Preserving food heritage, balancing new things

California, along with New York, tends to be a bit of a kingpin of ‘fusion’ cuisine, which is sometimes a hot mess of ingredients, flavours, and cultures slapped together on a plate, and sometimes a really dynamic, interesting, wonderful thing. I tend to eat a lot of it, because I like experimenting with new things, and so I find myself eating a mix of really cool stuff and…things better left uneaten. After all, ‘California cuisine’ is apparently a thing, and it appears to be sort of a hodgepodge of things from all over, reflecting in many ways the current population of the state, making things like Korean barbecue tacos totally reasonable (and delicious!).

There’s an interesting balance here between staunch traditionalists and people who are very committed to preserving culinary heritage (with good reason!) and people who force fusion upon everything and insist that food is in a constant state of evolution and who cares anyway. I’d argue that preserving traditional foods and ingredients is key, for a variety of reasons—and that it can be gracefully integrated with responsible, interesting, delicious fusion cuisine.

The argument for preserving traditional cuisines, ingredients, methods of preparation, and recipes isn’t just about ‘authenticity,’ which many people boil it down to. Purists and snobs want to march about claiming that they place a highly weighted value on ‘authentic’ foods and that things that don’t taste right aren’t worth the label—ignoring the fact that there’s no real one true version of authentic. Within a region of culture, there are scores of ways to prepare a dish, each regionally authentic and with a rich history. So a Thai curry doesn’t taste right to you. Maybe it’s because you’re not familiar with curries from that region of Thailand, eh?

But authenticity isn’t the problem. The problem is that food is an integral part of culture—food is necessary, food is life, but it’s also the way we express ourselves, communicate, relate to our own history. Food is woven into so many elements of human existence, with the very act of cooking and food preparation marking a huge shift in our evolutionary history. The reliance on available ingredients and tools has resulted in the creation of incredibly diverse global cuisines which have slowly been influenced by new introductions: Tomatoes, for example, are a new world fruit, yet they’re key to modern Italian cuisine. Fusion at work.

Food is culture. And the exchange of ingredients and preparations reflects a global cultural exchange, which is really, beautifully, wonderfully important. When I see collaborations involving chefs from multiple regions, it’s delightful. And when I see the organic development of fusion reflecting cultures mixing and interacting, it’s also fascinating; for example, we have the rise of takeaway in Britain, and what happens as British palates adjust to Indian and Pakistani food (speaking of authenticity, who can confidently name all the regions between India and Pakistan that have their own specific cuisines? I’ll wait.).

But there’s a profound argument for preserving traditional recipes even as we watch their evolution. I love seeing events that recreate historic meals from hundreds of years ago, playing around with documented recipes, ingredients we knew were available, works of art, and remains found at archaeological sites. I like knowing what the Romans ate and how they prepared it (although I’ll skip the mice, thanks). I like seeing what people in Medieval England ate. The study of cuisines in Central America and how they diverged over time is fascinating.

Food is history. Food is culture. Preserving traditional foods is an argument for preserving culture, especially in regions facing continual domination. There are cultures with cuisines and histories that have been actively suppressed by colonising forces and Western influences that disapprove of their traditional recipes. Others face condemnation for what they eat and how they eat it. These are issues of colonialism and supremacy. The silencing of traditional foods is a reflection of cultural violence.

Snobs may spin and position themselves as authorities who judge food on whether it passes their personal bar of authenticity, but the real question here revolves around the originators of a culinary culture, and those who are preserving it. Without this context, we lose out on the history and anthropology of so many regions on Earth. I want to know what people were eating and when and why, how they prepared it, how they stored foods, how their foods shifted over time—for example, heavy spicing was once par for the course in the West to cover up the flavour of rotten meat, and now people are repulsed at the thought of eating rotten or compromised meat (unless it’s been subjected to very carefully controlled curing or fermentation). This is part of our history; part of authentic Western food, but most Western people eating borderline-rotten meat studded with cloves would be horrified.

Cuisine is not separate from its origins, something we seem to understand culturally, but what people miss is that food is also informed by its origins, but shapes them as well. This is why we need to create rich records, including knowledge of how to make things and interact with ingredients: This is why Native people still process acorns, why people still work with maize by hand. It’s not just about being authentic or working with familiar ingredients, but about connecting with history, and bringing past to present.

When I think of the foods and traditions that have been lost, it makes me sad from the perspective of someone who likes to put things in my stomach, but it also makes me sad, and angry, from the perspective of someone who wants to preserve culture rather than shuttering it away. I don’t care whether someone things something is ‘authentic’—I’ll let members of an individual culture decide that. What I care about is preserving traditions, and creating a landscape where we don’t forget where food comes from, and the many ways people developed to handle it.

Image: Michael Stern, Flickr