Posts tagged Mexico

Authentic Mexican cuisine

If yesterday’s post on orange chicken (among other things) made you think that I’ve got whole rants ready to go about the ways that people talk about how people talk about Tex-Mex, taco shacks and authentic Mexican food, you — well, you might be right about that.

Let’s take an example of something that’s both real Mexican food and also real USAmerican food at the same time, no matter how much we may try to border off our cuisines into rigidly separated domains. Tamales are the Mexican food par excellance. They are also straight-up USAmerican food. They spread into the U.S. among agricultural workers in Texas and city street food in Los Angeles, San Antonio and Houston. During the early 20th century, tamales spread through migrant agricultural workers from east Texas into the Mississippi Delta, and went up the river, becoming popular (as red hots) in Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago. Red hot tamales are USAmerican food. They’re so USAmerican they showed up in the blues as a metaphor for sex. But when corn-meal tamales, or chili con carne, or tacos, or fajitas, or other food products of northern Aztlan get brought up — especially when they are wrapped up in a cuisine category like Tex-Mex — there are always those who will insist that — because they are Texian, or because they are USAmerican, or because they are part of an immigrant community and a borderland — they somehow aren’t the same thing as Mexican food anymore.

But of course they are. Of course Tex-Mex is the same as real Mexican food. Mexico’s a big country — it’s so big that it even used to encompass Texas — and Mexican cuisine is the food eaten in Mexico and the food eaten by Mexicans as a whole, wherever they may be, not just the stuff that they happen to serve in the Distrito Federal, or in the parts of Mexico far away from the jurisdictional boundary with the U.S. People will insist that it’s important to distinguish Tex-Mex from the many other cuisines that you can find among Mexicans and the many other cuisines you can find within Mexico. And of course that is obviously true; and it’s not snobbish to insist on the point. But the snobbery — where it comes up — doesn’t come up in distinguishing distinctive cuisines. It comes in distinguishing them by putting down the food eaten on the periphery, or in the diaspora — which is what happens when, say, you privilege the food popular in the capital or in favored sub-regions, by calling that Mexican food proper (for example), and claim that the other cuisines are somehow less really or authentically or properly Mexican. This is part of what I was trying to get at a few years back when I wrote Whiteness studies 104: Class, cuisine, and authenticity:

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.

— GT 2008-10-10: Whiteness studies 104: Class, cuisine, and authenticity

What I’d want to add on to the combo here would be: (1) to underline, again, the cultural twists and turns that Mexican food has made through the U.S. — the rapid spread of tamales from informal-sector street vendors, not only in coastal urban centers but also among (mostly black) workers up and down the Mississippi River valley; the development of mutant strains like the corn-meal tamal, the Sonora dog, and cinnamon-based Cincinnati chili; or, for that matter, the taco-shack fast-food cuisine that Authenticists love so much to hate. And then (2) to note how closely attitudes towards different varieties of Mexican food have been caught up, historically, not only in immigration politics and imperial ideology about nationality and ethnicity, but also in local struggles within U.S. cities over ownership of the cuisine — especially in struggles between informal-sector street vendors and small shop owners, on the one side, and newspaper recipe guides, cook-book authors, entrenched Chamber of Commerce restauranteurs, and other gatekeepers of commercialized culture, especially in northern Aztlan cities like San Antonio and Los Angeles.

And also (3) I’d want to mention some of the weird little ironies that have emerged from those conflicts over ownership when they take the form of local Tex-Mex (say) being deprecated in favor of white Anglophone-curated presentations of self-consciously, self-presentedly authentic Mexican cuisine — the sort of stuff that Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless specialize in.

Of course Kennedy and Bayless are very good cooks, and the culinary movements they’ve promoted have served a valuable role when they have helped introduce a wider variety of foods from central and southern Mexico, and when they have defended the possibility of taking Mexican food seriously as a carefully prepared cuisine. But their way of doing this has typically been systematically to rank down food from the borderlands and food from the diaspora; and to try and present the foods they privilege as authentic in ways that are really pretty elitist and exoticizing. Since part of their rhetorical goal is to distance themselves as much as possible from the over-familiar frontera food, the further you get from the U.S. border, the more authentic the food supposedly gets, and Kennedy and Bayless in particular have developed a fairly strong tendency to disproportionately push distinctively local foods from the far southern states in Mexico — e.g. Yucatecan specialties — as type specimens of authentic Mexican food. Of course there is nothing wrong with getting interested in specialties from southern Mexico, but the irony here, which goes more or less completely unremarked in Authenticist food writing, is that historically a lot of people in the Yucatán and Chiapas do not consider themselves Mexican in the first place, and historically many have not wanted to be part of the Mexican nation-state. There’s a long history of cultural and political conflict between the central Valley and the southern periphery, and since so many view the Mexican political identity as an identity imposed on them by conquest and occupation, the writing often comes off just as if you had a cookbook describing colcannon and bhel puri as prime, typical examples of authentic British cuisine.

Of course, you could point out that one way or the other, southern dishes have come into Mexican cuisine, and they are as good a thing to explore as any. And you’d be right about that — just as you’d be right to say that northern Mexican dishes, border food and local developments within the Mexican diaspora have become an integral part of USAmerican cuisine. Food cultures naturally diffuse, develop, intermix and produce experiments, fusions, local traditions and local mash-ups. Making food has always been an activity both of care and also of boldness, of repetition and innovation at the same time and within the same dish. Cultures naturally diffuse, naturally grow inward and also reach outward. For all that they resonate with locale and community and language and place and social relationships and shared identities, they always overflow the lines that are drawn around them; culture does not neatly obey borders, or class divisions, and cultures (including food cultures) constantly experiment with, redefine, challenge, borrow, appropriate, re-use, re-make, erase, and rewrite the formations that they themselves are supposed to spring from. Authenticism is necessarily a bogus discipline because it begins by presuming that there is a unitary, hermetic, discoverable and conveniently identity-based food culture to be authentic to. Mexican food is the food of Mexico and of Mexicans wherever they may be, and it is no less complicated, no less multifaceted, no less riven with internal divisions, no less open to external contact and influence and experimentation, and no more confined to a single nation-state than are the people who make it and eat it. Fancy food from D.F. is real Mexican food. Street food from Michoacan is real Mexican food. Banana-leaf tamales from the far south are real Mexican food. Corn-husk tamales from San Antonio, burritos from the Mission District, tortilla soup, menudo, tacos from Roberto’s are all real Mexican food. Some of these are USAmerican food too. And we are all much richer and better for being open to the un-tidy, non-exclusive, profoundly human mess that cultures constantly make as they spread and flop all over the ridiculous lines that we try to draw on maps.

  1. [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.

Food Beyond Borders

Here’s a great article by Clarissa Wei, which appeared a while back over at the CNN Travel website. I read it a couple months ago, thanks to a share and some great commentary by Anthony Gregory.

Clarissa Wei: American-Chinese food is real Chinese food

Yes, I’m actually going to defend orange chicken (陈皮鸡).

Fundamentally fried chicken with sauce — the perfect late-night snack and, quite frankly, great drinking food — orange chicken is beloved by millions of people of all ethnic groups (including many Chinese) in the United States.

As with most American-Chinese food, however, there’s a stigma attached to orange chicken.

Chinese food snobs call the dish, as well as the restaurants that serve it, “fake” or “not authentic.”

Superior foodies love nothing more than bashing the chefs and restaurant owners for their alleged perversion of the sacred culinary genre — as if only they know what real Chinese food is, as if someone died and made them arbiter of all Chinese cuisine.

How sad.

Orange chicken, egg foo young (芙蓉蛋) and General Tso’s chicken (左宗堂鸡) have fallen victim to a lot of hatemongers since their introduction to the U.S. culinary scene back in the 19th century.

Those who unapologetically enjoy orange chicken (and many other American-Chinese dishes) and who actually know a little bit about the history of Chinese people outside of China are left to ponder a simple question: What is authenticity?

There’s nothing inauthentic about American-Chinese dishes. The bulk of them were created by Chinese people for Chinese people.

These Chinese people just happened to be living outside of the mother country.

. . . [D]uring the 1840s Gold Rush in California, early Chinese immigrants (most were railroad builders) had no or extremely limited access to traditional Chinese ingredients. So they used what they could find in their new homes to create then-contemporary Chinese dishes, such as the now much-derided chop suey (杂碎), one of the first Chinese dishes invented in the United States. . . . They were made to satisfy the cravings of “real” Chinese people. When railroad work was no longer available, many Chinese laborers resorted to opening restaurants.

. . . “American-Chinese food is Chinese food,” says Julie Lau, owner of Suzie’s on Bleecker Street in New York City. . . . American-Chinese dishes have evolutionarily similarities with Chinese staples. . . . “It’s just the American take on ethnic food.”

