Authenticity: not ‘what’ but ‘why’

Authenticity measures the degree to which something is more or less what it ought to be. …is it an immanent norm, emerging somehow from the cuisine itself? Or is it an external norm, reflecting some imposed gastronomic standard? If is is an immanent norm, who is its authoritative voice: The professional cook? The average consumer? The gourmand? The housewife? If it is an imposed norm, who is its privileged voice: the connoisseur of exotic food? The tourist? The ordinary participants in a neighboring cuisine? The cultivated eater from a distant one? (Appadurai 1986, 25).

My first job as a recently-arrived Anglo-American migrant to Australia in 1992 was as a waitress in a bistro in Geelong, a provincial city an hour from Melbourne. On the menu, I was delighted to note, were burritos, a food Americans claim as our own. Whilst having my tour of the kitchen, I asked the chef how she made her burritos, to which she replied, “I use large roti bread, fill it with pieces of chicken I’ve fried with some onion, roll it up, and pour béarnaise sauce over the top. Then I serve it with salad on the side.” Aside from raised eyebrows, I withheld my feedback until I tasted said ‘burritos’ at the end of a long shift, “This tastes quite nice, but it’s definitely not a burrito.”

In a short piece On Culinary Authenticity, Arjun Appadurai suggests that “quality is typically the insider’s concern, authenticity that of the culinary tourist. We often admit that there is food that, though inauthentic, is good” (1986, 25). However Appadurai acknowledges that authenticity becomes the concern of insiders “when they (and the food) are far from home. […] The concern with authenticity indicates some sort of doubt, and this sort of doubt is rarely part of the discourse of an undisturbed culinary tradition.” (ibid).

I find Americans in Melbourne often lament the lack of Mexican restaurants, or the perceived ‘inauthenticity’ of those we do have. I myself have indulged in precisely this lament, and in my early years as a new migrant went to some trouble to seek out Melbourne’s Mexican restaurants, which were unequivocally disappointing when the flavours failed to conjure up a taste of home. (The dilemmas of finding ‘my’ food also extended to: a lack of Ranch dressing; unwelcome slices of beetroot on burgers; large, overly pliant pieces of bacon; and milk that tasted ‘funny’, to name just a few.)

I eventually accepted the absence of what I understood to be Mexican food, and subsequently resorted to only eating it at home. Due to a lack of quality tortillas here in the early 1990s, I learned to make my own. Were the tortillas I made at home ‘authentic’? Surely not – I had to piece together recipes from a few whole-foods genre cookbooks, and I don’t own a tortilla press, so my tortillas were inevitably too thick and quite chewy. It is now possible to find edible commercial facsimiles of tortillas for sale even at Coles, though they don’t compare with homemade or California’s ubiquitous locally made versions. As well as tortillas, I make my own refried beans as the tinned version readily available here is, well, depressing.

And yet this story of a search for authenticity has a complicated genealogy. My earliest experiences of burritos were in fast food franchises in southern California, namely Del Taco and Taco Bell. Later, our Mexican housekeeper made us quesadillas almost daily, Mexican style, without vegetables. In my last years in America, I was a fan of the local taquería style burritos, which are typically giant and filled with refried beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, tomato, guacamole, sour cream and red or green salsa and wrapped in aluminium foil.

Thus is the varied landscape of my burrito memories. There were (and are) plenty of other versions of burritos in America, including the ‘wet’ burritos, which must be eaten with a knife and fork, but my core notions of authenticity (which, as per Appadurai’s point, only surfaced after migration) involved the basics of meat, beans, cheese, salads, guacamole and sour cream wrapped in flour tortillas and eaten with your hands. The American versions of ‘authentic’ burritos actually differ significantly from their Mexican counterparts.

In northern Mexico there are burritos, which are made from fillings (typically rice, beans and/or a meat) wrapped inside an unleavened flat bread that the Mexicans call a tortilla. The tortillas can be made from wheat or corn, and come in a variety of sizes. They tend to be smaller than burritos found in the US, where the burritos are filled with an astonishing number of ingredients, many of which are not easily found in their northern Mexican states of origin, Sonora and Chihuahua. With the ever increasing popularity of burritos in America, they have made their way onto menus throughout southern Mexico as well wherever ‘gringos’ congregate, and more closely resemble American versions than northern Mexican ones. I do not have the space here to do justice to a discussion of the process of migrant foods ‘returning’ in hybridised form to the ‘homeland’ as an aspect of the broader process of globalisation, but it is a topic worth exploration in its own right.

