Is authenticity xenophobic?

My favourite Mexican cookbook is Marilyn Tausend’s Cocina De La Familia because it is not devoutly Mexican. Tausend isn’t Mexican and collated her recipes from interviews with home cooks across America rather than in Mexico. Recipes come with the location that they were collected and the Mexican state where the recipe or cook originated. It captures the evanescent nature of immigrant food; the adaptations and innovation required from living somewhere other than home and cooking for the eternally-shifting tastes of Americans that at some point in the past came from Mexico. It says “authentic” on the cover but it is an uneasy label for a book that documents a cuisine that has thoroughly changed from an imaginary state of origin south of the border.

I like it because it gives Mexican-Americans a huge amount of credit and agency for adapting traditional recipes. Cooking nachos is given equal importance to cooking a more traditional looking sopa. The emphasis is on delicious rather than time-honoured.

With the current flood of Mexican restaurants opening across Melbourne, the laziest way to deride them is decry their lack of authenticity, ticking off your personal list as to whether they serve corn smut or cabeza or whatever other edible markers of tradition apply, making an assiduous note of the ethnicity of the chef. As soon as that happens, you deny that food and culture are mutable, and shifts to accommodate the locals.

Recently, Gustavo Arellano took this up in an interview in the New York Times.

But he is wary of the many non-Mexicans who have anointed themselves as ambassadors for Mexican food in the United States, from Bertha Haffner-Ginger (who taught cooking classes at The Los Angeles Times in the early 20th century and wrote an influential and confusing cookbook called “California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book”) to more modern arbiters of taste like the British expatriate Diana Kennedy and the Chicago chef Rick Bayless.

For Mr. Arellano, non-Mexicans who glorify “authentic” Mexican cuisine, even with respectful intent, are engaging in a kind of xenophobia. “It’s a different way of keeping Mexican food separate, out of the American mainstream,” said Mr. Arellano, who calls Mexican-food purists “Baylessistas.”

Arrellano has excellent form – his now decade old column “Ask a Mexican” in the OC Weekly pokes into the recesses and excesses of Mexican-American culture, often to hilarious effect. To underline his idea of authenticity: he’s a man who takes a great deal of joy in what happens when you translate Vietnamese food for a Latino clientele rather than seeing it as a culinary abomination.

To Arrellano (and me), food is more interesting where cultures butt heads and I can’t imagine a situation more interesting than watching what happens in Melbourne where the previous culture of Mexican food that was wrapped up in the yellow box of an Old El Paso meal kit runs into the current one that seems to revere the taco truck of Roy Choi rather than the markets of Oaxaca.

2 Comments Is authenticity xenophobic?

  1. steve

    great post Phil-I tend to see those gringos and lets face it, they often are, who guard the borders of authentic mexican cuisine as post colonialists clinging on to the past, or at least their version of it

    Reply
  2. Pennythejet

    One thing I’m feeling outraged by in Melbourne is, not the overrated Mexican restaurants, but the increasing number of Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese restaurants being opened by people who aren’t actually Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese. Dandelion, Golden Fields, Chin Chin, Red Spice Road, Spice Temple, Longrain, Gingerboy, Happy Palace, Hanoi Hanna, Saigon Sally and most recently Bangpop in South Wharf. All disappointing. My worst fear is that one of these dudes will open a Khmer restaurant before I do. Would you call that xenophobic? It’s more of a…. confusion… with an undercurrent of rage that they they have are able to profit from another culture while some family-run-type restaurants are doing it tough because they don’t have a PR budget.

    Reply

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