The CIA on Keeping It Real

CIA crest with Bananas

With the release earlier this week of the CIA’s Family Jewels, their own history of infamy , it seems only right to write a little about the CIA. No not the CIA that was involved, with the United Fruit Company, in setting off the civil war in Guatamala (Codename: PBSUCCESS), which killed over 200,000 people.

There’s another CIA, one that influences what we eat everyday, that shapes our tastes and palates. They’re the Culinary Institute of America. Beginning in 1946 as a cooking school for returning war veterans, the CIA now has the largest concentration of American Culinary Association master chefs in the country. They’re the food service industry’s think tank.

Chris Loss, who is a Director at the CIA’s Ventura Center for Menu Research and Development, discusses the idea of an ‘authentic food’, an area in the food service industry which has been attracting a great deal of interest.

“Authenticity is about food that is what it claims to be. I don’t want saw dust or sand in my flour. I don’t want soy milk in my cow’s milk. I don’t want peanuts in my almond butter. If you ask a chef, you’ll get a different response. A chef needs to be able to evaluate the technique and sensory acuity of their apprentices, and authentic foods provide a reference point or bench mark. So authenticity is a tool that chefs use to teach their students about techniques and ingredient quality.”

To put it slightly differently, the culinary meaning of authenticity is one that matters not where the food is cooked, but by people far away trying to replicate it.

Says Loss:

“Mole Poblano incorporates poblanos (although some chefs say the chiles must come from Puebla, Mexico), bitter Mexican chocolate, Mexican cinnamon, some nuts to ‘round off the flavors’, and a fruit is commonly incorporated into the dish as well (and you have tomatoes and onions and other things). For the sauce to be ‘authentic’ the nuts and spices need to be toasted first. It is believed that this brings the ingredients ‘back to life’- post drying. Next, everything needs to be quickly cooked in oil. Some people think that this somehow brings all of the flavors together and gives it a ‘depth’ and ‘complexity’. If you asked a Mexican, born and raised in Puebla, what this does to the flavor, they may give you a very different answer. Perhaps they never thought about that.”

Authenticity also involves a certain context, and in particular the creation of a certain kind of environment, no less carefully controlled than a supermarket. Loss again:

“If you and I were to share a bottle of wine and a baguette on the top of Mount Saint Helena with the sun setting, the birds singing, trees everywhere, and mosquitoes descending, I’m sure it would have a different flavour than if we swilled the same bottle from a paper bag, sitting somewhere on a stoop on the lower east side of Manhattan, with sirens wailing, cabs honking, dogs barking, buildings and concrete all around. Restaurants understand this, and work to create environments in which you will have a good experience, a memorable experience. An experience that will bring you back.”

He’s right, of course. Food can taste better if, when one eats, one isn’t troubled by blaring car horns and people cheerily telling you to go fuck oneself. But Chris Loss tells us a couple of other things about the food industry. First, the designation ‘authentic’ is one that only makes sense when something isn’t authentic. It’s a label used by those in the business of making ersatz food. No one in Puebla would worry, after all, whether their mole was authentically Poblano – just whether it tasted better.

Second, the CIA’s thoughts on authenticity points to the extent to which everything about our eating experience, from the environment to our appreciation of the meaning of what we eat. As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once noted, before something can be good to eat, it has to be good to think about. And, on a smaller scale than the other CIA, the food industry think tank spends a lot of time worrying about how to get inside, and manipulate, our thinking about food.

Something to chew over, the next time you’re chewing over authentic food.