My personal hunt for an ‘authentic’ burrito is just one version of identity work played out repeatedly around the world. In my narrative, it is the story of the migrant who unreflexively believes there is an ‘authentic’ essence to a dish from one’s original culture (even if it’s a transplant in the first place). Writing about multiculturalism and migrant tendencies to self-essentialise, Tariq Modood observes that “…when non-Chinese speak of Chinese civilization, their starting point is often that it has coherence, sameness over centuries and a reified quality” (2007, 93) and subsequently argues that sometimes we all speak of our own cultures this way (as per my own migration trajectory).

In my initial searches for an ‘authentic’ burrito, I didn’t clearly articulate for myself or others what that item might really be like if I found it, but I knew that I would know it, by sight, smell, texture and taste, when I did. In 20 years here I have never found ‘it’, but still enjoy (nay, devour) ‘homely’ burritos on every return trip to the States. And in Australia, I no longer pine for Ranch dressing, or American-flavoured milk, and have accepted beetroot, prefer Australian-style bacon, and adore Vegemite and lamb in any form.

Migrants and those recently returned from overseas often experience unsatisfactory encounters with the dish (or dishes) of their memories, and will tend to seek out restaurants run by ‘real Mexicans/Vietnamese/Italians/[insert migrant group]’ in hopes that they have been ‘true’ to the cuisine and can offer one cultural succour and fulfilment of nostalgic desires by matching taste to memory. When this fails, if one is resourceful, one attempts to cook the foods at home, even if they were foods that one traditionally only ate ‘out’ back home, or for which key ingredients were always purchased ready made, such as tortillas in California.

But in my view, arguing about whether something is authentic isn’t very interesting. Rather, understanding what it means to those seeking or producing ‘it’ is my motivation for interrogating the concept. In my experience, it is common for Melburnians to express pride for their/our cosmopolitan city, a melding of cultures where people from all over the globe are living “togetherness-in-difference” (Ang 2001, 14), particularly in the food scene.

Yet there is an obvious tension between the (potential) symbolic violence of insisting on the performance of authentic identity and the associated very real desire to be challenged and stimulated with a multiplicity of ideas, flavours and ways that is at the heart of cosmopolitanism. As I have written elsewhere (Jonas 2008), at the heart of this is a desire for fluency in many vernaculars and to know the world’s many ways of being-in-the-world, which also has the consequence of distinguishing one as possessing a great deal of cultural capital within most fields, whether intentional or not.

So the important question is not whether it’s possible to determine whether something is authentic, but what does the search for it mean to different people, insiders, outsiders and those in-between? And what one finds upon probing is that it is a useful concept by which people assert and maintain ethnic and cosmopolitan identities that allow them to settle homely identities in new lands, or new identities in homely lands. It is a means to achieving social distinction and accruing cultural capital, and it is a way to engage with Otherness as a cosmopolitan principle. It is a way for migrants to strategically mobilise their own ethnic identities in order to accrue economic capital from the outsiders who seek it, and an essentialist assertion that can exclude those perceived to be ‘authentic’ from the project of modernity.

A final rhetorical flourish to highlight the instability of authenticity as a category then – some years ago I asked a focus group in Saigon, ‘what is the essential ingredient that makes phởauthentic?’. One woman responded, ‘MSG’.

mEatDrinkBlog Melbourne!

Michael over at My Aching Head has come up with a brilliant plan to bring the Melbourne food blogging community together on a regular basis to a) eat, b) drink, c) talk all things food blogging. You can read about the details, including our first venue & date, on his blog.

I’ll be the Mistress of Ceremonies, collating expressions of interest to give a presentation and facilitating discussion on the night(s). This will be a great opportunity to ask those tricky Word Press questions, discuss the ethical responsibilities of food reviewing, debate whether to monetise your blog, and argue the relative merits of good food photography. 🙂 Those interested in presenting (10 minutes followed by discussion, fairly informal) can email me at

I look forward to seeing many of you on the 31st of March!

Food Traditions and Culinary Cultures Symposium

I was honoured and delighted to be invited to present a paper on the 12th of March 2011 at the Food Traditions and Culinary Cultures Symposium, followed by a ‘Conversation Dinner’ :-). The event has been convened by the Australasian Food Studies Network as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Network, and is being hosted by the William Angliss Institute.

