I have never been anywhere in “The Americas” and that pains me. Whether you think of the USA, of the wonderland of Canada (Why, oh why, is it not “Canadia”? It would suit the country so well. But never mind), or of the vast, endless, splendored abundance of South America, I have never been to that place. And I want to, oh how I want to: But mostly for the food. Food rules the aspirations.
Let’s take this apart, bit by bit: I so desperately want to eat real barbecue in the southern states; I want to tuck in to a bowl of poutine in Canada; I want to eat tamales on a backstreet in Mexico; I want to make my way through a huge steak, and several bottles of wine, in Argentina; I want to drink crushed sugar cane in Brazil; I genuinely want to eat Guinea Pig anywhere in South America.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Why do I instead go on holiday to Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Italy and France? Part of it is cost; part of it is convenience; part of it is the total lack of desire to spend a full half a day on an aeroplane with the bodily expulsions of a few hundred other people. I will add that the environmental costs of such travel also plays a part in stopping me from taking such journeys.
And so I try to recreate this food in my own kitchen. I watch food travel programmes, and I read cookery books and blogs. I work hard to assemble the ingredients and processes of a food which I have never eaten in its native form. I cook, and I taste, and I refine, and I taste, and I inflict the results – with ever varying degrees of success – on my hungry, if also rather captive, family.
My recreation of buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy was mixed: The first time I made it I think I got the gravy about right, but the biscuits were a bit gluey; the second time I made it, the biscuits were so much better – light, fluffy, crispy on the outside – but the gravy was more of a mess.
I am following recipes written by people who have at least eaten this food for real: I only have their word to go on regarding whether I am doing it right. (Slight side note to that recipe: I later found that the original book I was using was putting forth a low fat agenda, rather than sticking to the authenticity I had hoped I was looking at. I am getting sick to the back teeth of recipe books being sneakily healthy: it’s my choice, not theirs. Now I get American recipes from blogs instead.)
I’m missing out on the atmosphere of all of these foods: the back streets of Mexican cities smell so different to the streets of urban North Tyneside; the heat of the air in Argentina will feel utterly different to the air of the Northumbrian coast. That is an aspect of the cuisines I aspire to which I will never understand without going there, which I will never be able to recreate. Is the food still real?
I often cook an Icelandic dish, called Plokkfiskur. It’s essentially fish and potatoes, beaten together with a white sauce. I have eaten that in Iceland, including on a harbour, with mountains across the smoky bay. I don’t try and create that atmosphere when I am cooking Plokkfiskur, but it sits in the back of my mind whenever I eat it. The same cannot be said for Icelandic hot dogs, which I do try to recreate. Is that necessarily a product of streetfood versus the food of the restaurant and the home?
Does that inherent lack of authenticity – in having eaten the original or in having experienced the atmosphere – make the end result any less authentic? What, in effect, is authenticity? If all I am in the mood for is a tasty plate of food with my family, what does authenticity even really matter?
I don’t always think it does. Yes, I don’t want to be surreptitiously served up a “low fat version” of a classic dish, when the real thing is so good. That said, I want the flavour of something exciting. And the epitome of that excitement of flavour, as far as I’m concerned, is “Mexican” food.
British supermarket shelves are stocked full of “Meal Kits” for supposedly Mexican food, allowing us to assemble chillies, tomato, chicken and wraps in ever more innovative ways, while never ever truly recreating anything even close to authenticity. So I avoid such things, preferring to try my luck with base ingredients. I buy the tastiest tomatoes I can find, a big bunch of coriander (cilantro to the folk of the Americas), some tasty chillies, and a load of limes. Then I try my best to put that in to a corn tortilla, often with (sweet)corn, always with a big dollop of sour cream. It cannot possibly be real.
The point of that kind of meal for me is rarely about making something which is really representative of food that a Mexican person would recognise as theirs. It is more about combining a set of punchy flavours which I love in to a method of eating which I get a lot from. The spicier the better for me.
Authenticity versus making a plate of food which gets your blood pumping. Yes, I am aiming for, and excited about, the latter; the problem is that my ego always wants me to go to the former. I have this twee middle class urge to not appropriate the culture of a people, and rewrite their food in my clumsily colonial ways, but sometimes a good plate of food is a good plate of food. Tasty just wins.
That said, I am not about to say that the rice dish I have made, with chorizo and saffron, peas and garlic, is a pan of paella. It would be a mockery, which I am not about to make. In the same vein I am not about to say that my approach to combining supposedly “Mexican” ingredients is anything like real Mexican food. I have convinced myself that that distinction is enough to cover my arse.
As much as I want to try the flavours of the world – and I hope to do so in person at some point in my life – I need to separate the food snobbery from the need to put a tasty plate of food on the table, and a fiery forkful of food in my mouth. For all I want to almost be shot while buying freshly ground chocolate in Mexico, I mostly want a plate of tacos in front of the TV on a Friday night.