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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.

See also:

Gynocide: mass graves and bodies uncovered in Juarez and Basra

Kyrie eleison.

Forensic teams in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico are unearthing more than 4,000 bodies buried in common graves.

A local government official said DNA samples from the bodies would be compared to those of missing persons.

It is thought that some of the bodies could belong to women killed in a wave of unsolved murders that began in the city in 1993.

The official said the corpses were buried in common graves because they had not been claimed after 90 days.

The bodies being exhumed were buried between 1991 and 2005 – all unclaimed bodies buried since 2005 have been identified first.

More than 300 women have been murdered in the town in Chihuahua state since 1993, and an unknown number have gone missing.

There is no generally accepted motive for the killings.

They have been variously attributed to serial killers, drug cartels and domestic violence. Some of the killings are believed to have been sexually motivated.

Many of the victims were poor working mothers employed in factories in the industrial city, which is on the border with Texas.

There have been several arrests, but the killings have continued.

— BBC News 2007-12-05: Bodies in Juarez graves exhumed

In southern Iraq:

BAGHDAD (AP) — Religious vigilantes have killed at least 40 women this year in the southern Iraqi city of Basra because of how they dressed, their mutilated bodies found with notes warning against violating Islamic teachings, the police chief said Sunday.

Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf blamed sectarian groups that he said were trying to impose a strict interpretation of Islam. They dispatch patrols of motorbikes or unlicensed cars with tinted windows to accost women not wearing traditional dress and head scarves, he added.

The women of Basra are being horrifically murdered and then dumped in the garbage with notes saying they were killed for un-Islamic behavior, Khalaf told The Associated Press. He said men with Western clothes or haircuts are also attacked in Basra, an oil-rich city some 30 miles from the Iranian border and 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Those who are behind these atrocities are organized gangs who work under cover of religion, pretending to spread the instructions of Islam, but they are far from this religion, Khalaf said.

Throughout Iraq, many women wear a headscarf and others wear a full face veil although secular women are often unveiled. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the rise of a Shiite-dominated government, armed men in some parts of the country have sometimes forced women to cover their heads or face punishment. In some areas of the heavily Shiite south, even Christian women have been forced to wear headscarves.

Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, was known for its mixed population and night life. Now, in some areas, red graffiti threatens any woman who wears makeup and appears with her hair uncovered: Your makeup and your decision to forgo the headscarf will bring you death.

Khalaf said bodies have been found in garbage dumps with bullet holes, decapitated or otherwise mutilated with a sheet of paper nearby saying, she was killed for adultery, or she was killed for violating Islamic teachings. In September, the headless bodies of a woman and her 6-year-old son were among those found, he said. A total of 40 deaths were reported this year.

We believe the number of murdered women is much higher, as cases go unreported by their families who fear reprisal from extremists, he said.

— Sinan Salaheddin, Associated Press (2007-12-10): Vigilantes Kill 40 Women in Iraq’s South

(Via Feminist Law Professors 2007-12-10 and Majikthise 2007-12-10.)

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