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: