Our Consuming Authenticities project kicked off the papers in what would turn out to be a fantastic conference at the University of Leicester on 6-7 June. This was the New Directions in Drinking Studies conference that I mentioned in a previous post and that I have been organising with my Drinking Studies Network co-ordinator hat on. The aim of the conference was to celebrate 5 years of the Network’s activity, having been founded in 2010, and to identify promising avenues of new research which we hope to tackle collaboratively through research clusters within the Network. Through the papers on pulque and craft cider, delivered by myself and Emma-Jayne Abbots, together with other papers on real ale, Russian beer, champagne, and village pubs, authenticity emerged through the conference as a vitally important theme to drinking studies, which we’ll plan to take forward in new directions.
— Mark Hailwood (@mark_hailwood) June 8, 2015
In each of these papers, the locus of authenticity was rather diverse. In Emma-Jayne’s study of craft cider, it became clear that the integrity and labour involved in the production process, and the pride and passion of the producer, were integral to how some ciders were viewed as more “authentic” than one another. Furthermore, the inconsistent nature of craft cider products year on year was seen as a virtue – surprising to some of the brewers in the audience – since this was evidence of the natural and unadulterated state of the cider. Some interesting tensions emerged too, particularly in relation to the idea of tradition vs innovation: while many craft producers insisted things shouldn’t be changed too much from traditional methods to maintain an authentic product, it was clear from their practice that regular tweaks and changes were applied to improve the taste of the cider.
Graham Roberts‘s paper on Siberian Crown lager suggested, meanwhile, that branding materials sought to construct this drink as “authentically” Russian, with marketing and social media campaigns particularly targeted towards people considered ethnically Russian around the world, rather than to Russian consumers within Russia. He highlighted marketing materials that mobilised extremely patriotic, politically significant iconography – often at the expense of references to the beer itself – in order to stimulate a pride in Russia. So, while the potential for drinks to evoke particular emotions through ideas of authenticity was similar to Emma-Jayne Abbots’s findings regarding craft cider, here the images of authenticity were much more ethnically and nationally driven.
In some ways, my paper on pulque overlapped with both of these ideas. In the 19th century context, where Mexican intellectuals and politicians saw themselves as actively engaged in constructing images of Mexican nationhood – in the aftermath of independence from the Spanish empire – pulque was partly valorised as “authentically” Mexican. This was mainly done through reference to pulque’s ancient origins in Toltec and Aztec history, which I discussed in a previous post. Various novels, poems and paintings particularly revived the story of Xochitl, thereby connecting pulque symbolically to Mexico’s historical depth, cultural prestige and unique identity as a nation. However, moving towards the contemporary moment – when pulque is largely subordinate to tequila, or mezcal, as the “national” drink in symbolic terms – ideas about pulque’s authenticity are much less about national symbolism than they are about recognising Mexico’s indigenous heritage in contemporary Mexican culinary culture and the local, family traditions that help to maintain pulque production in rural regions.
Check back soon for a summary of some of the other authenticity-themed papers that featured at the conference!