Whiteness studies 104: Class, cuisine, and authenticity

Here’s a story from NPR’s Weekend Edition (2008-10-05) that I was listening to while cooking for last week’s Food Not Bombs picnic. The occasion for the story has to do with the seasonal noise and with the really insipid theme of finding out where the dictatorial candidates like to eat, but while I’m not at all interested in where Barack and Michelle Obama like to spend their money, I am interested in the real topic of the story, which is the chef Rick Bayless and his Chicago restaurant, Topolobampo. Topolobampo specializes in central Mexican cuisine — in particular, the metropolitan cuisine that you can get from gourmet restaurants or the street vendors in the megalopolis of Mexico City. Bayless is a white boy from Oklahoma City who loves to cook central Mexican food, and who created his restaurant in part because he wanted to make a kind of Mexican food that most Estadounidenses have never tasted, in spite of the tremendous number of Mexican restaurants in just about every city and town in the U.S.

Most of us have never had the kind of Mexican food that Bayless makes because most Mexican restaurants in the U.S. serve northern Mexican food — the usual menu of enchiladas, fajitas, beef tacos, tamales in corn husks, burritos, carne asada, refried beans, salsa picante, huevos rancheros, and so on. That’s the cuisine that developed in the ranching and farming borderlands, in northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. I’m glad that there are folks trying to introduce Estadounidenses to other kinds of Mexican food; what I’m less glad to hear is how fellow white boy Daniel Zwerdling insists on describing this distinction between Frontera cuisine and Distrito Federal cuisine in is interview with Bayless. (You have to listen to the audio report; most of this is not in the printed summary.)

But the cooking here is totally different than what you find in most Mexican restaurants in the United States . . . . At Topolobampo, don’t even think about burritos and refried beans. The truth is, the food most Americans [sic] think of as Mexican is actually Tex-Mex food. It’s the rustic cooking that farmers and cowboys ate along the border.

When Topolobampo opened almost 20 years ago, it was the first restaurant in the United States that served the kind of gourmet dishes you might find in Mexico City. . . .

How did a boy from Kansas City [sic], like you, end up being one of the main people who showed Americans [sic] what real Mexican cooking is really about?

. . . Over the next few minutes, he’s going to teach you to make steak tortillas with grilled onions and guacamole—the way Mexicans really eat them.

. . . You know what’s really puzzling? It’s like, Americans totally fell in love with French cooking, and French cooking became a huge deal in the United States. Italian cooking—huge deal in the United States. Right across the border, they have this incredible cuisine; you know, why didn’t Americans [sic] fall in love with that sooner?

— Daniel Zwerdling, interviewing Rick Bayless A Meal Fit For A Candidate: Barack Obama
NPR’s Weekend Edition (2008-10-05)

See, the kind of Mexican food you’re used to doesn’t count as incredible cuisine because rustic cooking from border provinces doesn’t even count as a cuisine. Cuisine is what rich people in big cities who use gratuitous French loan-words eat. And the kind of food they make in northern Mexican states like Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California, and in former northern Mexican states like Alta California, New Mexico, and (especially) Tejas,[1] doesn’t count as real Mexican cooking either, because a bunch of farmers and cowboys and immigrants don’t count as real Mexicans. Only rich Mexicans who eat in gourmet restaurants in metropolitan Mexico City do.

In reality, part of the solution to Zwerdling’s puzzle may be that Estadounidenses had trouble with finding this incredible cuisine they supposedly have right across the border, seeing as how those Mexico City restaurants where people eat this kind of food aren’t right across the border; Mexico City is hundreds of miles away from the Rio Grande. If you go right across the border you’ll be somewhere like Juarez or Nuevo Laredo or a little border village, and they’ll be serving those swamps of refried beans … and melted cheese. But NPR-listening white folks in the U.S. of A. are expected to take the very local and peculiar cuisine of Mexico City to represent the real cuisine of the entire United States of Mexico, because NPR-listening white folks in the U.S. of A. have mostly come to believe that world food is arranged not by the messy clustering of ecological, economic, and cultural factors that actually influences how people eat, but rather by the basically military reality of discrete nations separated by fortified political borders. And, having come to believe that, we have mostly come to identify the authentic national cuisine of any given country with the preferences of the rich and powerful people sitting on the political, media, and mercantile centers inside those national borders — that is, the preferences of those who spend a lot of time eating cuisine, and little or no time growing or raising the food that goes into it.

What white people in the U.S.A. generally want, when they have the money to get it, is to eat like rich city people eat all over the world; different countries provide new brands, new spices, and, perhaps most importantly for the sort of white people who listen to NPR, new ways to distinguish yourself from the déclassé white people who don’t know or don’t like or can’t handle the real stuff. Perceived authenticity is the important thing here, and what’s perceived as authentic for any given country — and, therefore, fit for white people in the U.S. to eat — is determined not by culture, but by political economy and the orders of power and wealth.

1 Because southern and central Texas were especially important to the development and spread of this kind of food, it’s often been tagged as Tex-Mex — although a lot of what gets tagged as Tex-Mex is really common to northern Mexico in general, and a lot of it comes in distinctive styles that come out of other old population centers, especially in California and around Santa Fe.

