Authentic Narratives in Foodways

Food is something that is innately personal for many people. Food can be tied to a favorite memory, a person or a place. However food is also a gateway into many different areas of study. It can be a lens into which culture, society, politics, anthropology and many other interdisciplinary studies can be looked at. In the United States, Mexican food is a great lens to look into authenticity, racism, and power dynamics. In a country where recently there has been such hateful discourse about immigrants, and the Latinx community, Mexican food is amongst the top three most popular menu types. One cannot discuss Mexican food and its popularity without also taking into account the history behind it and the power dynamics that exist intertwined within it.

Dr. Lois Stanfold, an archeological anthropologist at New Mexico State University, talks about the deep cultural connections that Mexican food has and the outside forces that are trying to reshape the narrative around it. In his book “When the Marginal Becomes Exotic” he describes how food from marginalized communities are capitalized on as “exotic”, but that “these so-called marginal foods often occupy a central place in the reproduction of social life, relations, and cultural identity within the community.”  Stanfold explains how the indigenous producers and workers that are out in the fields, where they have an identity with the food they are gathering and growing, have “some degree of autonomy…in maintaining the authenticity of their local culture”.  However “external forces”, such as commercial interests are “shaping consumer tastes and using cuisines for the purpose of constructing national identities”. 

This argument can be placed in any setting including New York. The best example i can think of is food tourism within a city. People will travel to Queens, or Brooklyn, or the Bronx for food but will not interact with the people. The same people that are marginalized in these communities, and sometimes forced to these communities by gentrification are being used for their exotic food. These foods and restaurants play such a large role in the community that they stand on in the social life, and cultural identity of the inhabitants of the neighborhood and the the restaurant itself. Yet external forces or external visitors are using them for a small amount a time to tell their own narratives of having tried authentic food in an authentic setting , without having to interact with the space pr people outside the four walls of the restaurant. I can say the same thing about my home country of Colombia, people will go visit cafetales or coffee plantations, and they become tourist spots. Where people can say that they had the authentic experience of having picked coffee and seen the process the bean goes to become the drink we all love. However the people working at actual plantations are paid less than a dollar a day for cheap labor that is being idolized by people and again the same term comes up, food tourism.

There are multiple definitions for the word authentic, a few of them according  to the Merriam Webster dictionary are 1. worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on facts 2. made or done the same way as an original 3. true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character. In an age where so many different foods are accessible to us and there is such a strong blend of cultures how does one define something as “worthy of acceptance” and “true to one’s spirit” ?  My last post on Tacos al Pastor reflects this sentiment, tacos al pastor are the cause of cultural mixing yet they are something innately authentic especially to Northern Mexico. Authenticity is relative to a person’s own experience. It is based on how they grew up, what was natural for them, in other words authentic is what feels like home, what feels natural and comfortable. For some people Taco Bell could have been their Friday night dinner growing up, and while Taco Bell might not at first thought be seen as an authentic Mexican restaurant, in that person’s experience it is authentic to them. “Authenticity” is a word that is thrown around a lot when it comes to describing food. 

However what Stanford is trying to get at with his use of the word “authentic” and “local cuisine” is who is telling this narrative. Is it the “indigenous” “producers and workers”, the people cooking these meals in their homes fostering “social relations”. Or is it the external forces, marketing, advertising, and the labeling of this food as “exotic” and “other”. It is important to know who has a seat at the table at different restaurants, is it the people that have a connection and an understanding of the history and culture of the food they are cooking, or is it someone trying to capitalize on a foreign culture and “construct”  an identity around it. 

This “constructed” national identity can be found in many ways, among them in the packaging, and advertising of a product or restaurant and in the decor of a restaurant. Nicolas p. Maffei touches on this when discussing ethnic design in the book Designing Worlds: National Design Histories in an Age of Globalization. Maffei first starts off with what ethnic food is, which he describes as food originating “from outside one’s nation”, he gives the example that “in the USA and UK ‘ethnic food’ is an established food industry category and can encompass Chinese, Italian, and Mexican or Hispanic dishes”. This is where the first problem arises, Maffei brings up the issue with the term ethnic food as  “obscur[ing] a range of rich cultures and flattening out vast differences.” Therefore when it comes to marketing ethnic food it becomes very difficult to combine all the “nationalities, ethnicities” and personalities of cultures such as Cubans, Puerto Ricans, South Americans and those who identify with African, European and indigenous cultural traditions” into one “monolithic US Hispanic consumer segment”. Mexican food along with other hispanic foods has a tradition of being undervalued and casted aside as others. Yet identity is “appropriated and transformed for a North American Anglo consumer” when it comes to the design of marketing and decor of restaurants. Maeff explains how “consumers of ethnic food go beyond simply tasting they are also taking in all the “social imagery around them”. Restaurants depict a “variety of stereotypical imagery “ to conjure up Mexicanness in Mexican food imagery and food outlet architecture”.

