Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Authenticity and the Art of the Philly Cheesesteak

First of all, good news for me: I was recently accepted into the Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability (MACS) program at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. It's a limited residency program, which means I won't have to relocate (not yet, anyway), so I will keep on making good music with Steppin Razor and getting to know Philadelphia, a city I know far too little about for having lived right outside of it nearly my whole life. More importantly, I am looking forward to being in a program with other scholars from various backgrounds who have wrestled with some of the same questions I asked in my thesis, issues I plan to explore more deeply in the next few years: how do cultural properties (tangible or intangible) contribute to a common perception of collective identity? As a culture evolves, sharing and borrowing ideas and practices from other cultures, to what extent are cultural products "owned"? When tourists or anthropologists observe and participate in cultural activities, is the integrity or purity of the phenomenon compromised?

The recently established MACS program seems to have attracted scholars and professionals from several walks of life, and I expect that I will explore new topics and learn new skills while pursuing my own interests. I was very glad, however, to come across a discussion of authenticity on the MACS blog the other day. The title of the blog post is a perfect, succinct phrasing of one of my main interests: "When culture evolves, who decides what is 'authentic'?"

This morning, I finished a great book on this topic: Culture and Authenticity by Charles Lindholm. Click here for my short review on Goodreads. An anthropologist and professor at Boston University, Lindholm has written more on this topic, but this book is a great introduction to discourses of authenticity, and it is an informative, accessible read for non-anthropologists, as well. I believe it is important for anthropologists to learn how to communicate concepts for those who are unfamiliar with cultural studies, especially for those who think that "soft" sciences like ours should be moved to the back-burner until "the economy" turns around. So I have my own illustration that I use to help people understand the importance of this authenticity question. I hope you like it, even if you're not from my town.

In Philadelphia, we take a lot of pride in one particular food item, a sandwich that has traveled the world yet never dropped its birthplace from its name: the Philly Cheesesteak. When I lived in the Chicago area for a couple of years, I saw signs at a couple of restaurants claiming to serve Philly Cheesesteaks. McDonald's and Subway are among the restaurants who have attempted to reproduce the sandwich, using the Philly name; but if you're from where I'm from, you know just how bogus these cheesesteaks are. Even in our area, there is endless debate about where to get the "best" cheesesteak, and although this may sound like a matter of opinion or taste, people often take sides based on what is "real" or "authentic." For example, some say the roll must be made by Amoroso; others argue that Buono Bros. rolls are just as acceptable as Amoroso's; others still will tolerate any roll of comparable density and appearance. Similar diversity of opinion exists in debates over what kind of cheese is "supposed" to go on the cheesesteak, whether or not ketchup or hot sauce defile the sandwich, or if fried onions are mandatory. I know very few cheesesteak enthusiasts who claim that the best cheesesteak comes from Pat's or Geno's; however, the experience of eating at each of these rivals at the corner of 9th and Passyunk is something that every "real" Philadelphian must do, preferably at 3AM, one right after the other. Although we often get into belligerent arguments over our deeply held cheesesteak beliefs, feeding the stereotype of the rude, ignorant, fat Philadelphian, this sandwich does more to serve a collective identity than it does to divide Philadelphia into food-based factions. With the exception of vegetarians, any two individuals from Philly can bump into each other at a Quizno's in Albuquerque and exchange cynical remarks about the "Philly" cheesesteak, mutually longing for "the real thing" from back home. Even if that particular Quizno's flew in fresh rolls from Philly every morning, used the same cheese and the exact same methods as any given steak shop in Philly, something wouldn't "feel right" to those weary travelers.

Now that I've explained authenticity using a rather trivial example, try to imagine this phenomenon in the context of endangered ethnic groups, dying languages, and disappearing cultural practices. While it is difficult to imagine a cheesesteak debate escalating into urban warfare, history is full of violent conflict over racial and ethnic "purity," the protection of a "true" form of a religion, and nationalistic claims of "authentic" devotion to country. At the same time, perceptions of a "genuine" experience in tourism, music, art, and cuisine can boost entire industries, creating jobs for those whose cultures were nearly eradicated by colonial oppression. In the midst of these debates and their good and bad consequences, we all find ourselves seeking out our "true" identities, "authentic" experiences, "genuine" belonging. While these things, I suggest, are not necessarily objective realities, they can bring joy and comfort into our lives, reminding us that we are organic beings in a world that often feels cold and mechanical.