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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.

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