So, the whole “peas in guacamole” thing, I just find it…I don’t know. First off, you know, if someone finds that guacamole with peas in it tastes good, they should eat that and enjoy the heck out of it. Why not?

Why not. I gather I’m only seeing the edges of this, apparently actual news outlets are reporting on the vast and deep internet rage over someone suggesting we try adding peas to guacamole. Seriously? Why?

So, I suppose (perhaps I’m wrong but that won’t stop me from blogging) that it’s a question of peas “not belonging” in guacamole. So here’s my question–why not?

This is something I’ve kind of pondered over the last several years. Sometimes I’ll come across recipes or dishes that are described as “authentic.” Like, real authentic Indian food, or real authentic Mexican food or…yeah.

But what does that mean? What makes a dish or a recipe “authentic”? How about, oh, pizza. Real, authentic pizza, what would that be? Would it be the pizza margherita allegedly invented in Naples in the 1890s? Or would it be the duodecim pizze wikipedia tells us is mentioned in a Latin text at the end of the tenth century? Surely those pizze didn’t have tomato sauce on them! So, like, is real authentic pizza a flatbread with maybe some cheese on it?

My search for “authentic” pizza here completely ignores or dismisses all the more recent varieties of the dish, many of them regional, many of them changing over time. And what seems authentic to me may strike you as a travesty–in fact, I’d bet my idea of authentic pizza would almost certainly do that. I grew up in St Louis, and St Louis style pizza is very likely one of those things you don’t really appreciate unless you’ve grown up with it, or at least eaten it for years. True fact–authentic St Louis style pizza uses provel cheese. You’ve probably never even heard of it unless you’re a St. Louisan, and that’s because provel is made in Wisconsin, and pretty much only for St Louis.

If you wanted to have authentic St Louis style pizza, your best bet would be to come to St Louis and get yourself some Imos. If you couldn’t do that, you’d want to learn to make a really really thin crust and lay your hands on some provel. Oh, and cut the pizza into squares. I swear it makes it taste different. And it would totally be worth trying! Other styles of pizza just aren’t the same.

But is it authentic pizza? Well, like I said, what does that even mean? And if I say something like, “Back in the early nineties I was in the UK and saw, more than once, that sweet corn was an available pizza topping,” you might be saying “Well, duh, Ann, that’s one of those things you put on pizza!” But my reaction was basically that’s not right. Does US pizza somehow have some kind of authenticity advantage over UK pizza? Or the other way around? Or is everything but focaccia with some parmesan grated onto it an adulteration of the real thing?

The thing is, “authentic” food is just the food that particular people ate at a particular place and time, and mostly (particularly when we’re talking about the “peasant” foods that are sometimes valorized as particularly hearty and “authentic”) were made of the things that were easily available. If the same cooks were somewhere else, at a different time, they’d have chosen the things that were easily available there instead. Thinking about it this way, the closer I look at “authentic” the more it disappears into meaningless nothing.

Guacamole isn’t much different. Do you know how many recipes there are for guacamole? And if your great uncle puts peas in his, and serves it that way every Superbowl Sunday through your childhood, that would be a real thing, with its own authenticity.

Authentic is a label we put on things, to freeze them, to declare this one style or this one set of ingredients to be the “true” ones from which all others are deviations. How helpful is that, really? What does it mean when “authentic” food is all external, something other? What does it mean when we talk about “authentic” Italian food being one particular thing, Neapolitan pizza margherita, say, and other versions being fake and wrong–when quite a lot of the provel-laden St Louis Style pizza I ate in my childhood was made by Italian immigrants? Did they lose their authentic Italian-ness somehow, when they came here? Are they only “authentic” so long as they’re peasants with wood-fired clay ovens, and not restauranteurs using the technology and ingredients available to them in present-day St Louis? When I start thinking about it from this angle, I become really uncomfortable with the whole idea of authenticity.

I totally understand wanting to taste (or learn how to make) the kinds of foods that were historically available and aren’t so much today, or are available in other places than where you live, or wanting to try the results of particular cooking techniques. Trying to reproduce historic recipes? I’m totally down with that. I spent longer than was probably reasonable attempting to make a reasonable facsimile of the palak paneer I’ve had at a local Indian restaurant.* I more than understand that. But I’ve come to really side-eye the idea that any kind of food is more “authentic” than another. And when I see an odd variant of something I’m familiar with, my reaction these days is more “Oh, I wonder if that’s good!” than “Ewww, sweet corn doesn’t belong on pizza, that’s just wrong.”

Which brings me back to the peas in the guacamole. Hey, if it doesn’t sound good to you, fine, but it’s hardly a travesty. Why does it seem like a travesty to so many people? It might be worth thinking about.


*The secret is cream. Regular whole milk won’t quite do the trick. This is something to keep in mind generally when trying to imitate restaurant dishes–you probably need to use real butter and real cream for pretty much everything.

10 thoughts on “Authentic

  1. U
    ULTRAGOTHA says:


    And now I want palak paneer for dinner. My recipe is too bland.

    Peas in guacamole makes me think of floating empanadas. Authentic Australian Mexican!

    1. Ann says:

      Sorry this sat so long in moderation (and now you’ve commented and been approved, it should not happen again!) For some reason WP isn’t emailing me to tell me there are comments.