There’s a great line up of speakers on a variety of topics around food traditions and culinary cultures, followed up with a dinner to carry on the conversation. I’ll be talking about the increased opportunities a cosmopolitan society offers in the development of a more socially and environmentally sustainable world.

It promises to be a great day, and I really hope to see some of you there!

The University of Melbourne’s Response to my Resignation from Council

I only just discovered this on Crikey from the 10th of December – it’s Melbourne University’s response to my resignation from University Council (and paywalled, so full text below) – my responses are in italics:

Melbourne University:

Christina Buckridge, Corporate Affairs Manager, University of Melbourne writes: Re. “Why I resigned from the University of Melbourne Council” (yesterday, item 15) & “Leaked email: Teach for free? Melbourne uni councillor calls it quits” (Tuesday item 14).It is regrettable that Tammi Jonas has decided to resign from the University Council where, as member elected by graduate students, she could have raised concerns and had them thoroughly and sympathetically considered.

How disingenuous to suggest that the Melbourne Graduate Student Association (GSA, formerly UMPA) had not been lobbying on the issue of exploitation of casual labour for YEARS – well before my time as President and certainly during. You can read blog entries from that period here. And as an elected member of Council I had repeatedly raised these issues, as I did on just about every university committee before that. The response usually takes one of two forms: a) we don’t know what you’re talking about – our policies don’t allow such things or b) tutoring is all part of training, so of course it’s not going to be that well paid. See the uni’s response below for proof.

Ms Jonas is wrong in claiming that the Arts Faculty made a ‘strategic decision’ to stop paying postgraduates.

Have a look at this blog entry on what was going on in Arts in 2008. To my knowledge, it wasn’t official ‘policy’ to stop paying, but subject coordinators were told not to offer any paid positions guest lecturing, and passed it on to their postgrads, who expressed the quandary it put them in.

Dean of Arts Professor Mark Considine says it has never been suggested that graduate students should give lectures or tutorials for free. While Schools within the Faculty experiencing straitened circumstances might have cut back on the number of guest lectures, it is not the Faculty’s policy to ask people to give tutorials/lectures without payment. Postgraduate students are an important — and paid — part of the Faculty’s tutorial program which rolls on as usual.

Again, the company line simply doesn’t match the reality. See my earlier blog post with stories from real postgrads, some of whom had been asked and were giving guest lectures for free. Is the University suggesting these people are LYING?

Of course, some guest lecturers — retired honorary staff, for instance – may elect to present a lecture pro bono.

The email inviting Ms Jonas to take part in the Melbourne School of Graduate Research (MSGR) 2010 programs should not have been sent; no other postgraduate students have been invited by MSGR to teach into 2010 MSGR programs without payment. MSGR does not condone requiring postgraduate students to work without payment. However, some staff, and very rarely postgraduate students, may volunteer to take part in MSGR student enhancement programs but that is their decision alone — there is no compulsion.

My word. Compulsion is interesting, don’t you think? Of course nobody is strong-armed into working for free, but they’re not employed if they don’t work for too little, or in some cases, don’t agree/offer to guest lecture for free. And for those who believe that tutoring is important to developing their career as an academic, surely such exploitative practices amount to compulsion.

The University’s position is that if people are in employment, they are required to be paid in line with University policy.

Can somebody PLEASE pass that information on to the lecturers who are simply grateful when someone will teach for free since they will otherwise need to fund them out of their already limited grant money (if they even have any)?

Current rates for casual tutors at Melbourne are $104.84 ($125.37 with a PhD) an hour for the initial tutorial and $69.90 ($83.57 with a PhD) for repeat tutorials. These are standard for the industry and comparable to other countries. The hourly rate is way above average wages.

NB: $104.84 is for three hours work, not one – preparation, contemporaneous marking, student consultation & delivery. That is, it’s the same as the pay for marking at $34.94/hour, and some tutors are not paid for marking. Here’s the text from the University’s Personnel and Procedures Manual:

‘Tutorial’ means any education delivery described as a tutorial in a course or unit outline, or in an official timetable issued by the University. A casual staff member required to deliver or present a tutorial (or equivalent delivery through other than face to face teaching mode) of a specified duration and relatedly provide directly associated non contact duties in the nature of preparation, reasonably contemporaneous marking and student consultation

However it is important to note that postgraduate study is usually a full-time occupation and tutoring should not be used as a prime source of income.

And yet if you’re fortunate enough to have a scholarship, you’ll be living below the poverty line, and if not, you’ll certainly need to work, preferably in your field… a conundrum? I have heard sympathetic senior academics make the argument to pay tutors better to management: “We don’t want them to have to work in petrol stations, do we?”

