The Authentic Mexican Cookoff

Gustavo Arellano, Rick Bayless, and the media’s quest for purity in ethnic cuisine

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America | By Gustavo Arellano | Scribner | 320 pages, $25.00

Recently popularized as a buzzword for genuineness, “authenticity” has a much longer history as a term used to commodify the “ethnic” and “exotic.” The use of the word is often imprecise, but usually has something to do with marketing a product as having the fewest degrees of separation possible from its regional or ethnic origins. National Geographic offers readers “a strong connection to China” with “Authentic China Photos”; tour companies encourage visitors to Southeast Asia to “experience ethnic hill tribe culture in its rawest and most authentic forms”; and food magazines argue over “The most authentic ethnic food in the U.S.” Purveyors of the authentic offer a kind of voyeurism—a glimpse into another culture as it would exist if unaware of an outside presence.

Journalists especially love the hunt for authenticity. Reporters and critics are paid to discover things and speak about them with authority, so it’s easy to see how “authentic”—which implies definitive familiarity with a foreign subject matter—might be a tempting word to use when writing about an encounter with another culture. Reviews of ethnic restaurants often center on the food’s authenticity or lack thereof. Arbitrating authenticity is perhaps as wise a business move as offering it. As it turns out, luring customers by applying the label is perhaps the strongest parallel between the American press and American purveyors of Mexican food.

How was the term used to market Mexican food in America? Let’s ask a Mexican.

Taco USA, the new book by OC Weekly editor and widely syndicated ¬°Ask a Mexican! columnist Gustavo Arellano, is part culinary history, part travelogue, and part extended essay on the various accidents and ironies of colonialism that caused Mexican food to, as the book’s subtitle puts it, “conquer” America. It’s a fun read worthy of the burrito-loving masses—and a thoughtful examination of America’s simultaneous hunger for and fear of the influence of other cultures.

Beginning around the time of the Mexican-American War in 1846, entrepreneurs introduced Mexican food to the American palate in small doses over the course of more than a century, insisting that each new version of the food—first the tamales sold on the streets of San Francisco and Chicago and New York, then the fast food taco that gave much of America its first encounter with Mexican food, then sit-down establishments slinging margaritas— reached a new plane of authenticity. Arellano describes a remarkably predictable cycle: lure customers in with a promise of something new and different and exotic, and then, once the exotic allure fades, up the ante slightly with yet another supposedly outlandish dish.

The American press was instrumental in creating that exotic allure. Here’s Scribner’s magazine in 1874, talking about the Mexican women who sold chili con carne on the streets of San Antonio: “The fat, tawny Mexican mater-familias will place before you various savory compounds, swimming in fiery pepper, which biteth like a serpent.” During the 1890s, a journalist named Charles Lummis wrote dispatches on Mexican food from New Mexico for the Los Angeles Times: “One not used to eating fire might just exactly as well chew up a ripe red pepper raw and swallow it.” But by the turn of the century, canned chili was no longer exotic. New food, unlike new land, is in infinite supply, and Gilded Age writers seeking culinary adventure went off to conquer new frontiers.

Indeed, the story of Mexican food in America, as Arellano tells it, is itself a metaphor for colonialism:

“Chili con carne, now plain ol’ chili, was a harbinger of things to come for Mexican food. It was a Mexican dish, made by Mexicans for Mexicans, but it was whites who made the dish a national sensation, who pushed it far beyond its ancestral lands, who adapted it to their tastes, who created companies for large-scale production, and who ultimately became its largest consumer to the point that the only thing Mexican about it was the mongrelized Spanish in its name.”

It’s certainly no surprise that Arellano would take aim at fast food restaurants and the processed Mexican food sold in grocery stores. But he’s equally critical of the celebrity chefs and cookbook writers who take it upon themselves to reclaim Mexican food from the depths of the convenience-store vat of nacho cheese.

