I’m from a Mexican family that can’t cook. When I took up food writing, I joked to my mother, who is almost proud of our culinary incompetence, that I had already discussed all the recipes in our family tree after just two essays: tortillas and caldo de pollo. “Maybe I’ll learn another one for you,” she said, laughing. I doubted it. Once, I saw my mother microwave an egg and two slices of bacon, roll it up in a slice of bread, and eat it for breakfast. She is not ready for the Bon Appétit test kitchen — none of us is, but at least it’s our food and we make it, or don’t make it, our way.
Maybe that’s why I hate the word “authentic.” I hate how it intrudes on my memories, looking for things it can use. As a kid I ate at a fast-food taco chain, Taco Bueno, every other day with my abuelos, who had little money and carried their dollar bills in a plastic sandwich bag. We’d pillage the salsa bar. We’d eat at a table next to a mural of a corpulent iguana wearing sunglasses and a sombrero. We would scarf down cheesy quesadillas, hard tacos and bean burritos in a corporate caricature of an old hacienda, then return home with our bounty of dips and sauces in little white cups covered with napkins. “Authenticity” has no interest in these things. It tosses them aside.
Like many other queer writers and nonwhite writers, I have become an expert in trolling the seabed of my memories for trauma I can turn into content. For those of us who didn’t go to a fancy college and who weren’t born into family connections, it’s what’s most readily available. Anyone can be an expert in themselves. I’ve learned to identify which of my painful memories — and there are so many — would do well as a written piece. I’ve grown skilled at accounting for the foreign gaze of those I can only call tourists: white people, straight people, whoever. And tourists want authenticity.
A recent study of Yelp reviews for New York restaurants that serve nonwhite cuisines illustrates this clearly. Reviewers tend to give Mexican and Chinese restaurants, in particular, lower ratings if they don’t perceive them as authentic. What makes something “authentic”? As with writing, most of the hallmarks seem to be about pain: dirty floors, plastic chairs, anything that aesthetically connotes struggle. The cooks and waiters ought to have accents. There should probably be a framed photo of someone’s dead grandpa.
Paradoxically, many of these traits are also ones that America actively punishes, which is why immigrants are often desperate to sieve them out of their families. But the pain is the point. Pain is what makes things real, from the sweat on the kitchen staff’s brows down to the spiciness of the cuisine that scorches the tongue. If the joint has no air conditioning, if it’s off the beaten path, if the voyeur into struggle has to “work” to find it, then the experience is supposedly richer for it. It makes the voyeur better, more worldly for having brushed up against it.
“Authenticity” is for tourists. When invoked, it assures the visitor that whatever they’re experiencing, be it a meal or a poem or a human being, is rarefied and exotic, something they can’t get anywhere else. People going about their ordinary lives, whatever their ordinary lives look like, don’t have to think about authenticity any more than my mother has to think about whether her microwaved eggs and bacon in bread is “Mexican.” At that point, calling something authentic can help you sell it.
On the flip side, “authenticity” is restrictive. It limits the imaginations of nonwhite people. According to a beautiful, sad story in Eater, the demand for “authentic” Mexican food is threatening to wipe out a unique kind of taco in Kansas City. The taco, found at restaurants throughout the area, is fried and then blanketed in Parmesan cheese. David Lopez, who runs one of the establishments that features it, said his grandmother had embraced Parmesan because it was “cheap and around,” thanks in part to the proximity of Italian communities. “My grandmother made tacos with peas and with potatoes,” Lopez said, because she couldn’t always afford ground beef.
For some Mexican Americans, this gets at the essence of the way we eat. I can’t think of a better example of the fraud of authenticity than this story, which shows that too many people are more interested in the aesthetics of poverty than in poverty itself — more invested in the feeling of realness than in any kind of truth.
Sometimes, people ask me for my recommendations on authentic Mexican food. It’s become even more common since I moved to New York, where people ask even while we’re eating Mexican, as if apologizing for subjecting me to counterfeit: “So where should we really go?” I have no clue, of course. Food either tastes good or it tastes bad, but that’s not enough for some people. (You shouldn’t have to be a culinary anthropologist to go out for dinner.) If I’m in a nice enough mood, I’ll pretend: “There’s this one place with good mole.”
But it’s not just white people who enforce these rules. Marginalized groups often police themselves, waging our own authenticity wars. Pain is, in the end, an heirloom of sorts, one there is a certain pride in holding. For Mexican Americans, or at least for me, these battles play out in the theater of the mind: Do I speak Spanish well enough? Can I cook enough of our foods? Is my butt big enough? Is my personality fiery enough?
These are not signifiers of true legitimacy. They are fetishes. But we are taught, sometimes by people who look and sound like us, to confuse the two.
“You can write about other foods, you know,” my mom told me over the phone a few weeks ago. The idea had never occurred to me. Even before food writing, I mostly wrote about my own experiences. I rarely ventured outside things I knew, things I had touched, tasted, felt. I wrote a lot of essays about being Mexican, about being gay, with the unifying theme: Being a minority sucks. The notion that someone would trust me to write about something outside of myself was alien.
Heritage and tradition are important, there’s no doubt. But it’s also important to free our imaginations from the tyranny of authenticity. That’s not entirely possible in a consumer culture, of course. But in looking at our lives through a different lens, a lens that is more our own, we can give ourselves more room to be. We can see something that is closer to the truth.
Our culture — any culture — isn’t static. It is a living thing. It pulls from its surroundings to adapt in a world that in equal turns marginalizes and fetishizes it. The truth is, I see myself more in Taco Bueno, in my abuela sacking the salsa bar, in the Parmesan crispy taco, than I do in whatever Yelpers think is authentic. I see our foods, our art, our people as products of survival, as evidence of our will to continue. I can’t think of a more time-honored tradition.