Summer 2003

Ingestion / Authenticity, or, the Paradoxes of Cuisine

Unpacking a stuffed cabbage

Allen S. Weiss

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

At any given moment, certain words fall into ideological traps, and are banned from current academic usage. Most recently, words with an incredibly rich history such as romantic have suffered this fate. Another such victim, dear to modern gastronomy, is authentic. The early history of this exclusion is marked by the polemic of Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), a vigorous philosophical vituperation against Heideggerian existentialism. More recently, the word has been banned in the politically correct discourse of cultural studies, for its connotations of hierarchical judgment and frozen historicity. However, its use flourishes in everyday discourse and the mass media, and is particularly alive in the culinary context. I would like to attempt its rehabilitation, all the while being attentive to its ideological dangers.

What would constitute an “authentic” dish? An acceptable positive usage can be explained in terms of a complex notion of site-specificity, whereby a given recipe is inextricably linked to a person, place, time, or culture. But the notion of “site” itself—as phenomenological, semiological, and post-structural theories have revealed—is a complex equation. Consider the following schematization, which attempts to unpack the metaphor in its gastronomic application:

IN / OUT: private, home cooking, family recipes / public, restaurants, cookbooks
DOWN / UP: peasant, familial / bourgeoise, haute
BEFORE / AFTER: tradition / innovation
HERE / THERE: local, regional, national / foreign, cosmopolitan, hybrid
CLOSED / OPEN: familiar, childhood / unfamiliar, nouvelle

These oppositions constitute the infrastructure of the culinary symbolic, and determine the lineaments of the question of authenticity. To illustrate, consider one of my favorite dishes in a familiar manifestation: the stuffed cabbage of the Rouergue, a relatively poor region of France’s Massif Central. The analysis of the stuffed cabbage, a quite simple dish, can be undertaken by a consideration of the range of possibilities of the pertinent features that mark its different versions. In the following descriptions, the authenticity of any given version should be seen as a function of the confluence of pertinent features. (Precisely how many such features and which ones are needed in any given context to determine authenticity is, of course, a fluctuating and equivocal issue. For example, in some determinations, the type of stuffing might be crucial; in others, the accompaniment or the form.)

Type: Savoy (chou frisé) / hard white (chou pommé) / red (chou rouge). The frizzy green Savoy cabbage and the hard white cabbage are both used in the Rouergue, though the Savoy is usually preferred for its tenderness. Red cabbage is never used there, nor in any other European culture with which I am familiar—might this be a realm for experimentation?

Stuffing: beef / veal / pork / vegetable. Though beef is the preferred stuffing in most European cultures including the Rouergue (veal is used in Italy where the dish is, however, uncommon), sausage meat is also occasionally used in the Rouergue. The chopped meat is mixed with soaked bread, chopped chard leaves, egg, parsley, onion, garlic, salt, and pepper. This mixture is nearly invariable in the Rouergue, and it serves as a prime marker of national differences: while in France the filler is usually soaked bread, in Eastern Europe it will tend to be rice, as is the case in most versions in Hungary, where stuffed cabbage is tantamount to a national dish. Though meat is a sign of affluence in poor regions (as is the sheer quantity of cattle on the hoof), the absence of meat is obviously not a universal sign of impoverishment. For example, I have eaten an excellent vegetarian (indeed, macrobiotic) stuffed cabbage in New York’s relatively upscale Zen Palate. One wonders, on the other hand, what would become of this dish in New York’s chic and expensive Danube, featuring traditional Austrian-Hungarian cuisine nuanced with, as their ads suggest, French and Asian influences!

Technique: rolled / layered / whole. All three methods are utilized in the Rouergue, though for practical reasons, the use of an entire head of cabbage whose whole form is maintained (by placing the stuffing between the leaves and then tying the head) is rarely encountered, due to the fragility of the operation. In most other European cuisines, the rolled variety is by far most common.

