenticity meaning and power as a cultural construct.
Issues surrounding the idea of authenticity have long been studied by scholars of food and, to a lesser but still important extent, alcoholic drinks. Much of the scholarship dwells on the role of place and locality in constructing ideas about authenticity, especially in terms of how particular people or places are identified as the origin point of “authentic” foodstuffs. Many works explore the concept of terroir and the formal legal frameworks that recognise and protect the special provenance of certain products, such as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, created by French wine producers in the twentieth century. Scholars in this area certainly haven’t ignored categories of time, temporality and history in analysing how the authenticity of particular foodstuffs is constructed, but they have generally been given considerly less attention than place, locality and globalisation.
Importantly, a uniting theme across research about authenticity and food is the recognition that elitist, exclusionary and culturally imperialist dynamics often shape the construction of authentic foods and drinks. Our research seeks to understand the power dynamics involved here more fully, by looking closely at the role played by historical knowledge, narratives about the past and future, and temporal concepts such as timelessness, nostalgia, origins and traditions.
El descubrimiento del pulque [The Discovery of Pulque]. Oil on canvas. 1869. Nineteenth-century depiction of a pre-Columbian legend about the discovery of pulque. Did the long history of pulque production in Mexico and its associations with the Aztec past make it a culturally “authentic” symbol of Mexicanness?
For instance, how and why can certain foods and drinks become valorised as cultural icons through the idea of “timelessness”? Harry West and Nuno Domingos have highlighted how the Slow Food movement mobilises romanticised visions of a timeless past to suspend products like Portuguese Serpa cheese out of time, glossing over complex experiences of social and economic change. But in other contexts, to brand a food or culinary experience as authentic can involve mixing ideas of timelessness with notions of movement, innovation or change. We will, therefore, be exploring the different logics through which ideas about historical stasis and change are combined or opposed in the process of constructing authenticity. We hope to explain, ultimately, how – and why – certain culinary products survive as “authentic” and enter the future, while others do not.
1. Kaelyn Stiles, Özlem Altiok and Michael M. Bell, ‘The Ghosts of Taste: Food and the Cultural Politics of Authenticity,’ Agriculture and Human Values, 28 (2011), 225-36.
2. For some examples that do, at least partly, focus on time, history and temporality: Josée Johnstone and Shyon Baumann, Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape (London: Routledge, 2010); Minna Autio et al, ‘Consuming Nostalgia? The Appreciation of Authenticity in Local Food Production,’ International Journal of Consumer Studies, 37 (2013): 564-68; Rebecca Sims, ‘Food, Place and Authenticity: Local Food and the Sustainable Tourism Experience,’ Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 17:3 (2009):321-36.
3.Lisa Heldke, Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer (London: Routledge, 2003).
4. Harry West and Nuno Domingos, ‘Gourmandizing Poverty Food: The Serpa Cheese Slow Food Presidium,’ Journal of Agrarian Change, 12:1 (2012): 120-43.
5. Anita Mannur, ‘Culinary Nostalgia: Authenticity, Nationalism, and Diaspora,’ MELUS, 32:4 (2007):11-31.