 These images “carry their own class and gendered meanings” within the constructed space they are in, and resonate differently in the outside world. While in a restaurant surrounded by mariachis and images of Aztec and Mayan Gods and temples is celebrated and enjoyed for an allotted amount of time. Here is where the question of authenticity comes up again is this a reflection of the culture and a mecca for people trying to pay homage to the cuisine they are enjoying or is this a constructed hub in order to capitalize off a culture. This is another reason is it important to know who has a seat on the table, is this appreciation or is it a way to appease an audience with a fabricated version of culture they can temporarily interact with within the parameters of a restaurant for a couple hours. Maeffei mentions the imagery of “exotic Mexican women” conjuring  up “a strange and alluring sexuality for Anglos in the USA”. While in the United States the same woman that is sexualized in the restaurant is facing discrimination for speaking Spanish on the streets. 

El Bebe Mexican Restaurant Has a Dining Room Full of Graffiti Art ...
Decor inside EL BEBE taco and Tequila bar

Another example that Maeff points out about the polarizing effects of this constructed identity can be seen in one of  Taco Bells advertising campaigns. Taco Bell from 1988 to 1990 had a campaign called “Make a Run For the Border”. While it might be seen as just a slogan for a fast food chain, its implications are far greater. Taco Bell was a company started by a white American Male, that capitalizes on the idea of other cultures’ food. When going through Taco Bells website in class there was no mention of Mexico, or of menu items. Taco Bell is more a testimonial fo American entrepreneurship than it is for Mexican food. While their campaign slogan might work within the context of their fast food chain when applied to the real world it does not hold up. Maeff quotes scholar of Latin American pop culture, Ana M. Lopez, as she raises the “ realities of citizens denied access to certain nations:‘national borders are real and crossing them a painful and risky enterprise”.   

Taco Bell MexiMelt 1988 - YouTube
Snippet of a campaign video for Taco Bell
Taco Bell 45-cent tacos commercial (1994) - YouTube
There is so much insensitivity behind this commercial

In their book Latino Metropolis Victor Valle, a professor of ethnic studies at California Polytech University and Rodolfo D. Torres, professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy, speaks about the juxtaposing discourse between Mexican food and Mexican people within the “marketing of Los Angeles landscapes”. Valle and Rodolfo point to an example similar to the “Run for the border” campaign that Taco Bell ran in the 1980’s, however their example is not a temporary campaign it is a whole establishment. They point out a restaurant named At the Border Grill, in Santa Monica,  they describe the “jagged, angular lines of a metaphorical border fence suspended from above symbolically divide the restaurant in half”. In Santa Monica where 65% of the population is white, 16% hispanic or latino and the median property value is estimated at 1.17 Million, this upscale Mexican restaurant offers a “simulated cultural travel”. This cultural travel does not include imagery of pastoral lands, or pride in the colors of the Mexican flag, instead it “capitalizes on the most ubiquitous aspects of the city’s Mexican landscape”.

Chefs of Border Grill Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger 

Another area of constructed identity is in the menu, not specifically the food but the connotation of the food and of the people eating it. Paloma Martinez- Cruz Associate Professor of Latinx Cultural Studies at The Ohio State University, discusses the juxtaposition of a Mexican cuisine and its perceived image. Food as they say is a universal language, you do not have to speak the same language as someone to enjoy a meal with them or a dish of their culture. Food speaks for itself, there is no way to explain to someone the goodness of taking the first bite of a cheese quesadilla, the way that the warm cheese wraps around the sweet chicken practically doing cartwheels on your tastebuds. However food as Cruz describes it brings about a “palpable sensation” of a “safety zone”.  Not just the food but the area in which the food was consumed added to the magic.

Mexican restaurants seemed as satellite consulates, where the main event was the food, but a residual side effect was the small window of permission open to other areas of expression such as language, music, fashion, visual art, and the geo- physical presence of mestizo bodies both at work and leisure with family and friends. The cross-cultural and unembarrassed excitement for Mexican culinary achievements represented a situational moratorium on animosity toward mestizo and indigenous people, where the fantasy of homogeneity was lifted as all the gathered tribes revealed in the sensual spell of salsa and cilantro.

Cruz beautifully describes this fixed area where expression, language and homogeneity are freely felt under the “sensual spell of salsa and cilantro”. Yet if food is the binding agent in this spell and “provides the safest way to “do” Mexicanness in the national context”. Why does it also lead the way for “presents ready clichés and stereotypes”, where mainstream media use imagery of tacos and chimichangas to “evoke insinuations of serious hangovers and digestive distress.” The imagery of Mexcian food highlighted by different establishments is not “is not consistently respectful; its invocation is no guarantee of diversity, dignity, or pride.” The connotation of Mexican food as cheap hangover food, or as food that causes digestive distress is parallel to the way that people see the people cooking this food. “Racial slurs targeting Mexicans link the people to the beans” is a “sad irony” of loving the food but not the people. People are not as easily accepted or loved as the dishes that they can produce. This sensual spell of food bringing people together is lost when the food is accepted yet used to dehumanize the same community. Gustavo Arellano points to this sentiment in his book Taco USA. Arellano speaks about his experience with former Colorado Republican congressman Tom Tancerdo and how he “may not like Mexicans, but sure he loves his Mexican food” (Arellano 7). Tancerdo looks down upon the same people that he purposefully goes into their space to eat their food.

