I recently heard a definition of authentic that I like: if something is authentic, it has a story.
It helps with a little debate about authentic cuisine that’s been bouncing around in my head for many years, after once being questioned about whether any post-new-world cuisine could be considered authentic. My response seemed unscientific, like, um, it’s about what people eat? And left me wondering, how long until a new thing becomes a traditional thing? Bill and I like to create traditions. For us, repeating an event three times brings it into tradition territory. But of course, societies work on a grander scale, so how long in terms of cuisine? A hundred years? Hundreds of years?
This question applies to the current debate on Irish cuisine, part of which I witnessed at Savour Kikenny. At the end of Food Camp, six food passionistas engaged in a rousing and entertaining debate, otherwise known as Food Fight! Regina Sexton, the UCC food historian, spoke last and made the statement above about authenticity (among many other statements) that gave me a little ribbon to tie together my foodie day.
Regina wasn’t the only person talking about story. The whole day was about story, starting with the open attitude of Food Camp. Any attendee is invited to present a session, on any food-related topic. In other words, tell us a story!
From Colin Jephson of Ardkeen in Waterford and John McCarthy of Kilkenny Eurospar, I learned the key to selling artisan products in a retail establishment is putting the producer in front of the customer. The customer loves that connection and responds to the story behind the product. In turn the customer becomes part of the story.
William Despard of Bretzel Bakery described how simple ingredients create the bakery’s various breads, and demonstrated his opinion of industrially produced sliced pan by knocking a few pieces into the wall with a hurling stick. [That has to be the most indelible image from the weekend, or is it Regina's amazing halo of hair?] For William, the story of bread, its reputation, needs to be reclaimed and people educated about real bread.
Freelance wine consultant Susan Boyle spoke about Ireland’s wine heritage, including the Irish Wine Geese–the Irish families that emigrated to France and founded influential wineries (such as Château Lynch-Bages). A daughter of several generations of publicans, Susan is curious about how Ireland’s wine DNA could be more fully expressed in Irish wine culture.
Journalist Suzanne Campbell is co-creator of the documentary What’s Ireland Eating? and her stories are cautionary tales of a vertically integrated food industry where a few corporations own the ranches, processing and distribution, and therefore hold sway over retail. (All of her scary stories are about a large country to the West, from which we happen to hail.) Ireland still has many family farms, which many believe are being preserved by the EU farm subsidy. If we want the subsidies to end, then Ireland needs structure in place to protect the food production system. And consumers have to shop accordingly, and consider the hidden cost of cheap meat.
When the food bloggers convened to discuss the first year of the Irish Food Bloggers Association (IFBA), it was clear that the members feel the strength of the IFBA is not speaking as one voice, but in encouraging the multitude of voices. The IFBA is a brilliant forum to share information, and foster connections. What I heard in the session was an enthusiasm to actively support the founders Kristin and Caroline and allow the IFBA to do more to encourage food blogging in Ireland, including a possible food blogger conference. I vote Yes!
In the greatly anticipated Food Fight, the six appointed foodies discussed the topic Traditional Irish Cuisine – an embarrassment of riches or just an embarrassment? All parties agreed that Ireland is bursting with natural food resources. The question is how well has Ireland used these resources to create a cuisine. The room was full of folks who have chosen to create, sell, promote or write about food in Ireland, so we cheered the pro camp represented by Seamus Sheridan, Birgitta Curtin, and Catherine Cleary, but the comments from Suzanne Campbell, Regina Sexton and Colman Andrews were not so much an indictment, but a call to excellence. Irish cuisine is a story still being written, and we are certainly in the exciting chapters. Seamus’ memory of his grandmother rolling pie pastry with a deft hand. Catherine’s collection of new food memories, including black pudding and rhubarb at L.Mulligans and dining on Irish abalone. Colman’s offerings of historical recipes from the finest Irish kitchens of the 19th Century. Suzanne’s account of a food culture that has lost its way, stumbling from the austerity of the church, to the convenience food of the 80s, to the image-consciousness of the Celtic Tiger. Birgitta’s enthusiasm for Irish food, and her desire to bring the world to Ireland and feed them. Regina’s admonition to end comparisons with other cultures, and to embrace an independent food identity. Wherever Ireland is on its food journey–looking back to old traditions, looking forward to new ones–all these voices are forming the story of Ireland’s authentic cuisine. (Although Regina says we shouldn’t use the French word cuisine!)
As I roamed the food market the next day, I thought to myself, the story continues.