Hogging the myth: an “authentic pizza” stall at a village fair in Somma Vesuviana, near Naples. Photo: Antonio Zambardino/Contrasto/Redux
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When it comes to food, authentic doesn’t always mean good

Can only native Italians bake real pizza and must they hail from Naples for it to be authentic?

With hindsight, I can see I was asking for it. Fancy a southerner having the brass neck to publish a recipe for the perfect Lancashire hotpot – it was “cultural appropriation at its worst”, as one reader thundered on the Guardian website. Another objected that I was clearly not an impoverished Victorian millworker: “Yet another upmarket recipe posing as the original ‘working-class’ dish!” Apparently, my version, based on extensive research and experimentation, lacked that vital ingredient: authenticity.

Such complaints are nothing new. They have surfaced time and again in the four years I’ve dared to put my name to the Guardian’s How to Cook the Perfect . . . column. I’m not Italian enough to make proper pizza, too middle class to know owt about a bacon butty, too omnivorous to have a valid opinion on bean burgers . . . You get the picture.

I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m in good company. A couple of years ago, when Nigella took on pizza, the Daily Mail published the disapproving reactions of some Umbrian nonnas – “It is an insult to Italy!” – and I recently read a review tearing into Elizabeth David for her peasant food aimed at the “upper middle class”. And if David, who spent years travelling across the Continent collecting recipes, doesn’t make the grade, then who does? Can only native Italians bake real pizza and must they hail from Naples for it to be authentic?

Indeed, does a margherita made in Naples by a tenth-generation pizzaiolo lose its integrity when inauthentic old me takes a bite? I have certainly heard it argued that the second someone who isn’t a local eats it, it’s no longer authentic because the outlander can’t know the full social and cultural history of the food. This makes “authentic” consumption sound like a pretty joyless business, frankly.

If the same bona fide Neapolitan travels to the United States, does American flour suddenly render the product a dirty fake? And what if, on returning home, this maverick is inspired to put jalapeños, or ketchup, or (the horror!) pineapple on a pizza, just for the hell of it? Exactly how far back do you have to go to find an authentic recipe?

The more I ponder the idea of culinary authenticity, the sillier it seems. Food, like every other aspect of our culture, is constantly evolving and the word “purity” should be regarded with the same suspicion here as it is in any other context. (It is telling, I think, that most efforts to set a particular recipe in stone seem to be motivated largely by commercial interests.)

Moreover, authentic doesn’t always mean good. Poor cooking has no respect for borders and there’s no guarantee that a samosa from a street vendor in Lucknow will be superior to the ones served at your local Bangladeshi restaurant.

Above all, I suspect that the so-called authentic peasant cooks of the past revered by modern foodies would laugh themselves silly at such posturing. Many dishes now worshipped as classics of cucina povera were born of necessity rather than gourmandism – your average Tuscan peasant would have leapt at the opportunity to liven up a stale bread salad with anchovies, whatever these self-appointed guardians of culinary purity may claim.

That is not to say there is no value in understanding where a dish came from. I’d argue that it’s vital you understand its history before you begin to play about with it. If you know that Lancashire is prime sheep country, for instance, then you’d better have a damn good reason for making its hotpot with duck, Goosnargh or not. But if you do decide to have a go, then I wish you luck. Just don’t expect everyone to thank you for it.

Felicity Cloake’s “Perfect Too” is published on 3 April by Fig Tree (£18.99)

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser