Rethinking Food Language

Gastronomy student Sarah Wu shares her thoughts on rethinking food language in the next of our summer blog series, Perspective from Anthropology of Food.

My first months in the Gastronomy program at Boston University have been nothing short of eye-opening. I’ve been challenged to rethink what I know about food, the industry, and the people behind it. In particular, one subject has been discussed in multiple classes, including Anthropology of Food—the language of food. I’m not talking about the usage of terms such as antipasto or the difference between a macaroon and a macaron (though it is one of my pet peeves when people can’t tell the difference)—I’m talking about re-evaluating the way we use words such as “authentic,” “original,” and “traditional.” A lot of things we say about food are strictly opinion—something is too sweet, salty, sour, bitter, rare, or overcooked. However, the respective meanings of the three aforementioned words are even more difficult to pin down. If something is sweet, we can agree that there are degrees of sweetness (too sweet, not sweet enough, etc.), but with words like authentic, can something be semi-authentic? I think not.

“Original,” “traditional” and “authentic” recipe images from

Merriam-Webster offers three definitions for the word “authentic,” two of which are most relevant to my discussion: “conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features” and “made or done the same way as an original.” However, it almost feels as if Merriam-Webster is defining the word by using the word—although not exactly the same word, “original” also has a blurred definition. “Original” recipe means virtually nothing to me.

Truthfully, authenticity is not something that can be gradable. The definition differs from person to person. For some, if it doesn’t taste like “home,” it’s not authentic. If you visit a restaurant that has similar flavors to home, you may consider it authentic in your book. It depends on the time, place, ingredients, and preparation methods of the food, among other factors. Something can be authentic to a specific time or place, but after that moment, the definition has changed once again.

In terms of specific foods, usage or lack of certain ingredients is simply a difference in regional cuisine. We try to squeeze food into a box, when in reality food expands much beyond that. Food in one town could have completely different flavors than the next town over. We are quick to judge that a not-as-widely-known cuisine is automatically inauthentic. Through immigration and movement of peoples, exact ingredients are often difficult to find, and we find ourselves trying to create a dish as close to the supposed original as possible. If something were made EXACTLY the same way using the EXACT same ingredients, it would be just that—the same.

sarah wu cropped
Sarah Wu

Perhaps the avoidance of words such as authenticity can help clarify our writing in cookbooks or in recipes. Preparing what your mom made may be authentic to you, but a complete imposter to another. Describing the experience and feelings you want another to feel while creating and enjoying the dish gives a lot more meaning to food than words like authentic. The history behind the dish and the people who created it paints a much better picture than a single word, perhaps one time when being brief is not the best approach. Putting a familiar lens on a potentially foreign recipe helps us appreciate others’ tried and true methods of food.



Works Cited

Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2017. “Authentic.” Accessed June 24, 2017.

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