“Is this, like, authentic?”

Recently we’ve had a visitor to our class, Beatris Zapata, whose family owns Taqueria Coatzingo. I’ve had the pleasure of going to this restaurant earlier this year, where I tried a variation of things off their menu (you can read all about it here). My experience was so great that I went a second time with another group of friends. I was excited for her to come to class not only because she brought tamales, which I’ve fallen in love with, but also because it was a great opportunity to get an insider view on the food. Below is a close-up of Taqueria Coatzingo‘s mole tamal which Beatris brought for us.


Zapata answered all questions we had, indulging in topics such as the restaurant business, the food served, who makes the food, gender roles, customer and employee demographics, etc. We began talking about tough customers in the restaurant and she said it was those from familiar backgrounds in Mexico. They’re the people who held the strongest opinions about the food and rightfully so. I know I’m a hundred percent that person when it comes to Caribbean food. My case of insider judgment is so bad that I don’t even go out to eat at Caribbean restaurants and simply cook the food myself. It’s also me not wanting to be disappointed by the food I associate so closely to home. With that same regard, I can understand their strong opinions. These are really the people you have to impress. Zapata even touched on people within the same culture making food differently. It then raised the question for me;

What is authenticity? 

I think we need to take a moment to first look at how we define authentic. Authentic is defined as “conforming to an original as to reproduce essential features… not false or imitation…made or done the same way as an original” by Merriam-Webster. Synonyms provided include ‘real’, ‘original’, and ‘actual’ while one proposed example of usage is “authentic Mexican fare.” Ironic. For obvious reasons, this aligns all too well with what we’re trying to look at. It speaks to the characterization of the word and more or less our assumptions in regards to this word.

Jeff Pratt, an Anthropology professor at the University of Sussex, writes in his article Food Values: The Local and the Authentic, “Authenticity is a quality of the rooted and ancient, not of the modern, while culture is precisely that which money cannot buy” (295). When we think of authentic, we think tribal, historical, traditions, indigenous people, and as ethnic people making literally anything under the umbrella of their culture.

It’s most notably thought of in relation to food; “Authenticity is a quality attributed to a range of foods and cuisines. First there is food specific to a location; second, these food products are the result of a craft process. These two themes are normally found together and both rest on an appeal to tradition: this food is the product of a continuous and collective endeavor, it pre-dates industrialized food systems and its value derives from that opposition” (294) as Pratt continues. The direct association of this word to ‘realness’ as a means of expressing a true experience/ taste, one rooted in tradition and history. Authentic cuisine is sometimes seen as a way to break from the industrialized corporate means of food production- back to homely roots.

These definitions also imply a falsehood that exists and must be separated from the ‘authentic’. Similar to an authentic painting versus a counterfeit; one worthy of your money versus one that isn’t. There’s a lot charged in this word but it also depends on your definition of authentic food.

To some extent, Merriam-Webster’s definition could be right. I for one definitely held associations of authenticity to realness. For me, it was especially going to an establishment of the cultural experience I was seeking, with predominant workers of that same culture. For instance, going to a Mexican place for tacos and burritos or Italian store for pizza and calzones. The same as authentic being only locals able to act in methods of traditional culture.

It also seems that in terms of food, authentic has become interchangeable with ethnic. No one thinks of McDonald’s as anything authentic aside from America. There is a lack of ‘culture’ (for lack of a better term) when addressing this. It is still important to keep in mind that American experiences vary but the main association from American food is usually fast food. Just take the time to Google, ‘American Food’ and see what pops up on Google Images-

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Googe Image search of ‘American Food’

And you’ll see this:

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Google Image search result of ‘American Food’

Again, mostly junk food. And mostly hamburgers, although there is a dispute that burgers are German. They definitely are named after the city of Hamburg in Germany.

