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Wikipedia:WikiProject Food and drink/Original, authentic, and traditional

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"Original", "traditional", "authentic", and other distracting terminologyEdit

There are a few recipes which can safely be said to have "original" versions. These are mostly the ones that were invented at a precise time and place by a precise person or in a precise restaurant. Oh, yes, and where there is accurate contemporary documentation (no secret ingredients or techniques). There are not many recipes like this outside of haute cuisine. Caesar salad might qualify except that the recipe was only recorded years after it was created, so it is possible it had changed by then.

Most recipes are like folktales, which have many variants, some of which have become canonical because they were collected and published (e.g. by the Grimm brothers). But even there, there may be more than one "canonical" version (in, say, French and English or for that matter in two different editions of Grimm). And funnily enough, some folktales' "original" version turns out not to have been a folktale at all, but a literary creation which later become popular in a popular form.

Most recipes change over time, and change depending on the region, the cook, the cook's whims, the cook's budget, the eater's tastes, and what is available in the market. Some change radically. The oldest known version of profiterole, for example, seems to have been some sort of baked dumpling served in soup. The economics and technology of food changes over time, too. Vegetable oil as we know it (corn oil, rapeseed (canola) oil, etc. – olive oil is in a different category...) has replaced animal fat (lard, sheep fat, and cooking butter) and sesame oil in many areas around the Mediterranean only in the past century, partly because technology has made it much cheaper, partly because more recently the animal fats have become considered unhealthy. Recipes change along with the economics. And with taste – American recipes became far far sweeter between 1880 and 1960.

In most cases, the history of foods is poorly documented. Until one knows the detailed history, it is unsafe to make inferences like "cream is not a typical Roman ingredient, therefore carbonara cannot/should not/does not contain cream". Perhaps it was invented in some aristocratic household which loved French cuisine and always had cream on hand. Perhaps it actually originally comes from a region where cream is typical, but it has been forgotten in that region and become popular in Rome. There are also sorts of nice stories one can invent from 'common sense' about foods (e.g. that pesto alla genovese was invented to preserve basil for sea voyages) but for which there is no good evidence (ships' manifests are actually quite detailed about the foods they bring on board, and pesto isn't mentioned).

It is also unsafe to assume that just because something is well known in a given region, and considered by the inhabitants of that region and promoted by the local tourist board as a traditional regional specialty, that it comes from a tradition lost in the mists of time. "Everyone knows" that baguettes are "traditionally Parisian", but they were invented in the late 19th century. In the case of carbonara, actually, all the sources seem to agree that it is not a "traditional" recipe, but a rather recent one, so why is anyone talking about "tradition" at all?

And the recipes passed down by our parents and grandparents are not necessarily any more "authentic" or "traditional" than any others. (Not to mention that they are original research and have no standing as reliable sources.) A few years ago, a Francophone Belgian radio station asked its readers to submit their favorite regional recipes from their family traditions, which were to be collected into a cookbook of authentic regional tradition. But many of the recipes turned out to be identical: copied verbatim from some long-ago magazine article or cookbook. (In the US, they may have been copied from the back of the cornflakes box, but let's not get into that....)

True, there are food academies and food writers who codify particular recipes, and chefs who make one version or another of a dish famous, but that does not make the codified versions more "authentic", more "original", or more "traditional". In fact, their innovations often change a dish radically: what we think of today as "traditional moussaka" was actually invented by a French-trained chef in the 1920s.[1]

Instead of trying to establish what the most "authentic", most "original", or most "traditional" version of various recipes is, let's try to follow Wikipedia's wise neutral point of view policy, which asks us to report on all reputable positions. If the Academy of Roman Gastronomy forbids the use of cream in carbonara, report it. If the oldest known recipe uses garlic (whether it is common nowadays or not), report it. If 5 out of 15 Italian cookbooks with good reputations use cream, report that cream is used by some Italian cooks, and shunned by others (especially if you can find the suitable horrified language). If most American versions use Wisconsin cheddar (I say "yuck!", but that is a Talk page comment...), report on it. And so on.

So let's just avoid the words "authentic", "original", "traditional", etc. and stick to reporting things that we can actually determine from good sources. --Macrakis (talk) 05:15, 13 February 2008 (UTC)


  1. ^ Aglaia Kremezi, "'Classic' Greek Cuisine: Not So Classic", The Atlantic, Sunday, July 13, 2010 full text