Over the summer break, I undertook an intensive class falling under the European Histories department – 19th and 20th century European culinary studies. One of the assigned tasks was to write a series of short blog posts on set topics with the freedom to approach the blog from any perspective desired.
Me, being me, took the sociological perspective focussing on food as representation: the fluidity of authenticity and representation itself. There’s a lot to be said about food – there’s much more than what meets the palate. Posts #1 and #3 dissect a particular dish, where posts #2 and #4 were written as reports after doing some fieldwork in Melbourne’s (rather hipster) Gertrude Street in the suburb of Fitzroy.
A Common Formula: Pot-au-Feu (#1)
Pot-au-Feu. Perhaps the quintessential French familial tradition. It is a primordial dish and continues to persist today. And despite its continued evolution and series of name changes, pot-au-feu is perhaps the strongest link to an ancient cuisine and mindset which effectively made use of that which was readily available.
At its most simple, cheap, tough and gelatinous cuts of meat (principally beef) are simmered in a pot of water for an extended period of time, flavoured with root vegetables and a melange of seasonings. This formula is perhaps the very reason the dish persists today – simmering whatever was available by utilising the residual heat of an oven or a medieval cauldron atop lit firewood is the ultimate maneuver in effective consumption. The broth is consumable and reusable, whilst tough fatty cuts of meat are transformed into a tender melting state.
Pot-au-feu is the French symbol for egalitarianism (a tenet: liberté, égalité, fraternité) which has and continues to grace all French tables, despite its apparent protean status. For context always matters. The contents of the stew form an unspoken commentary for social status. Regional geographic variations surely exist, and remarkable variations have been made to accommodate the high class’s access to exotic ingredients. For instance, Paul Bocuse’s pot-au-feu appeals to the exotic tastes of the rich by aestheticising the dish into spectacle status with a Lyonnaise twist: a generosity of proteins, with whole chickens and local sausages nodding towards his Lyonnaise heritage, joining meticulously prettified vegetables and clarified broth which are then served on a silver platter. From bourgeois origins to haute cuisine.
I can’t wait for an Aussie variation featuring beetroot. It’s formulaic, after all…
Food in Context: Looking into Gertrude Street (#2)
Whilst staring out onto Gertrude street, looking through the window of an over-sauced kitschy crêperie to see a modish pub across the road and the 86 tram pass by, one cannot help but ponder over definitions and markers of authenticity and originality. It’s the oxymoron that is Gertrude street. The crêpe is flambéed in calvados and the cidre de Bretagne is served in a bowl, and yet the traditional galette is made from imported Indian buckwheat flour, whilst Brazilian bossa nova softly floods the restaurant amongst the waitresses’ ocker interjections.
This is a peculiar place. Its eclecticism showcases a slightly forced, very studied and totally deliberate reconstruction of its past. Gertrude street owns its rough origins, for its lack of charm has become its very charm. The undesirable is fashioned as trendy. The bottom has shifted upwards, dressing itself up in the aesthetic disguise of sustained authenticity. An itinerant drunkard wanders just outside of a vendor hosting enviable Cru Burgundies: that’s so Fitzroy. Only on Gertrude street.
Tradition is politely and reverently corrupted. A largely classical French bistro hosts a generosity of Australian wines. An Italian enoteca pits melting burrata next to nutty manchego. Food is just as much about its context as its actual contents – the where is just as important as the what. To witness steak tartare being served on Gertrude street and eaten by a Frenchman smoking Gauloises and a young guy in Doc Martens highlights gentrification, normalisation, and an assimilation of French into mainstream Australian culture.
Food extends beyond the plate and transcends above function, metamorphosing into a symbolic feast that informs us about society at large – past, present and future.
Elementary Pleasure: Pizza Margherita (#3)
I recall a time I was criticised for ordering a Margherita at a respectable Italian eatery in Melbourne. It was far too basic – order the pizza with glistening slivers of artichoke and fatty guanciale instead! But this Neapolitan success story is so much more. Pizza is reducible to the idea of adding flavours to hearty dense bread, which is a practice that goes as far back to the Neolithic age.
The Pizza Margherita is therefore a lesson in purity; a sort of elementary harmony of toppings. This is the connoisseur’s choice. The tangy vibrancy of slightly acidulous San Marzano (near Naples) tomatoes turned into sauce, adorned simply with the textural melt of fior di latte cheese, and the evasive herbal green bite of basil, all topped with glistening golden green EVOO. This is all a hinge however to discuss the dough and its resistant pliancy – the deciding factor for pizza excellence.
Reverent discussion of this multi-element symbiosis is only possible due to the pizza epidemic occurring about a decade ago in Australia. Favouring pizza beyond the box and beyond fast-food’s cold impersonality. A return to form by returning to its origins.
Hence, when we look at pizza, it’s inadequate to say it has followed a bottom-up approach. For that implies a strictly narrow vertical relation – rather, history states that pizza has had a bottom-explosion (mass diffusion). The pizza has become so ubiquitous and blasé, so anti-structure that it morphs according to context. For instance, SPAM, sweetcorn and pineapple pizza in Hawaii. I may shudder, yet they devour.
To combat this overloading, we return to simplicity: Margherita is the remedy for the overloaded soul.
Authenticity: The Problem of Imitation (#4)
Is it enough to call a restaurant confused or inauthentic because it takes a fusion approach? It’s contained in the name: confundere – mingle together. Anything other than exact imitation is untenable and subject to criticism – exaggerated exoticism is criticised as fetishisation, and appropriation is a banal retreat to cultural familiarity.
Must we look to content for authenticity? Imaginative constructions of an authentic national identity are ultimately subjective and ostensible. Take Enoteca on Gertrude street, fusing a collection of European content such as vibrant Italian panzanella, minerally French Chablis, and moreish Spanish jamon, fractured with optimal Australian produce. It oscillates between the exotic and the familiar. Is it inauthentic for not adhering to a singular cultural formula? Going beyond the rigidity of a locked cuisine is its very strength; difference is championed. Enoteca is surely ‘confused’ if it were judged based on, say, the ‘Spanishness’ of its food collectively, but the dish of manchego cheese with honey and almonds considered in isolation is archetypically Spanish.
Therefore, if we look for authenticity through content, we inevitably fail – imitation is always in the shadow of its original. But Enoteca does not lack some worthwhile verisimilitude – one must look beyond cuisine as merely gustatory and rather at the “double orality” of food as an impetus for broader discourse. For Enoteca is authentic in its palpable mood and spirit, capturing the reverential attitude towards sharing food and wine, constructed as a social event rather than merely an inert moment.