The article In the Eye of the Beholder, on the Tongue of the Taster: What Constitutes Culinary Authenticity? by Sharon Hudgins, published in Authenticity in the Kitchen: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2005 a book detailing the topics of that year’s English conference, goes a bit into the topic of food authenticity. Hudgins writes, “…historian, Rachel Laudan coined the term ‘Culinary Luddites’ to describe those people who rail against the foods of modern industrial societies and laud those of the past as being ‘traditional… true, real, and authentic'” (238). This statement touches further on what seems to be the new wave of dining- authentic/ethnic food. There is a reason for this association but now I’m starting to rework my relationship with this word. Authentic is not just about going to the source of something but also understanding the relationship between the creator and the product. There’s no way to be certain who is making your food most times but it is something to consider.

Of course, it’s not a bad thing going a Mexican restaurant for tacos or looking for an Indian shop when craving curry. These are great ways of showcasing cultures and giving what might be a minority group or a small business, a little more spotlight. It brings awareness and helps them collect revenue. I give myself a bit of social pressure to contribute to black businesses for cultural support. In any case, dining at a smaller restaurant can give way to a clear cultural history in regards to both traditional and modern dishes. It shifts away from the corporate construction that can sometimes glorify and gloss over this cultural history.

Zapata said something in response to my authenticity question that struck me as pure poetry. She defined authenticity as the memories of the person making the food. It’s their childhood experiences and their thought of ‘home’ that drives the flavor of the food being made. Oxford Symposium also states that “Memory and experience thus play a large role in many individuals’ concept of culinary authenticity, shaping each person’s expectations of how a particular dish should look, feel, smell, and taste” (238). It’s a beautiful sentiment that made me really take a moment to think about how I’ve been going about experiencing Mexican foodways.

Authentic is not just pozole straight from the Aztecs; in any case, if we were to stick to a strict correlation between authenticity and traditional modes, you’d probably see a few limbs in your pozole.

I think we should start shifting our definitions to being less limiting. Hudgins again writes, “cultural relativists will certainly contend that we are always inventing the authentic… the ‘authentic’ does exist, albeit in different forms and different places, in different people’s minds… food’s taking new forms in different times and places, but still remaining genuine in spirit” (238, 247). With the different hands that make the food, the different taste buds of the cooks, and the variations across the geographic board, dishes differ even among the same groups. Let us then consider this:

Is any food reminiscent of memories and “genuine in spirit” deemed authentic?

Earlier in the semester, we discussed a lot of what constitutes Mexican food, how do we define Mexican food. Rick Bayless, a renowned chef, an expert in traditional Mexican foods, came up in a discussion. He’s been accused of cultural appropriation by some as he is a not Mexican or Latino but still has a successful culinary career in this food field. One of the arguments against Bayless was that this was an opportunity taken away from an actual minority that could have been just as good or better than Bayless as this was the food they’ve been eating their whole lives. Granted, there are socio-economic factors that Bayless may benefit from that further sets him apart from others. For one, he was able to visit Mexico as frequently as he wanted growing up as he fell in love with the culture/cuisine. In NPR’s When Chefs Become Famous Cooking Other Cultures’ FoodFrancis Lam said in regards to the Bayless debacle, “An American-born chef is more likely than an immigrant to have the connections and the means to grab investors or news media attention — even more so if the chef came up through a prestigious restaurant or culinary school…”. Bayless obviously has some privileges in his accessibility to opportunities. With any profession that is, a person who has the resources often goes way farther than those who don’t.

To Bayless’s credit, he did spend quite an amount of time in Mexico learning about the food and the culture. On the other side of the spectrum, some would say that this awareness and earnest seeking of knowledge takes it from appropriation to appreciation. There is still a profiting off of food that is culturally not his own, however, it is not done in the same blatant intent as Glen Bell. Bell’s story is clear in his seeking of Mexican foods and their preparations to profit off of it. Bell, on the other hand, doesn’t include the story of Mitla Cafe on the Taco Bell website. Bayless acknowledges his love of Mexican cuisines as he puts his own flair on them.

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Taken from TacoBell website where they display their restaurant’s history sans Mitla Cafe.

