It took my favorite futurist, Scott Smith, to show me Santa Moncica’s best and most authentic cappuccino:

Wait, did I just call a cappuccino ‘authentic’? What does that even mean? Scott and I spent much of our morning kaffeeklatsch at Caffé Luxxe trying to deconstruct the concept. We last connected in Istanbul, but these days Scott is in Los Angeles observing how its residents decide what and where they are going to eat. The research is early on, but one observation he’s already come away with is that most Angelenos have come to accept and expect manufactured authenticity. Scott takes his argument one step further: our generation, he says, may very well be the last that can distinguish between authenticity and manufactured authenticity. But, then, how do you create an atmosphere of authenticity without manufacturing it? What metrics can we use to measure how authentic something is?

Our conversation fell silent for a few seconds as we both pondered the questions. I finished my eight ounce, four dollar cappuccino, gathered the flaky crumbs of my four dollar almond croissant (yes, $8 for a coffee and pastry), and looked around the cafe. There were freshly cut flowers, attractive baristas (excuse me, baristi) wearing all black, and furniture trying its hardest to come from Southern France.

caffee luxxe baristi

Photo by Ethan Rosch of “A Blog Voyage

Our mission at Caffé Luxxe is to offer the world’s best coffee with the most authentic European caffe experience. From the hand-crafted beverages our baristi create, to the small batch artisanal foods we bring you, everything has a natural elegance from around the world.

But the reality: we were in a small Southern California strip mall, not Provence or the East Village. And I wasn’t even sure if I was enjoying my $8 cappuccino and croissant more than my usual $4 coffee and scone at Peet’s. If one is more authentic than the other I wasn’t able to articulate why.

De La is not going to be happy, but allow me to poke a little fun. The G5 was in New York City a few weeks back and I wanted to watch the Ghana-Egypt final game of the Africa Cup. Various suggestions were made about where to watch the match including Woodwork, a new soccer bar in Brooklyn. Several emails later and valuable information was leaked that De La is opposed to Woodwork because of its “fake exposed brick”. I still can’t help but giggle a little, yet I’ve come to realize that authenticity is something he values highly. He would much rather spend his time drinking canned Tecate in a rundown East LA cantina than at a swanky new bar that installs a wall of chipped brick to give the atmosphere a rustic feel. He would rather buy a pair of used Levis than new designer jeans with fake creases and worn out pockets.

He’s not alone: seeking authenticity might be one of the great over-arching values that we can apply to that amorphous demographic we label “hipsters”. But again, how to define authenticity? Is digging through old Levis at a thrift store on Melrose really more authentic than buying new jeans at the Gap or Urban Outfitters? Why do we care about the authenticity of some objects, but not of others? Why do so many who look to the future for their politics, but to the past for their sense of aesthetic?

I was looking for the hours of my local gym and came across a funny Yelp review by one Carina D:

My boyfriend/gym partner makes fun of me because i love the exposed brick of the gym which gives it a NY loft feel (he’s a new yorker and laughs at my decor mentions) but even he likes the get in, get out, get fit express vibe at my little exercise oasis.

Now every time that I’m doing situps at the gym and staring at its exposed brick walls I can’t help but think of Carina D and De La. Are these real brick walls or fake brick walls? What does that mean? Is this authentic? Not authentic? Do I care?

I left the store thinking that today we seek authenticity and individuality, but we prefer the economic benefits of mass manufacturing.

Budapest, October 2009

Back to Caffe Luxxe and its $4 almond croissant. I mention to Scott that perhaps the vast majority of us have come to accept and expect manufactured authenticity, but I find that for most tourists nothing is more important than seeking out the “authentic” of where they are. Specifically, I was thinking back to a post Mario sent us from the blog of Macon D, “a white guy, trying to find out what that means. Especially the ‘white’ part.” The guest post was written by ‘K’, “who is half-Chinese (or of Chinese descent, if the “half” is too politically charged).” She claims that ‘white people’, another amorphous demographic, annoyingly seek authenticity and, worse, pass judgement about what is authentic in other cultures. Describing the annoying behavior of a friend, she writes:

Recently she went to Jordan, and remarked that she wanted to see something off the beaten track, and that the guide delivered — they went to see Bedouins, etc., and “only saw one other tourist the entire time.”

This drove me crazy! And I’m not sure why!

Am I justified? Is it that she’s treating the experience and “authenticity” as a commodity? Is it a sense of infiltration, of “ah, I have been accepted?”

I highly recommend the post. It does a great job of treating authenticity as a commodity, which increasingly it is. That is, we give more economic consideration to the concept of authenticity than ever before. We are willing to pay for it. In fact, it cost me $8 this morning.

But, as per usual, I disagree that seeking authenticity in other cultures or treating it as a commodity is limited to only whites. One commenter on the post linked to a New York Times article shows that the same search for authenticity in China is leading yuppie Han Chinese to amusement parks celebrating ethnic minorities like the Dai people.

Similarly, busloads of Chinese and Mexicans come to Hollywood ever yday in search of authentic America. But defining authenticity in America is just as difficult and pointless as trying to do so in Jordan, China, or Malawi. There’s just real no way to measure authenticity despite its clear importance to so many.

Finally, to the Berkman Center kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Catherine expressed her opinion that “it’s a terrible idea” for White people or Asian people to wear dreadlocks. Personally I agree with a comment left by Justin: the more interesting dynamic is that for a white to appropriate black culture is typically viewed as a step backward whereas blacks assimilating to white culture is viewed as progress. But I think that Catherine’s post was less about race and more about authenticity:

I’m all for cross-cultural appreciation, but there are ways to enjoy and appreciate other cultures without losing your own authenticity. There’s got to be a level of self-awareness and humility involved. Second, when appropriated, the symbols tend to lose any importance or context and just get swallowed up into our own ethno-centric view of what they *should* mean (how many times have you seen someone with a Chinese/Japanese tattoo who clearly doesn’t speak the language?).

How do we appreciate other cultures without losing our own authenticity? And just what is our own authenticity?

I have absolutely no clue. But speaking of appropriating other cultures and losing our own authenticity, tonight I’ll be drinking a lot of tequila and dressed up as Blue Demon at the Mexico – New Zealand match at the Rose Bowl. De La will play the part of El Santo. Now, for your viewing pleasure: