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Festival of Books: Don't try to find authentic anything, food writers say

April 22, 2012 |  7:06 pm

Click to view photos from the Festival of Books

What is “authenticity” as it relates to food, and what are we looking for when we search out “authentic cuisine”?

In the panel "Food Writing: American Potluck" on Sunday, moderator and L.A. Times columnist and restaurant critic Jonathan Gold explored issues of authenticity with writers Gustavo Arellano, Aaron Bobrow-Strain and Jennifer 8. Lee.

Gold noted “authenticity doesn’t stay still,” and what we may view as authentic today may not be considered so 20 years from now -- and almost certainly was regarded as such a century ago.

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

Arellano argued that “while we should value our traditions,” we “should not put food in a box.” His latest book, "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” celebrates food from places we might not expect -– like the the Taco Bells and Margaritavilles –- as Mexican food.

While he started out as an “auténtico,” Arellano came to the conclusion that there is no authentic Mexican cuisine. “To talk about ‘authentic’ Mexican cuisine is a foolish endeavor.”

Bobrow-Strain is the author of “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.” He explored the history of white bread in the U.S. and the nation’s dramatic shift from bread made at home to industrial breads baked in distant factories, a shift that seemingly happened overnight. In the 1890s, about 90% of bread was baked at home; by the 1930s, most bread was factory-baked.

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

Bobrow-Strain discussed how that shift occurred, and how it embraced the racial fears of the day as baking bread moved out of the home (where mother’s might be demonized for not following the scientific and dietary advice of the day) and away from local, typically minority-owned bakeries to factories where white loaves seemingly magically appeared “untouched by human hands.” 

He explored the introduction of sliced bread (1928) and how the “soft” white loaf came to be (breads would often toughen over time as they were shipped from factories to stores and were engineered to stay soft so consumers would think loaves were fresh).

Lee, author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” discussed the immigration and dispersement of Chinese workers in the U.S., noting  most of them are from a small area in China who enter the U.S. through East Broadway in New York City's Chinatown.

She explored how Chinese food is adopted and evolves in various cultures, from American Chinese to French, Mexican and Italian Chinese, where fried gelato is as popular as fortune cookies in the U.S., and even Irish Chinese, where a popular 3-in-1 dish combines fried rice, French fries and curry mixed together.

The panel discussed how cuisine is viewed through a local lens: how a “Mexican  hamburger” defines Mexican food in Denver as much as a “California burrito” epitomizes Mexican food in Southern California, and how cultural foods, like Chinese food, evolve in waves.

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--Noelle Carter

Photo: L.A. Times food writer Jonathan Gold leads authors Gustavo Arrellano, Aaron Bobrow-Strain and Jennifer 8. Lee in a panel Sunday at the Festival of Books. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times

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