What does the word ‘authentic’ really mean, when it comes to both culture and cuisine? I think we often misuse the term ‘authentic’, to mean better or real when it’s not always the case.
As a former student of dance anthropology, authenticity was something I spent a lot of time thinking about and discussing with my peers. As consumers of other cultures (that’s basically what anthropologist are) how do we define the very important line between appreciation and appropriation? What does the word authentic really mean, and why do we assume there is room for only one TRUE answer, rather than a sliding variation?
There are many professions that focus on preservation of culture; whether it’s a dish or a dance or a piece of artwork to or a piece of history… record keeping makes sense. Anthropologists and historians learn that often it is the diaspora, the group of people that move away from their homeland, that become more attached to a more static sense of tradition within their culture, in attempt to strengthen their connection to it from afar. It is human nature to hold on dearly to that which brings us comfort and reminds us of home. But equally, when a tradition moves on, it doesn’t become any less REAL, less ‘authentic’ or worthwhile. There has to be room for organic evolution within the therm ‘authentic’ or we run the risk of loosing many different aspects of a culture simply because it can’t (or is prevented from) keep up with the times.
In light of all of this questioning of authenticity, it is equally important to pay attention to who it is that decides when a recipe, dance or representation of any kind is considered to be authentic. Who has the authority to move that representation forward. The fear of appropriation is a forever looming cloud that hangs over me whenever I reference another cuisine or culture. It reminds me that it is imperative to do my research, and to speak from my own experiences rather than from any culture that is not my own.
In this spirit, I have spent a good bit of time recently retracing my steps from move to move, choice to choice. I’ve revisited my few but formative years spent in New Mexico. That time, in my mid twenties, connects me to a unique piece of the world I am desperate to keep alive within my own daily life, desperate to share that piece of myself with my family. Time and distance make it hard to find tangible examples of both the person I was then, and the culture that helped me to develop into the person I am now. The easiest way I have found to do so is to begin with the food.
Carne Adovada is a relatively mild chile* (the pepper is intentionally spelled this way here as it is in New Mexico) dish, and a backbone of New Mexican cuisine. Chiles are so prevalent in the cuisine from this region that years ago, when I was preparing to move away, I heard quite a few cautionary tales of others who had left the state and consequently suffered depression; chiles are known for their serotonin-boosting properties and vitamin C. They literally, biologically help make us happier. Between the amount of sunshine and the mood-lifting pervasive use of chiles, New Mexico practically breeds happiness.
I did a fair amount of research when I decided I wanted to make this dish, worried that if I toned down the heat too much I would be taking away from the spirit of the dish. I consulted nearly a dozen recipes and references from a variety of sources, before landing on the ingredients below. I feel I have kept the integrity of the dish through my choice of ingredients, as well as the spirit. As it is considered to be one of the milder dishes of New Mexico’s cuisine, I felt at liberty to tone down the heat of my own dish by using less chiles, in order to be able to introduce my children to the new food in a positive light. Admittedly, the four year old wasn’t too keen but my six-year old couldn’t get enough of it, it made her (and therefore me) noticeably happier with each bite she took. If you want to bump up the heat, just throw more chiles into your sauce, the ratio for everything else can remain the same.