We're Thinking About Food in the Wrong Way

©. K Martinko – Bean chili may not be the most beautiful or 'authentic' food, but it's darn good.

Fretting about authenticity and appearance detracts from more important concerns.

Food writer Bee Wilson thinks we are asking the wrong questions of the food we eat. We are far too preoccupied with the question of authenticity, and whether or not a dish has been made according to traditional practices. Has the pesto been ground with pine nuts using a mortar and pestle? Is there guanciale in the Amatriciana sauce and snails in the paella?

There is a sense that a well-made dish follows established rules and that to deviate from them is a desecration, but this is a limiting viewpoint to take. Wilson writes in the Wall Street Journal,

"The cult of authenticity is based on the idea that recipes are suspended in time and place, like berries in an old-fashioned Jell-O mold. Yet since the discovery of fire, every generation of cooks has rewritten the rule book of cooking, depending on the ingredients and resources available and the tastes of the times."

To continue cooking a dish and reinterpreting it based on one's own culture and access to ingredients should be viewed as a great honor. Wilson writes, "It’s more respectful to a dish to cook it and keep it alive than it is to insist on making it the exact same way it happened to be made a hundred years ago."

What we should be asking, rather, is if our food is real. Walk through a supermarket and you'll see numerous examples of foods claiming to be what they are not, named after flavors that have never actually been added. Obsessing over authenticity is a mere distraction from bigger issues of food labeling, safety, and over-processing.

Wilson's thoughtful piece made me think of another article I read recently, titled 'Brown Food Isn't Photogenic, but It's Delicious' by Colman Andrews. He argues that we're overly preoccupied with how food looks – mainly because it gets posted to Instagram – and that it's affecting the way it tastes.

"Chefs have responded to the phenomenon by trying to make their dishes as beautiful and/or unusual-looking as possible — and at least sometimes paying more attention to the way things look than to the way they taste."

Many of the most delicious dishes are brown, due to the mouthwatering Maillard effect that caramelizes the exterior of an ingredient and deepens the flavor, but this doesn't look nearly as good as it tastes. A rich beef stew simply does not upload as beautifully as a dazzling rainbow of a salad.

Whether it's authenticity or photographic potential that we're worrying about, both distract from the more important questions of what and why we're eating, how it tastes, and who we're eating it with. It's time to recalibrate our food-based priorities.