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10 replies to Whiteness studies 104: Class, cuisine, and authenticity Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. JRL

    I don’t like the elitist and essentialist ideas about food you quoted in the NPR piece.

    However, why do you insult Bayless by calling him a “white boy?” He certainly isn’t a boy, and nothing I’ve read by him expresses the attitudes about northern/Tex-Mex food you’re objecting to either. (On an unrelated note, his recipe for mango and lime sorbet is awesome.)

  2. John Markley

    The focus on elites as representatives of “authentic” culture seems to be a mentality common in a lot of areas. I’ve noticed a similar bias at work in people’s views of religion, and especially Westerner’s views of Asian religions. There seems to be a common perception that the forms and schools of Hinduism or Buddhism commonly favored by the more educated upper classes of Asian countries represent the “true” or “pure” form of these religions, and that the practices and beliefs of the hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists with less prestige and education are just some sort of degraded perversion of the real thing.

  3. Rorshak (1313)

    You make a good point here. How something that’s mostly eaten by the rich (the minority) supposed to be the “real” Mexican food as opposed to what the poor and middle class (the majority) eat?

    It reminds me of the P&T Bullshit episode on “The Best” where they serve the cheapest food they find, dress it up as expensive gourmet food and fool a bunch of restaurant patrons.

  4. Sergio Méndez

    Charles:

    I half agree with your post. You make a good point - and I am glad you dispeled that myth from my mind- that most of what is called “Tex-Mex” is actually common food in northen states of Mexico. I also agree with you that the “fusion” presentation of food from a country is usually considered “the food of the country” while ignoring the diversity of dishes and that such essensialist conception of food is elitist and dangerous.

    But I think some critics of what is usually sold as “Mexican food” in the US (and the rest of the world) have a point in that such hardly represents the whole variety of food of the country. And not cause is not the food the bourgoeis eat in Mexico City, but cause Mexico has an enormous variety of dishes (and I am talking about food eat by people all social clases) in almost every region that people hardly know, and that are very good and in many cases better that what is cook in the north.

  5. Joshua Holmes

    Mexico’s full name is “Estados Unitos Mexicanos”. If anyone should be called estadounidenses, it’s Mexicans.

    Of course, we shouldn’t be called United-Statesians, because there’s no good reason we should be named for our government.

  6. Rad Geek

    JRL,

    Actually Bayless does use phrases like real Mexican cooking to describe what he cooks a couple times in the course of the interview. But it’s hard to tell how much of that is reflective of his own views and how much of it is just matching the language his interviewer keeps using. But, in any case, the intent in using the phrase white boy was not to be insulting. (For reference, I’d use the same phrase to describe myself.) I don’t consider it insulting to be described as white when one is white, and if Bayless is insulted by being referred to as a boy I’ll take it back and refer to him henceforward as a white man.

    I’m sure that he is indeed a very good cook.

    Sergio,

    I certainly agree with you about the tremendous variety of kinds of food served in Mexico and that most Estadounidenses have never encountered much of anything other than norteño cuisine (or, in a very few cases, some extraordinarily popular regional specialty from elsewhere in Mexico, e.g. chicken in mole poblano), and that there are lots of wonderful dishes that many of us miss out on because of it, and that it’s nice to see restaurants trying to introduce other kinds of Mexican cuisine. I’m all for that, and more power to Rick Bayless, as far as I’m concerned, for putting together what sounds like a very good restaurant. I just think the way that all this gets described in the interview is weird, and reflective of a way that a lot of white folks in the U.S. have taught themselves to think about food, and about cultural identity. Including especially white U.S. Progressives who like Barack Obama and very much want to think of themselves as sophisticated connoisseurs of both food and foreign cultures.

    Josh,

    I’m aware of the Estados Unidos in the full legal name of Mexico (you may notice that I included an English translation in the course of the post). But estadounidenses is something Mexicans call us, not something Mexicans call themselves, even if it could in principle have been coined to refer to residents of the U.S. of M. with equal justice; whereas Americans is in actual usage systematically ambiguous between residents of the U.S.A. and residents of the continents of North and South America. I could use some other term, like gringos, but Estadounidenses is fairly neutral and sounds more like a real word than English translations like United-Statesians, whereas other words are either ungainly or derogatory.

    Of course you’re right that people shouldn’t be named for their governments. But that’s no less true for Mexicans than for Americans, and to the extent that it is true, it’s also just as good an objection to calling people Americans as it is to calling them United-Statesians.

    There really isn’t much of anything that people from San Antonio, Ypsilanti, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, the Bronx, Oahu, Sitka, Occupied Portland, the UP, Atlanta, New Orleans, Lowndes County, rural Maine, etc. all have in common with each other, except for the shared fate of being forced to obey, and being counted as citizens by, the same continent-spanning multinational Washingtonian empire. Calling us all Americans comes to naming people for their governments just as much as calling us all United-Statesians does, because America as a country doesn’t mean anything in particular other than the territory controlled by the U.S.A. (It’s like calling Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Mises all Austro-Hungarians, or calling Adam Smith, Daniel O’Connell, and Gandhi all British, as if that were somehow different from describing them as subjects of those respective empires.)

— 2012 —

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