Overall, appropriation is another word that varies based on personal definitions. To be fair, it’s just as shifty in definition as authentic. Following Zapata and Hudgins classification of authentic- wouldn’t Bell and Bayless also make authentic Mexican food?

In conjunction with NPR’s article on Rick Bayless, NPR’s article, Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition by Maria Godoy, entails more about the implications of searching for authentic foods by talking to author Krishnendu Ray of The Ethnic Restaurateur. Ray says, “But our culinary hunt for ‘authentic ethnic’ food can be a double-edged sword… what we really want is a replica, ‘a true copy of our expectations.” Going back to Zapata’s comment on the hardest customers to impress in Taqueria Coatzingo, there is that same expectation. There is that expectation for the food to be almost an identical- or rather to running after that same experience that made you feel so good. Perhaps this is another way that we can define authenticity in terms of ethnic food.

Another way of framing might be through looking at the divide between our Bayless’ and our Glen Bell’s versus immigrant chefs. Ray continues, “Immigrant chefs are ‘trapped for that kind of demand for authenticity, cheap authenticity'” as Ray says from NPR’s article. This really stuck out me because at some point my own thoughts on authentic dining had aligned with this assumption. At what point did I begin to associate cheap food with the true experience? I’m by far not complaining about saving a little money here or there (good food is good food regardless of the price), but it’s the fact that I had this assumption at all. I presume that this might go hand in hand that when it comes to immigrants and immigrant businesses we associate them with lower prices as they are small businesses who might not want to lose business. It’s a business tactic many stores use; have lower prices than your competitors to gain customers. However, this association seems to be a commonality among many patrons and so it can harm these businesses when the prices aren’t when customers initially expect.

There are others that go into categorizing authenticity of food and experiences. The atmosphere or ambiance, if you will, is crucial to it all. It’s the same as if you were to order food but it looks as if it was haphazardly thrown onto the plate. The presentation alone would turn off your appetite. You eat with your eyes first. Authentic dining experiences in ethnic theme restaurants by Chen-Tsang Tsai and Pei-Hsun Lu in the book, International Journal of Hospitality Management, indulged in a study that looked at the relationship of the performance of an authentic experience to the frequencies of a restaurant’s customers at the establishment.  They write, “…besides food, other aspects of a restaurant such as decoration, music, costumes, and service, significantly contribute to perceived authenticity” (304). This made me think back to my first time at Coatzingo. The atmosphere yelled ethnic authenticity- aside from it being a Mexican restaurant run by Mexican people – there were bright colored decorations, the hustle and bustle, the waitresses speaking in just Spanish, soccer (or football depending on where you’re from), and the Banda playing in the background. “Therefore, if owners of ethnic theme restaurants want to increase customer return rates, it is important to improve food quality and authenticity to meet customer expectations” (306), they later continue. This is something important to consider as these also things that the restaurant owners and chefs are considering as they are serving up their version of the authentic food.

All in all, authentic is just a word as any that we personally charge. There are many more layers to the whole sphere than you might first think. I would have to say that I agree with Beatris Zapata in that authentic food is your emotions and memories behind the dish. Authenticity is subjective and shouldn’t be flung around in place of ‘ethnic’. So next time you’re craving an “authentic” ethnic experience, think to yourself;

Am I really crazing authentic food or just Mexican food?

Works Cited

One Comment Add yours

  1. I like how you theorized authenticity here, but also how you gave Beatris as much weight to her words as you did with the scholars, journalists, and chefs. Yes, her voice and perspective matters, and how she theorizes it based on personal connections to real people is one way we can think about the search of an authentic experience, a real connection between food and people. For me, searching for something authentic is not exactly a search that goes anywhere. As Profe Robert said in his lecture in class the other day, folks have been stealing foods from one another forever, that hybridity happens and doesn’t need to be intended. With that, he, like Beatriz, said that this must happen with respect. And really, if we can think of authenticity as a definition, I think respect must be included there, respect for people, cultures, history, and ingredients.

    Great blog post!


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