When talking about a constructive narrative of Mexican culture it is impossible to not mention Cinco de Mayo. Cinco de Mayo or in translation, fifth of May is the celebration of the “defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla.. It helped stave off the French while the U.S Union forces made advance”. In Mexico it is celebrated in a low key manner, however in the States it works as a marketing ploy to capitalize off of another culture, with restaurants and bars offering dollar margaritas and tacos. Paloma Martinez-Cruz talks about this as a form of  “culinary brown-face” in her book Food Fight! Millennial Mestizaje Meets the Culinary Marketplace. Cruz highlights how the tone of Mexican food on Cinco de Mayo, also called Cinco de drinko, is one of “fantasy, south-of-the-border, carnival atmospherics with ultra processed foods”.

There is an ongoing disconnect between Mexican food and Mexican people. This gives us the consumer the responsibility to set the parameters for what we consider authentic. As explored, authenticity has no concrete definition and is subjective to  each person. But a lot of what makes something authentic is the narrative that it sets up for itself. While it’s okay to enjoy Taco Bell, or an upscale Mexican restaurant it is important to talk about the power dynamics and the treatment of the people. It is important to understand the narrative that they are portraying. Devon G Peña  in the book titled Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements brings up the resistance discourse that has arisen in Indigenous communities. He outlines how trade deals such as “The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and neoliberal reforms north and south of the border threaten” foodways by implementing a “second wave of bio-colonialism”. The way of agriculture and the culture of these communities is being disregarded in order to produce mass demands for over the border consumption. While this leads to another argument about the failures of NAFTA and the lifestyle implications it caused, it’s also a way to look into authenticity. Are the foods and way of life that are being trampled over  being fabricated again in a restaurant for the enjoyment of consumers? 

With our current President, chanting “build the wall”, while having Mexican restaurants inside Trump towers, the importance of understanding authenticity are narrative are of the utmost importance. Places such as La Morada in the Bronx create some of the most amazing food while at the same time forcing its customers to interact with the reality of what is going on in the world, not just saturating the restaurant with blow up margarita balloons. They create a mecca for learning, and activism all centered around the food that binds everyone. In the New Yorker La Morada is described as focusing on “education, with weekly information sessions and a small library that includes Mesopotamian myths and Boethius. Hanging by the door is a banner expressing solidarity with the victims of the recent earthquake in Oaxaca.” It is places like these that are essential to reclaiming the narrative surrounding Mexican food and Mexican people. 

Everyone is going to have a different feeling and image when they picture authentic food. And it is something that should be celebrated, it should also be taken with a grain of salt. Are what we deem as authentic twisting the narrative for a whole culture and people? How do we celebrate and enjoy different foods while also respecting the culture and the power dynamics that exist behind the scenes? A lot of it has to do with respecting the food and the people, and similar to how La Morada educates its consumer with its physical space, educating oneself on the history and social movements connected to the food we are eating.

Work Cited

“ON CINCO DE DRINKO AND JIMMIECHANGAS: Culinary Brownface in the Rust Belt Midwest.” Food Fight!: Millennial Mestizaje Meets the Culinary Marketplace, by Paloma Martinez-Cruz, University of Arizona Press, TUCSON, 2019, pp. 40–59. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvcj2knq.7. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.

“FARMWORKER-TO-TABLE MEXICAN: Decolonizing Haute Cuisine.” Food Fight!: Millennial Mestizaje Meets the Culinary Marketplace, by Paloma Martinez-Cruz, University of Arizona Press, TUCSON, 2019, pp. 17–39. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvcj2knq.6. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.

Stanford, Lois. “When the Marginal Becomes the Exotic: The Politics of Culinary Tourism in Indigenous Communities in Rural Mexico.” Reimagining Marginalized Foods: Global Processes, Local Places, edited by ELIZABETH FINNIS, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2012, pp. 67–87. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1814g4b.7. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.

Stanford, Lois. “When the Marginal Becomes the Exotic: The Politics of Culinary Tourism in Indigenous Communities in Rural Mexico.” Reimagining Marginalized Foods: Global Processes, Local Places, edited by ELIZABETH FINNIS, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2012, pp. 67–87. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1814g4b.7. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.

PEÑA, DEVON G., et al. “INTRODUCTION: Mexican Deep Food: Bodies, the Land, Food, and Social Movements.” Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements: Decolonial Perspectives, edited by DEVON G. PEÑA et al., University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 2017, pp. xv-xxxiv. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1t89jww.5. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.

Maffei, Nicolas P. “Surveying the Borders: ‘Authenticity’ in Mexican-American Food Packaging, Imagery and Architecture.” Designing Worlds: National Design Histories in an Age of Globalization, edited by Kjetil Fallan and Grace Lees-Maffei, vol. 24, Berghahn Books, NEW YORK; OXFORD, 2016, pp. 211–225. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv8bt1mv.16. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.Niarchos, Nicolas. “La Morada, a Crucible of Resistance.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 9 July 2019, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/02/la-morada-a-crucible-of-resistance.