So why all the fuss? Why not consider American-Chinese food just another style of Chinese cooking?

— Clarissa Wei, American-Chinese food is real Chinese food
CNN Travel, 7 May 2012.

Well, of course it is real Chinese food. And of course it’s real American food, too.[1] The only reason that it seems like it couldn’t be both is the deeply-engrained, but ultimately completely silly notion that human cultures can be fit into to the same confining borders, the same carved-up exclusivity, and the same nationalized monopolies on allegiance and social support that are currently imposed on people’s political identities in a world of bordered nation-states.

And when you add that completely silly notion to the need for superior foodies to invent new forms of carefully curated expert knowledge, and add in the snobbish and exoticizing notion that the foods eaten by immigrants, by people on the periphery, or by people in the diaspora, somehow count as less really, authentically, or properly part of the national cuisine as the food eaten by people in the capital or the interior, you get exactly this sad and confining sort of stigma. This is as true of immigrant Chinese food as it is of northern Mexican food and of every other kind of so-called inauthentic borderland cuisine that is routinely ranked down by those who imagine that the food cultures of the world somehow map out like the pavillions in Epcot Center, not like the line-crossing, tradition-reworking, living, expanding, adapting, borrowing, overflowing, constantly mutating and constantly interacting and experimenting, profoundly human messes that they really are.

Also.

  1. [1] Thanks to Anthony Gregory for pointing this out on Facebook.

Your Tuesday morning Spontaneous Order

A marine photographer managed to capture hundreds of wide-eyed fish apparently posing for a picture. Californian photographer and conservationist Octavio Aburto had spent years photographing the school in Cabo Pulmo National Park, Mexico, and had been trying to capture this shot for three years.

Fish are pretty awesome. (So’s technological civilization.)

(Thanks to Cap’n Midori.)

All that glitters…

Quoth Murray N. Rothbard:

There is no aspect of the free-market economy that has suffered more scorn and contempt from “modern” economists, whether frankly statist Keynesians or allegedly “free market” Chicagoites, than has gold. Gold, not long ago hailed as the basic staple and groundwork of any sound monetary system, is now regularly denounced as a “fetish” or, as in the case of Keynes, as a “barbarous relic.” Well, gold is indeed a “relic” of barbarism in one sense; no “barbarian” worth his salt would ever have accepted the phony paper and bank credit that we modern sophisticates have been bamboozled into using as money.

But “gold bugs” are not fetishists; we don’t fit the standard image of misers running their fingers through their hoard of gold coins while cackling in sinister fashion. The great thing about gold is that it, and only it, is money supplied by the free market, by the people at work. For the stark choice before us always is: gold (or silver), or government. Gold is market money, a commodity which must be supplied by being dug out of the ground and then processed; but government, on the contrary, supplies virtually costless paper money or bank checks out of thin air… .

— Murray N. Rothbard (1995): Taking Money Back

Well. You might look a little closer at that stark choice there; I don’t know about you, but what I see is a false dichotomy. It is, in any case, an utterly absurd claim to make about the supply of gold or other forms of metal money. In (dis)honor of the upcoming nationalist High Holy Day:

The Europeans were motivated by their lust for glory, for conquest, for women and above all for gold. When the Indians had gold they were compelled to part with it; when they had none they were compelled to hunt for it. Among the Taino people of Hispaniola, Columbus decreed a system of tribute, requiring each adult to submit a specified quantity of gold, on pain of death… . In 1499, troubled by reports they had received from the faraway colonies, the Spanish monarchs empowered a judicial investigator to bring Columbus to account. The inquiry produced testimony that Columbus had forbidden the Christian baptism of Indians except by his express permission, in order to ensure an adequate supply of slaves.

— Ian W. Toll, The Less Than Heroic Christopher Columbus, in the New York Times Sunday book review

And then, from Niall Ferguson (2008), The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, ch. 1:

