May it Please the Palate: 'Authentically Artisan'

There are two words used to describe food that bug me more than anything. One is "authentic," and the other is "artisan."

Let's start with "authentic." It's the one that makes me want to climb walls. Invariably it's used by some critic to discern "true" ethnic cuisine, like Mexican or Chinese, from some Americanized version. As Frank Zappa once famously sneered, "Is that a real poncho, or is that a Sears poncho?"

The word even has Mexicans on the defensive. It seems every third Mexican restaurant is now compelled to add the word "authentic" to their signage or menu, for fear of being regarded as something less. Because for some Midwesterners, the fact that an entire Mexican family moved here from Mexico, to cook Mexican recipes in a Mexican restaurant, still isn't enough to make their food authentic.

So I wrote a poem, from the point of view of that sniveling critic--who thinks he gets to decide what's authentic, or not

It's not authentic,

This Gringo knows

'Cause I once ate

In Mexico

I had a taco

From a street stand

The finest taco

In all the land

It was authentic!

This taco stand

They had no ersatz

Mariachi band

It was authentic!

With real food!

Unlike the place

In my neighborhood.

The other cuisine that seems to get the rap of not being "authentic" is Chinese. Again, from all indications, these are restaurants that appear to have Chinese families cooking and serving Chinese food from a Chinese menu. But heaven forbid, if it's somehow deemed "Americanized"--well, then:

It's not authentic,

I've got this down:

'Cause I once ate

In Chinatown

I had some innards

With crispy fish

Not Moo Goo Gai Pan

On a Walmart dish

It was authentic!

With real food!

Unlike the place

In my neighborhood.

(Here's what's really authentic, kids: if you like it, then eat it.)

Which leads me to the second word that makes me react like chalk screeching on a blackboard: "Artisan." What does the word really mean? It's supposed to denote hand-crafted food with superior ingredients, and has been used by the local or "slow" food movements, all the way to higher end restaurants.

But when Domino's Pizza started referring to its own product as "artisan pizza," then the word lost all cachet. Kind of like when Time Magazine started using the word "groovy" and the hep cats became too embarrassed to use it anymore.

It was authentic!

What does that mean?

They hand-selected

Each individual bean

Their food was artisan!

Not just home made

How else to justify

That price you paid?

In summary, your honor, we have two perfectly fine words that have lost their meaning, and we want them back.

Published: Mon, Apr 16, 2012

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