By definition, authenticity resists accessibility. . . .
--John Thorne, Matt Lewis Thorne, Simple Cooking, January/February, 1993
Authenticity in cuisine is a will-o'-the-wisp, elusive and impossible to define--or, rather, all too easy to define, except that everybody defines it differently.
If there were a single, canonical recipe for every dish in a given culture's culinary repertoire, then any variation on that recipe--especially one that introduces new ingredients or techniques or that simplifies or lightens the result--would be, by definition, inauthentic.
But traditional cuisine isn't made from recipes; it is born out of necessity, availability and intuition, and it is codified not in books but in individual recollection or in common wisdom. Traditional cuisine is folklore, inspired by the world in which its creators live, imbued with lessons about that world and passed down by a people among themselves, with infinite variation and frequent adaptation.
At a gastronomic conference in Spain a few years ago, I incurred the wrath of several champions of traditional Spanish cooking (among them a Cuban-American and a couple of Englishwomen) by daring to suggest that contemporary French and Italian influences perhaps had a place in modern Spanish kitchens. That I would approve such culinary pollution made her blood boil, one of the women told me. Yet earlier, these same defenders of the purity and integrity of Spanish cuisine had been talking about how it had been shaped in the first place by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors and Goths.
With the best esprit de l'escalier , it later occurred to me that what I should have asked them was when, exactly, food in Spain had died and become fossilized. At what point did some authority say, "All right, that's enough foreign stuff; we're on our own from here on out"?
But it doesn't work like that, of course. Cuisine, like language, changes as long as it's alive and admits as potential influences anything it comes across. Academics may attempt to "protect" both language and cuisine, but in the long run, both language and cuisine do what they want to do or, to be more precise, what the people who use them want them to do. The best we can do in both cases is to record, remember and, if appropriate, appreciate the way they used to be.
In asking how authentic the rendering of a traditional dish is, I think it's important to consider three other things as well.
First, not all traditional dishes are terribly old. To take three examples from the cooking of Liguria and Nice, where my recent gastronomic researches have been concentrated: Pesto, the emblematic sauce of Genoese cuisine, probably didn't assume its present form until the late 19th Century. Salade Nicoise , as it is codified today, almost certainly doesn't predate the turn of the century, since one of its key ingredients, raw tomato, wasn't eaten in Nice until around that time. Focaccia col formaggio (a specialty of the town of Recco, on the eastern Ligurian coast), although it is undeniably antique in origin, was revived as a popular dish around World War I.
When people say a certain dish has "always" been made in a certain way, they might just mean that that's how their mothers or grandmothers made it. If a dish is "traditionally" that recent, who can gainsay an honest change made in it today or tomorrow?
Second, even if we are able to convincingly reproduce food that seems genuinely ancient--for instance, the western Ligurian mountain dish called gran pistau , made of crushed, long-cooked wheat berries seasoned with leeks, pork, oil and cheese (probably very close to the kind of thing the Romans ate)--we can't possibly eat it as the ancients did.
The signal dishes of Nicoise and Ligurian cuisine were born out of the imperatives of poverty and rigorous seasons, religious regulation and social attitudes. If we want to, we can make a torta pasqualina or Eastertide torte (filled with artichokes and clabbered milk, among other ingredients, and originally made with 33 layers of pastry dough--one for each year of Christ's life), and if we make it well, it will taste delicious. But it isn't likely that we'll make it, or enjoy it, for the same reasons its inventors did--as an exultation, a celebration of a vital religious and cultural event, a symbolic (and sometimes literal) expenditure of precious resources.
By the same token, we can eat a soup of reconstituted dried chestnuts in hot milk--a common winter meal in the poverty-stricken Ligurian interior--if we want to, but it would be sort of silly, except as a lark or an academic experiment. People didn't eat food like that for pleasure; they ate it to survive. Why would we eat it when we could almost as easily have the torta pasqualin a--or, for that matter, just heat up some Lean Cuisine?