Status: rich / poor. Stuffed cabbage is a dish of France’s poorer regions; there exist “rich” and “poor” versions of the dish, depending on the amount of meat used. In general, the role of the sundry ingredients in a stuffing is both to improve the taste and to make the meat go further. Yet certain layered recipes call for a minimal amount of stuffing between the leaves, which are then surrounded with lard and cooked slowly for a long time. What is lost in meat protein and prestige is gained in tenderness and succulence. The status of stuffed cabbage, an intrinsically poor dish, is often “raised” by different levels of hybridization. I once dined in a small restaurant in Saint-Flour (in the Cantal region of the Massif Central) on a very elegant single stuffed leaf of Savoy cabbage served on a brown sauce, with a side-dish of Pommes Anna—the dish well resisted its bourgeoisification. Even more extreme is the version I ate several years ago in the luxurious Léon de Lyon—tiny leaves stuffed with foie gras, cockscombs, sweetbreads, truffles—an extraordinary dish, but so beyond the accepted notion of “stuffed cabbage” that it seems to demand entry into another category.

Seasoning: sour-salty / sweet. In most European cultures, the Rouergue included, stuffed cabbage is a sour-salty dish. Indeed, the sweet main dish, common to Medieval European cuisine and certain North African and Asian cultures, has generally disappeared from European menus. There are some exceptions, notably revivals of ancient dishes within the nouvelle cuisine, such as Alain Senderen’s Canard Apicius (duck breast in a spiced honey sauce, served with a sweet wine such as Banyuls). There are also some regions where stuffed cabbage is still eaten sweet, such as in central Poland around Warsaw, where raisins cooked in caramelized sugar may be added to the stuffing; and in Eastern European Jewish cuisine, where raisins and honey may also be used.

Accompaniment: carrots / tomato / sauerkraut. In the Rouergue the dish is most often served along with braised carrots; in Hungary, braised in cabbage, sauerkraut, and tomato. (I make it on a bed of cabbage, leeks, onions and garlic.) However, stuffed cabbage may itself be demoted from a main dish to an accompaniment, as is the case for three of the five recipes offered by Auguste Escoffier in Le guide culinaire, that standard of classic French gastronomy: small leaves simply stuffed with chopped cabbage, with a forcemeat mixture, and with a rice pilaf mixed with foie gras purée (the latter is obviously a result of Escoffier’s cosmopolitan culinary imagination). It is of interest that his main recipe, Choux farci, is of the most difficult sort, a whole stuffed cabbage, which is given a slight improvement in pedigree by replacing the lard with foie gras fat. His Sou-Fassum Provençale uses sausage meat, rice, tomatoes, and peas, and it is slowly cooked in mutton broth. However, this recipe bears relatively little resemblance to either of the two versions of the dish (much closer to Rouergat recipes) in the opus classicus of Provençale cooking, J.-B. Reboul’s La cuisinière provençale (1897). Might I dare suggest that Escoffier’s recipe, however delicious it probably is, is not authentically Provençal? (Though I don’t wish to unduly complicate the matter, I am certainly aware that the idea of a locus classicus poses hermeneutic and ideological problems parallel to those of the problematic of authenticity.)

Of course, any dish may be cooked and eaten anywhere. But while all cuisines are excellent, not all dishes are. What changes from place to place is the meaning of the dish, its symbolic resonance. The “authenticity” of the Rouergat stuffed cabbage hardly means that it is the only type that could or should be eaten in the Rouergue. It is simply a descriptive mark of typicality (not essentiality), gleaned from the complex intertwinings of the varied appearances of stuffed cabbage in Rouergat family kitchens, restaurants, conversations, folklore, literature, history, etc. The meaning of the dish, culinary and symbolic, depends on its placement within these contexts—and the meaning is complex. Its history is always evolving: in a half century, it is quite possible that the above list of dichotomies will itself differ, as will the culinary imagination of the Rouergue, especially as it is spurred on by the innovative cuisine of such restaurants as Michel Bras (Laguiole), or by the confrontation of traditional and innovative cuisine in the Hôtel Augey (Laguiole) and Le Méjane (Espalion)—innovation always contextualized by those places that guard the sundry traditions, such as the Hôtel des Voyageurs (Saint-Chély).