In 1532 … the Inca Empire was brought low by a man who, like Christopher Columbus, had come to the New World expressly to search for and monetize precious metal… . Having returned to Spain to obtain royal approval for his plan to extend the empire of Castile as Governor of Peru, Pizarro raised a force of three ships, twenty-seven horses and one hundred and eighty men, equipped with the latest European weaponry: guns and mechanical crossbows. This third expedition set sail from Panama on 27 December 1530. It took the would-be conquerors just under two years to achieve their objective: a confrontation with [the Incan emperor] Atahuallpa… . Atahuallpa could only watch as the Spaniards, relying mainly on the terror inspired by their horses (animals unknown to the Incas) annihilated his army. Given how outnumbered they were, it was a truly astonishing coup. Atahuallpa soon came to understand what Pizarro was after, and sought to buy his freedom by offering to fill the room where he was being held with gold (once) and silver (twice). In all, in the subsequent months the Incas collected 13,420 pounds of 22 carat gold and 26,000 pounds of pure silver.[1] Pizarro nevertheless determined to execute his prisoner, who was publicly garrotted in August 1533. With the fall of the city of Cuzco, the Inca Empire was torn apart in an orgy of Spanish plundering… . Pizarro himself died as violently as he had lived, stabbed to death in Lima in 1541 after a quarrel with one of his fellow conquistadors. But his legacy to the Spanish crown ultimately exceeded even his own dreams. The conquistadors had been inspired by the legend of El Dorado, an Indian king who was believed to cover his body with gold dust at festival times. In what Pizarro’s men called Upper Peru, a stark land of mountains and mists where those unaccustomed to high altitudes have to fight for breath, they found something just as valuable. With a peak that towers 4,824 metres (15,827 feet) above sea level, the uncannily symmetrical Cerro Rico — literally the rich hill — was the supreme embodiment of the most potent of all ideas about money: a mountain of solid silver ore. When an Indian named Diego Gualpa discovered its five great seams of silver in 1545, he changed the economic history of the world.

The Incas could not understand the insatiable lust for gold and silver that seemed to grip Europeans. Even if all the snow in the Andes turned to gold, still they would not be satisfied, complained Manco Capac. The Incas could not appreciate that, for Pizarro and his men, silver was more than shiny, decorative metal. It could be made into money: a unit of account, a store of value — portable power.

To work the mines, the Spaniards first relied on paying wages to the inhabitants of nearby villages. But conditions were so harsh that from the late sixteenth century a system of forced labour (la mita) had [sic] to be introduced, whereby men aged between 18 and 50 from the sixteen highland provinces were conscripted for seventeen weeks a year. Mortality among the miners was horrendous, not least because of constant exposure to the mercury fumes generated by the patio process of refinement, whereby ground-up silver ore was trampled into an amalgam with mercury, washed and then heated to burn off the mercury. The air down the mineshafts was (and remains ) noxious and miners had to descend seven-hundred-foot shafts on the most primitive of steps, clambering back up after long hours of digging with sacks of ore tied to their backs. Rock falls killed and maimed hundreds. The new silver-rush city of Potosí was, declared Domingo de Santo Tomás, a mouth of hell, into which a great mass of people every year and are sacrificed by the greed of the Spaniards to their god. Rodrigo de Loaisa called the mines infernal pits, noting that if twenty healthy Indians enter on Monday, half may emerge crippled on Saturday. In the words of the Augustinian monk Fray Antonio de la Calancha, writing in 1638: Every peso coin minted in Potosí has cost the life of ten Indians who have died in the depths of the mines. As the indigenous workforce was depleted, thousands of African slaves were imported to take their place as human mules. Even today there is still something hellish about the stifling shafts and tunnels of the Cerro Rico.

A place of death for those compelled to work there, Potosí was where Spain [sic] struck it rich. Between 1556 and 1783, the rich hill yielded 45,000 tons of pure silver to be transformed into bars and coins in the Casa de Moneda (mint), and shipped to Seville. Despite its thin air and harsh climate, Potosí rapidly became one of the principal cities of the Spanish Empire, with a population at its zenith of between 160,000 and 200,000 people, larger than most European cities at that time. Valer una potosí, to be worth a potosí, is still a Spanish expression meaning to be worth a fortune. Pizarro’s conquest, it seemed, had made the Spanish crown rich beyond the dreams of avarice… .

… The difficulty[2] was that by the time Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Augustus in 800, there was a chronic shortage of silver in Western Europe. Demand for money was greater in the much more developed commercial centres of the Islamic Empire that dominated the southern Mediterranean and the Near East, so that precious metal tended to drain away from backward Europe. So rare was the denarius in Charlemagne’s time that twenty-four of them sufficed to buy a Carolingian cow. In some parts of Europe, peppers and squirrel skins served as substitutes for currency; in others pecunia came to mean land rather than money. This was a problem that Europeans [sic] sought to overcome in one of two ways. They could export labour and goods, exchanging slaves and timber for silver in Baghdad or for African gold in Cordoba and Cairo. Or they could plunder precious metal by making war on the Muslim world. The Crusades, like the conquests that followed, were as much about overcoming Europe’s monetary shortage[3] as about converting heathens to Christianity… .

