By Jared Powell
Jared Powell is a junior from Canton, Mississippi
majoring in English and Religious Studies.
A few months ago I wrote a post relating an episode of Seinfeld to issues of identity that are commonly discussed in our classes. After letting the initial fame and grandeur of my first post wear off, I decided that more connections could be made from the sitcom and the academic study of religion, particularly with regards to authenticity.
The question of authenticity comes to the forefront in the first day of any Religious Studies class and is manifested in many ways. Which view of any tradition is the more “authentic” one: insider or outsider? What is “real” Christianity, or “real” Islam? Who gets to make the decisions of what counts as “authentic”? Are ancient texts to be treated as “authentic”? These questions can be extended into many other aspects of culture, and food is one cultural aspect in which the word “authentic” is tossed around quite often. Many restaurants claim to serve “authentic Mexican” or “real Southern” food. This is where Seinfeld comes into play, as the following collection of clips makes clear.
Babu’s Dream Cafe is “all over the place” according to Jerry, serving all sorts of food from all across the world. This doesn’t make sense to him, since Babu is Pakistani. He clearly states that Babu should not serve Italian, Mexican, or American food because he has a corner of the market on Pakistani food. According to Jerry’s reasoning, Pakistani food prepared by a Pakistani chef would taste better that Mexican food made by the same chef. These assumptions of authenticity then motivate Jerry to convert the Dream Cafe to a Pakistani restaurant, during which much hilarity ensues, in typical Seinfeld fashion.
Jerry assumes that Babu’s Pakistani identity makes him less qualified to cook food typically associated with another country; however, Babu’s spaghetti is really no less “authentic” than Chef Boyardee’s, or even Mario Batali’s. Claims of authenticity are typically made by groups or individuals in order to enhance their status, but the criteria for determining authenticity can take many forms. For instance, Jerry might say that only spaghetti prepared by an Italian would be authentic, whereas Babu might argue that so long as he uses the “correct” ingredients and cooking process, his spaghetti is equally authentic. Jerry (the outsider) also assumes that he is the better judge of the authenticity of the food than Babu (the insider), which is also not necessarily true. Jerry’s statements and assumptions can be adapted and translated to the academic study of religion, and any other aspect of culture, quite easily.
To step away from food and provide other examples, one can ask what defines an “authentic” American. Is Babu, an immigrant living in the 20th century, less “American” than George Washington? In actuality, the viewpoints of both individuals are viable material for constructing an American identity. That idea is very fluid and changes over time, so the accounts of both Washington and Babu are equally authentic. This department emphasizes that our role as scholars is not to make value judgements about the authenticity or truth behind any tradition or cultural aspect, as Jerry has done, but instead to analyze how groups use their claims to pursue their goals.
P.S. For another post discussing the authenticity claims within culinary circles, check out Wesley Davidson’s post “Can I Order the Authentic Dish, Please?”.