Consider, therefore, the following provisos that may reorient the use of the word authenticity in a richer and less prejudicial manner:

Authenticity, like classicism, exists ex post facto. It is formulated retrospectively on the basis of current premises. Note that while the common usage of authentic is judgmental, here the use is limited to the descriptive. The lexical scope of the word includes both modes: the ideological extreme is suggested by the definition, “possessing authority that is not usually open to challenge,” while the descriptive value is suggested by the gloss, “worthy of acceptance or belief by reason of conformity to fact or reality: not contradicted by evidence” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). I hope that my effort to orient the lexicon in a positive sense helps to counteract years of suppression due to negative usage.

Authenticity is a figure of equivocation, not truth. It should not proffer a univocal, impoverished view of cuisine, but rather a plurality of meaning. Authenticity is a function of the intersection of all of the above polarities (plus, doubtlessly, many others), and it exists as the tension at the core of these oppositions, whence its richness.

Authenticity is a dynamic notion, thus permeated by historicity. Spatially (synchronically), authentic is generally synonymous with indigenous, a geographic and cultural delimitation of the subject of discourse; temporally (diachronically), authenticity determines how a recipe changes over time, and is roughly synonymous with traditional. We should remember in this regard that geographic determinants include how different a given foodstuff may taste according to the soil it’s grown in (wine is a limit example of this effect). Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that an ingredient need not be produced on site for it to be indigenous to a cuisine: the major example in all cultures is salt. Temporal determinants include the acceptance of modern, “non-traditional” cooking techniques in traditional kitchens, such as pressure-cooking and microwaves, which also alter the taste of many dishes. I am thus arguing for the opposite of the often accepted rigid notion of the authentic as that which is fixed in time, space, and form. To claim that a dish is authentic is really to ask, “What does it mean for such a version of a dish to appear in this time and at this place?” A dish, like a word, exists only in the context of all of its variants over time and space, within a spectrum of possibilities. But this suggests that every dish makes sense in several different manners, variously within its personal, local, regional, national, and global contexts. Whence the various modalities of authenticity. The relative stability of recipes in peasant cultures is neither a positive or negative attribute in relation to the hyperbolic inventiveness and hybridization of Europeanized and globalized cuisines. It is the frame of reference that differs. The value of postmodern discourse is to posit all cuisines as equally valuable; its danger consists in vilifying haute cuisine—which is, after all, the “laboratory” of contemporary cuisine—as hieratic. The value of the current culinary globalization consists in increased possibilities of hybridization, fusion, and invention; its dangers are the reduction of local culinary differences, the elimination of certain foodstuffs due to thoughtless standardization of rules of hygiene, and the loss of many regional dishes in a global potlatch. A discourse that maintains openness to all cuisines, that preserves endangered recipes and foodstuffs, and that motivates investigation and experimentation is obviously to be preferred to the reactionary protectionist discourses of exclusivity and closure.

In short, without the polemic entailed by the above oppositions and tensions, popular cuisine evolves without self-consciousness of its genealogy, often to the detriment or the loss of its history; and without this polemic, haute cuisine tends to stagnate in sterile mannerism. Thus, to argue for the memorialization of tradition is not, in itself, a reactionary procedure, but one of conservation: it maintains culinary multiplicity by preserving the sedimented layers that constitute the genealogy of a dish. And the viability of this genealogy, most often, has to do with the influx of new versions. Innovation is meaningless without consideration of tradition, and hermeneutic conflict is essential for the determination of taste. The proper question should no longer be, “Is it authentic?” but rather How is it authentic?”

Many thanks to Lawrence Schehr for his invaluable suggestions.

Allen S. Weiss has most recently published Feast and Folly: Cuisine, Intoxication, and the Poetics of the Sublime (SUNY) and Breathless: Sound Recording, Disembodiment, and the Transformation of Lyrical Nostalgia (Wesleyan).

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.