Why 'Authentic' Is the Most Insulting Word in Food
You've all heard self-proclaimed "foodies" gush over the "authenticity" of a place: "Oh, that's my favorite Mexican restaurant in [city with hundreds of them], it's by far the most authentic!"
Huh. Authentically what, though?
Yes, yes, in terms of Mexican cuisine, we all know it means tacos served on corn tortillas with chopped white onions, cilantro, a squeeze of lime, no cheese, and some kind of pig or beef part. We all KNOW that's what it means, because inevitably ordering (or even mentioning) them comes with a lecture from somebody who's never been to Mexico explaining how it's done in Mexico.
Food used to be the great social democratizer, because everyone eats. There are few human experiences as absolutely universal as eating. (Other than breathing, sleeping, shitting: that's about it.) And food, in and of itself, was never a space for social grandstanding; it was a space for community and camaraderie, for sharing quality time and stories and life together.
And then came the foodie.
From the tyranny of the word "foodie" itself (a name that exists for the sole purpose of differentiating one kind of person who eats food from another), foodie culture has sought to divide, to elevate one group over the other for having ostensibly better taste and making ostensibly better life decisions. It's a culture with a vicious streak of elitism (and a smug sense of self-satisfaction) that's accessible only to those with enough disposable cash to buy organic or eat out A LOT.
Integral to the self-ordained mantle of "foodie" culture is the implication that a true "foodie" does not eat at chain restaurants. Or at establishments that don't source from local growers/producers/makers. Or at joints that use national food distribution corporations like Sysco. No, a true "foodie" doesn't eat anything, really, that's not considered organic/sustainable/seasonal/local, nor does he or she drink anything that isn't labeled "craft" or "artisanal." And, most importantly, a true "foodie" is inherently better than those who do.
It didn't take long for "foodie" chauvinism -- ironically, perpetuated by white people, ALWAYS by white people -- to Columbus ethnic cuisines. The hottest new pho place, the best Korean barbecue, the most "authentic" taco carts -- blogging about these places first is a matter of profound bragging rights.
"'No AMERICANIZED tacos here, these guys know how to do it right!' #authentic #tacos #mexican #streetfood" reads the twee Instagram post.
"Authentic." It's a tricky word. Because implicit in this word is the idea that all other forms of said food item are not authentic. Tacos on corn tortillas with white onions and no cheese? Approved! Tacos on flour tortillas topped with a mound of shredded cheddar? GTFO, you rote American.
But rest assured, the tacos on flour tortillas mounded with cheese are indeed authentically food and authentically edible. They're just not authentic in terms of -- well, what, exactly? The white American stereotype of what Mexican food is? That the items are cooked by real, genuine, bona fide Mexicans?
And if the latter is a determining factor of true authenticity, does that mean every restaurant from Applebee's to your favorite high-end eatery is really just a Mexican joint in disguise? You know, 'cause there are a lot of Mexican cooks across America.
Of course not. Places like Friday's and the Cheesecake Factory might be trying to cash in on the popularity of tacos in corn tortillas, and may even have kitchens staffed entirely with Mexican immigrants, but no self-respecting foodie would dare call them "authentic." (Because, you know, that corporate chain thing.) No, further implicit in the use of the word "authentic" is that the place must somehow be "authentically Mexican" which, in the minds of privileged Americans, apparently means "colorful walls." Mexico!
The arrogance over the claim of authenticity would be impressive if it weren't so stupefying. Because to claim a place is authentic, one must also claim a certain kind of authority: "I know more than the owners, chef, cooks, servers, and other guests of this restaurant, and only I can make the authenticity assessment that will validate its existence. Also, you should totally read my blog."
Minerva Orduño Rincón notes in her excellent piece for the Phoenix New Times, "The Authenticity Trap of Mexican Food in America:"
"In the armchair anthropologist game, Americans are the undisputed champs. The sheer conviction and depth of expertise in Mexican cuisine that these critics demonstrate is nothing short of impressive and intimidating. I was born and raised in Mexico and have lived in the United States for most of my adult life. I’ve worked in kitchens for many years, serving Mexican, American, and other kinds of food, but I would hardly call myself an authority on the authenticity of Mexican cooking, despite having been raised with it and devoting much of my culinary career to it."
Rincón is, by her own description, both ethnically and culturally Mexican AND a long-time cook, yet she makes no claim to knowing what indisputably "authentic" Mexican cooking is -- in fact, she questions if there really is such a thing, as the "self-appointed authorities wield the stamp of authenticity fearlessly when it comes to a restaurant’s handmade tortillas, cheap prices, colorful ambiance, and quaintness of the family who owns it, [though] little is said about the food's taste."
And this is really at the heart of what makes the word "authentic" such a problem (aside from it being pat and facile): at the core of its casual usage is the glib validation of the ethnic culture in question, with the self-elected foodie allowing this cuisine into the greater global gourmet conversation.
Breathless blogging about "authentic" taquerias both fetishizes and infantilizes the ethnic "other," making every kindly, brown-faced abuelita in the background of a Bourdain clip (and every smiling Vietnamese man serving up a hot bowl of pho with a wordless, English-less nod; and every Black Person in a Black Neighborhood serving soul food to over-eager white people excited by the thrill of ordering through bulletproof glass) an example of a "model minority," at least as far as food is concerned.
Ethnic cuisine is not there for you to fawn over and approve/disapprove of. An immigrant-owned restaurant is not designed to provide you with a singularly, culturally representative "authentic" experience. The consumption of a taco is not akin to acquiring an intimate knowledge of a 13,000-year-old culture through oral transmission. The only reason to open your mouth about the taco is for purposes of eating it, so do that, and unless you're talking about memorabilia from the set of the latest Star Wars movie that you found on eBay or a diadem of the Romanov family tracked down by your personal antiques dealer, let the word "authentic" never pass your lips again.
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Nicole Rupersburg is an authentic human, and also a writer of varying authenticity. She splits her time between Detroit, hailed for its "authentic grittiness," and Las Vegas, a city that no one in the history of the world has ever used the word "authentic" to describe.