When walking around in highly frequented areas of France, Italy, or San Francisco there are no shortage of restaurants boasting assurances of authenticity and regional cuisine, but how many of the claims provide diners with accurate representations of the regions culinary history and traditions? Does the same hold true in New York? Or Alabama? I believe it does. While walking around Birmingham a couple of years ago with my daughters we found ourselves wandering in search of a meal that could provide us with an accurate representation of the South’s unique culinary history. Walking from one blistering hot street to another we set our sights on a restaurant with an inviting exterior and a menu listing iconic local dishes like ribs, collard greens, fried oysters, etc. Feeling hungry and hopeful but somewhat suspicious of the lack of local clientele we found a place, took our seats, and explored the menu. After digging into our bland, greasy chicken it became clear to us all that the restaurant’s goal was not to celebrate the rich culinary history of the region but to fulfill the necessary task of quickly feeding tourists and other visitors with barely recognizable renditions of the traditionally rich and saturated flavors of the South.
With the growing influx of visitors cities and countries host yearly comes an industry that operates on tourist spending and the fact that these visitors must eat. The rapid acceleration of globalization in recent years by means of transport, communication, and technology have brought about extreme changes in food production and consumption. Though questions of authenticity in food are highly contested examining the impacts of globalization on regional culinary tradition is important. There is a concern that cultural imperialism and Mcdonalidisation may lead to homogenization that can result in a “global palate” as well as a “global cuisine”. The homogenizing force of globalization is thus commonly seen as a threat to the close connection between food and place, the taste of place or ‘terroir’. Is it possible for terroir to exist in dishes that are altered to become more suitable and accessible to the palettes of non-natives? Is there an emergence of a new terroir muddled and impacted by globalization or is it producing culinary experiences devoid of any real sense of place?
When traveling, tourists often search for senses of novelty while at the same time scouting the security that comes with familiarity. In recent years questions of authenticity and tradition have been at the forefront of conversations regarding food. Is cuisine that exists to serve tourists palettes a threat to regional gastronomical traditions or an entity that can exist within itself without tainting traditional and historical meal preparations? This isn’t easily answerable being that the notion of “authentic” food is so highly contested – many argue that the nature of food and culinary traditions are never static due to constant shifts in population, technology, and tradition. In other words, “authenticity” may be a sham. Can a place’s tourist food industry remain solely a tourist industry or will the “globalization of taste” have impacts on the palette of the local and shift the their tastes and practices?
I believe there is hope. We have become a nation of foodies. The same can be said of most countries. Culinary tourism has been a growing trend for the past few years, with gourmands travelling halfway round the world to eat at celebrated restaurants. But now the trend is shifting away from expensive, “star-chef” dining towards more authentic, grass-roots culinary experiences. Travelers want to travel to the food, not the other way around. We want to taste top-quality, hyper-local produce at its source, in the very spot it is grown or made by small, artisan producers. We are looking to eat simple home cooking, where the flavors are sensational.
The end result seems to be that while there will always be a place for restaurants catering to culinary blandness, the increased desire for something that fits into the total travel experience, rather than being a sideshow element of it, will help preserve cultural traditions. Or rekindle them. Locals are savvy. They’ll capitalize on this cultural shift and in doing so take control over their culinary traditions, opening up opportunities for themselves, culinary tourists, and the travel industry as a whole.