      Okay, so, palak paneer? I use a sort of combo of this guy’s version and these women’s version. Note both say things like “you can just add some milk” or even “you don’t really need to add anything more than maybe a little milk.” Personally, if I want it like I get it at most of the Indian places around here, I need to add at least a sploosh of cream. Personal shortcuts–I use powdered garam masala, not whole, 1 tsp is enough heat for us but you can adjust that to your own liking; I use a bag of frozen chopped spinach, thaw it and throw it in the food processor instead of cooking fresh spinach; and I use a small can of tomato sauce instead of the couple of whole tomatoes the Vah Chef uses.

      I’ve found that this particular combination of spices, and this basic cooking technique, applies to quite a lot of other dishes (tikka masala–everything more or less the same except instead of spinach you just use a couple cans of tomato sauce. My one successful korma was basically tikka masala with a whole lot of coconut milk instead of cream or milk. Etc.)

      Once I achieved this, it became popular enough that I started buying cumin, coriander, and garam masala in big bags at the international grocery, and storing them in old peanut butter jars.

      And I didn’t know what to make for supper tonight. Palak Paneer, I think!

      1. U
        ULTRAGOTHA says:

        Thank you! It was getting claustrophobic in here. 🙂

        Palak paneer is on the menu this week, now we’ve bought rice. But it will be Trader Joe’s frozen stuff because this week is heck for time. Which is good stuff, but I am on an eternal quest for the palak paneer from The Clay Oven in Ledgewood, NJ. Which I gather is open again now. We go there once a year on Labor Day weekend and last year they were closed due to a fire. Boo Hoo.

        Your mash-up recipes will help in my ongoing quest! Thank you!

  2. F
    Franny says:

    St. Louis pizza sounds interestingly like Detroit style pizza, which is what I grew up with. We cut it square too, but ours is pretty thick. We put the sauce on top of the cheese, and we (ideally) use brick cheese, another random kind of cheese from Wisconsin:

    I live in Oregon now and I miss it 🙁

    Also, it was trendy circa 2007 to put edamame in guacamole and it tasted fine.

    1. Ann says:

      Oh, wow, Detroit style sounds interesting! There’s a Detroit style place that’s opened up near me, but a friend of mine from Detroit says it’s not that good (as an example of the style). I may have to try it anyway.

      also I love Brick cheese!

  3. Fade Manley says:

    This is interesting to me, because I end up thinking less about authenticity and more about edge cases and definitions. Like, at what point does something stop being recognizably “guacamole” and start being “a vegetable puree that these three people here and no one else would call guacamole”?

    It’s a recipe. It’s not like we can do a DNA analysis on it. We cannot, for example, determine that these two vegetable purees can’t breed with each other, and thus are distinct recipe-species. But if you present someone with a bowl of pea soup and call it guacamole, you will find very few people (among those who have heard the word before) willing to accept that this is just a recipe variation.

    …whereas clearly peas-in-guac is a thing some people will accept as recipe variation, just as tomato sauce is more or less mandatory for different people’s definitions of pizzas. (Is a calzone a pizza? Now I’m not sure!) And other people won’t. And…hell, if I’m not careful I’m going to start wandering down holes of language theory again. I have no conclusion! I just find it an interesting definitional challenge. At what point does something stop being guacamole. At what point does a table become a chair? *waves hands vaguely*

    1. Ann says:

      Right? Right? Exactly. How many grains of sand make it a heap?

      And why do people react so strongly to the naming of food? As someone on LJ pointed out, if the suggestion had been for a recipe titled “Pea and Avocado Dip” the reactions would have been very different.

  4. n
    nm says:

    This pretty well recapitulates every argument about genre in music and literature I have seen or taken part in over the past few decades. The human mind is wonderful–we love defining and enforcing boundaries, but we are oh so fascinated by liminal spaces anyway.

  5. P
    Pedro Dias says:

    I’m a Portuguese immigrant in Philadelphia. A while back, a really good Portuguese restaurant opened here, and all my foodie friends kept asking if it was “authentic”. And the thing is, it took me a while to figure out how to answer: because the food wasn’t quite exactly like the versions of any of the dishes I’d ever had. But it *felt* true, the smells were like little blasts of home. Plus, it was delicious. On the other hand, there were places in Northeast Philly that were *exactly* like places I’d eaten in Lisbon – crappy places, just like other crappy places, because I guess lowest-common-denominator is easier to replicate.

    Growing up, most of Portugal was at roughly a 19c level of development: many places didn’t have basic utilities, and much of the population was close to subsistence agriculture. Fratel, where my grandfather was born, was like that, and I spent some Summers there. Everyone made their own cured meats, sausage, bread. And everyone’s was different, at least a little bit. And everyone’s differed a bit from season to season, and year to year. And the next village did things a bit differently, and the towns much further out might have fairly different spicing, until you were far enough away that it was a different thing, and then the region’s name would have to be appended. And that’s what authentic was, because the notion of perfect consistence was ridiculous when every pig had a different name, and a different taste at the end of a different life.

    We kind of know that: most people would recognize that assembly lines can’t produce authenticity. But we never quite follow that through, we still look for a precise pattern for things that *shouldn’t* have them.

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