After pointing to the dearth of Mexican cookbooks written by Mexicans, Arellano continues:

… a succession of white authors and acolytes have prodded Americans out of their Mexican-food comfort zone, challenging the public to not only taste new dishes but also to prepare them themselves. In the process they introduced a fraudulent concept to the question of Mexican cuisine in this country: the idea that the food they documented was “authentic,” while the dishes offered at your neighborhood taco stand or sit-down restaurant were pretenders to be shunned.

The passage winds to a harsh conclusion: “Americans, arbiters of ‘authentic’ Mexican. That smile [Rick] Bayless always beams? P.T. Barnum approves.”

As detailed in Taco USA, Arellano and Bayless were chief rivals in a brief digital food fight that took place several years ago. Back in 2010, Pulitzer-winning LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold threw a few mild barbs in Bayless’s direction when speaking to a group of Latino journalists that included Arellano. (Gold has since moved to the Los Angeles Times.) At the time, Bayless was opening an upscale Mexican restaurant called Red O in Los Angeles—his first venture outside of his famed restaurants in Chicago. Gold’s criticism of Bayless centered on stories in the local media that hailed Bayless’s coming as the arrival of “real” and “authentic” Mexican food to Los Angeles—a city with no shortage of either Mexican food or Mexicans.

Arellano wrote a blog post for OC Weekly about Gold’s speech, taking the opportunity to mock Bayless—specifically for his use of the word “authentic”. Bayless responded angrily that he had never used the word “authentic”, attacking both Gold and “the state of modern journalism.” A reader dug up an interview with a local TV network in which Bayless didn’t use the word “authentic” but did say that he wanted to bring LA “the true flavors of Mexico.”

Chefs are usually allowed to talk up their own cooking without fear of starting a minor race war. What’s so fascinating about the whole episode is that it centered on the use of that single word “authenticity”—and that the concept became the focal point for a heated discussion of, not food, but ethnicity. Many of the 200-plus comments on Arellano’s story (both attacking and defending Bayless), speak much more about issues of ethnic identity and pride than they do the merits of Bayless’s mole verde versus that already found in the city. It’s also notable that Bayless—who has seemed fairly comfortable applying the term in the past—somehow sensed the danger of using the word “authentic” in this instance, and quickly and loudly denied having done so. (Disclosure: Bayless’s margarita recipe is a staple in my household, written on a note card taped to an ever-dwindling bottle of triple sec.)

There’s no grand conspiracy to the media’s role in idolizing purity in ethnic cuisine. A more innocent version of the casual racism thrown about in the food journalism of the early twentieth century that Arellano documents, it’s more about small assumptions adding up to a larger cultural consensus—and is of course also balanced by a concurrent celebration of all sorts of fusions of ethnic cooking styles. Taco USA cites extensive examples of food writers pining for authenticity, but the funniest involve the recent fall from grace of Tex-Mex cuisine. Arellano quotes Texas food writer and serial James Beard award winner Robb Walsh as defending the food from its critics thusly: “The people who are opposed to Tex-Mex now are opposed to it for some reason of purity…To the extent that we’re comfortable with interethnic marriage, we’re comfortable with mixed ethnic cuisine.”

Perhaps we’re entering an age in this country in which cultures are far too intermixed for the work of extracting and celebrating supposedly unadulterated strains to be done without damage. Arellano is right to rage against “authenticity” and its accompanying fantasy notions of exoticism. His point about the lack of Mexican or Mexican-American voices in the debate over what does and doesn’t count as Mexican food is particularly worthy. He’s right to elbow his way into the discussion. And he’s right to recognize a pattern in which Americans prefer their Mexicans “authentic” and their Mexican-Americans assimilated.

In a complex passage somewhere near the middle of Taco USA, Arellano simultaneously evokes the disciples of Mexican “authenticity”, the corporate fast food hucksters, and the allure of an encounter with another culture that can be seen as the positive force amid all the negative ones driving the spread of Mexican food in America:

“We want the most ‘authentic’ Mexican at all times - always have, always will. And if your neighborhood still suffers under the tyranny of Taco Bell and combo plates? Fear not - Mexican food is coming to wow you, to save you from a bland life, as it did for your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Again. Like last time - and the time before that.”

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm. Tags: , , , , ,