At Potosí, and the other places in the New World where they found plentiful silver (notably Zacatecas in Mexico), the Spanish conquistadors … appeared to have broken a centuries-old constraint.[4] The initial beneficiary was, of course, the Castilian monarchy that had sponsored the conquests. The convoys of ships — up to a hundred at a time — which transported 170 tons of silver a year across the Atlantic, docked at Seville. A fifth of all that was produced was reserved to the crown, accounting for 44 per cent of total royal expenditure at the peak in the late sixteenth century. But the way the money was spent ensured that Spain’s newfound wealth provided the entire continent [sic] with a monetary stimulus. The Spanish piece of eight, which was based on the German thaler (hence, later, the dollar), became the world’s first truly global currency, financing not only the protracted wars Spain fought in Europe, but also the rapidly expanding trade of Europe with Asia.

The Money Monopoly is a many-headed beast, and it sure didn’t start with paper money; nor did its activities in the days before fiat currency consist exclusively of (say) debasing metallic currencies that the conjurers of market forces had miraculously called forth from the earth. The tale of coinage, and the monetization of precious metals, is largely a tale of dispossession, slavery, and the most atrocious, literally genocidal forms of mass government violence. Yesterday, @ndy at Slackbastard reposted a brilliant and devastating passage from Jorge Semprun’s What A Beautiful Sunday! on the moloch of Bolshevism and the graves at the Kolyma gulag:

But, Shalamov tells us, ‘the eternally frozen stone and soil of the merzlota rejects corpses. The rock has to be dynamited, hacked away. Digging graves and digging for gold required the same techniques, the same tools, the same equipment, the same workers. An entire brigade would devote its days to cutting out graves, or rather ditches, where the anonymous corpses would be thrown fraternally together … The corpses were piled up, completely stripped, after their gold teeth had been broken off and recorded on the burial document. Bodies and stone, mixed together, were poured into the ditch, but the earth refused the dead, incorruptible and condemned to eternity in the perpetually frozen earth of the Great North …’

… In Moscow, at the Mausoleum at Red Square, incredible, credulous crowds continue to file past the incorruptible corpse of Lenin. I even visited the mausoleum myself once, in 1958. At that time, Stalin’s mummy kept Vladimir Ilyich company… . Ten years later, in London, after reading that passage in Varlam Shalamov’s book, I remembered the tomb in Red Square. It occurred to me that the true mausoleum of the revolution was to be found in the Great North, in Kolyma. Galleries might be dug through the charnel houses — the construction sites — of socialism. People would file past the thousands of naked, incorruptible corpses of prisoners frozen in the ice of eternal death. There would be no guards; those dead would not need guards. There would be no music, either, no solemn funeral marches playing in the background. There would be nothing but silence. At the end of the labyrinth of galleries, in a subterranean amphitheater dug out of the ice of a common ditch, surrounded on all sides by the blind gazes of the victims, learned meetings might be organized to discuss the consequences of the ‘Stalinist deviation,’ with a representative sprinkling of distinguished Western Marxists in attendance.

— Jorge Semprun, What A Beautiful Sunday!. Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, Abacus, London, 1984. Qtd. by @ndy in SP v SB, slackbastard (2011-10-03).

And in much the same way, I suppose that the true mausoleum of the merchant-state and state capitalism could be in the hellmouth tunnels of the Cerro Rico. At the end of the labyrinth (already cut, already stifling with the stench of death), in a subterranean amphitheater surrounded by the ghosts of the enslaved miners, learned meanings might be organized to discuss what government has done to our money, with a representative sprinkling of distinguished libertarian economists in attendance.

Or perhaps it would just as well be held in the Great North, right alongside the monument to Marxist-Leninism.

Kolyma, too, was a gold mining camp.

  1. [1] About a quarter of a billion dollars, in 2011 US money. —CJ
  2. [2] For European kings, not for their victims. —CJ
  3. [3] Sic — of course he means European governments’ monetary shortage. The continent of Europe has no use for money, and most of the people of Europe never had metallic money in any great amount either before or after the various conquests.
  4. [4] By breaking the earth — and that, in turn, by breaking a few million enslaved Indians and Africans. —CJ

Wednesday Lazy Linking