In recent negotiations towards a new enterprise agreement, the University has agreed to increase the casual loading, ensure that all casual marking is paid at a separate marking rate (currently $34.94 per hour) and that casual academics have access to University facilities over semester breaks. The University is committed to improving conditions for casual staff during this round of bargaining.

This is good news, of course, though insufficient. What about paying casual academics when they continue to respond to students out of semester? Or attend student academic misconduct hearings? Or respond to online forums on the uni’s Learning Management System? Or attend meetings?

Also where there is evidence that a casual staff member, or any staff member for that matter, is not being paid in accordance with University policy or that there is a mismatch of expectations about the work they are required to do, the University acts to correct it.

It seems to me that the only action the University usually takes is to quickly deny there was ever a problem. If you believe their official responses, whether at Council, on committees, or in the media, academics (both casual and permanent) are just prone to whinging and are seriously misguided about the ‘reality of the situation’. How patronising, insulting and wrong. Until they stop denying there is a problem, what hope is there that conditions will improve? Analogies with national denialists abound here.

Food and Community at Church St Enoteca

Church St Enoteca
527 Church St, Richmond VIC
(03) 9428 7898

As I’ve claimed before, the Twitterverse runs on a gift economy, and so last week Stuart and I found ourselves the grateful and delighted guests of the charming Ron O’Bryan (@ronobryan) at Church St Enoteca, along with @myfoodtrail, @jetsettingjoyce, @mutemonkey and @cookingwithgoths. It was Ron’s last regional dinner of the year, the Tour of the Obscure, designed around six obscure Italian wines which were complimented by food from the region of the grapes.

I don’t carry a particularly good camera, and these days I rely on the iPhone almost entirely (which has a terrible camera), so if you want to see great photos, check out My Food Trail or MEL: Hot or Not. These lovely bloggers also gave a detailed description of our meal, which was delicious start to finish, so I won’t give such detail here. Highlights for me were definitely the Prosecco di Valdobbiadene upon arrival, the divine salad of prosciutto with shavings of raw artichoke and fennel, and broad beans, almond and lemon, and the rabbit, fennel and cotechino brodo with rabbit cappelletti. These two dishes were totally heavenly combinations, and fed my current obsessions with rabbit, filled pastas, and cotechino very nicely.

But now it’s time for me to digress, or rather return to what are really my central interests in our dinner at Church Street Enoteca…

First of all, a quick word about social media, food and community. I’ve never been a regular reader of any particular blogs, though I usually enjoy reading casually when I have the time. Predictably, most of the blogs I look at are food blogs, though I do love a dose of a good feminist or political blog. Since Twitter, however, I now follow many dozens (dare I say hundreds?) of food bloggers, food enthusiasts, chefs, and food scholars (yes, we’re a real category), as well as people representative of my other interests in social media, politics, and feminism. On Twitter I have very rapidly expanded my ‘communities of interest’, and have had opportunities to meet many of the people I follow, such as at Enoteca last week. I’ve followed Ron for awhile, and have really enjoyed his tweets about sourcing sustainable and ethical ingredients. We’ve even had a couple of exchanges over the questions of what people are looking for and will pay for when eating out, where I shared some of the findings from my own interviews. And so what a pleasure to then be invited to join the other bloggers to taste his delectable food, followed by a great discussion with him about his upcoming new venture in St Kilda, where he will be showcasing local, seasonal and where possible, organic and biodynamic foods.

Ron is clearly passionate about his cooking and the quality of his ingredients. This passion extends to the ways that food supports community, and his educational dinners that focus on regional cuisine see all sorts of people sitting side by side learning, tasting and conversing. Our dinner was served a la famiglia, with big share plates down the middle of the tables. As Ron said when he was introducing the meal, he served us family style in order to bring people together, and he even suggested that people would probably eat something they hadn’t tried before, which would give us more to talk about. Of course he was right, and our table was abuzz with conversation about what ingredients we were seeing and tasting, and comparing notes on flavour and texture. In fact, it was nearly midnight before we all left, a late hour we had chattered our way to without noticing.

So in terms of creating a congenial environment, Ron’s really nailed it at Church Street Enoteca, where quality ingredients are transformed into truly delicious regional Italian dishes, and interesting individuals connect to form rich and diverse communities.

Thanks, Ron! We look forward to checking out the new venture soon!