Finding the Meaning of Authenticity

Living in the United States allows for a lot of access. Access to democracy, access to education, access to travel, access to opportunity, and most importantly, access to food. One of the great things about America is that even though it is a newer country, it consists of migrants from cultures all around the world that had been thriving and perfecting their culinary practices for centuries before coming to America for various reasons. Depending on where you live in this country, you will have varying levels of exposure to the differing cultures represented in America. Luckily, I chose to go to school in New York, which means that if I do some research, I can find some amazing food from just about anywhere in the world and all it will cost me is some time investigating on Google and a Subway fare. With this in mind, you would think that if New Yorker’s wanted Asian food, they would head to Flushing which is home to some of the most amazing asian food in the country. If they wanted Greek they would head over to Astoria, and if they wanted authentic Mexican, then they would go to Corona or Jackson Heights  where they can get fresh tortillas and the most delicious guacamole that they will ever find at Taqueria Coatzingo. If this is true, then why do restaurants like Taco Bell and Panda Express still thrive in this city filled with cultural and culinary diversity? 

If you were to enter a room full of New Yorkers and ask them what their favorite type of food was, a large amount of them would probably say Mexican. In fact, if you were to ask me what my favorite type of food was, I would probably tell you Mexican. My journey to falling in love with Mexican food was a long one, and although it is embarrassing to admit, it did start at Taco Bell. I grew up in a small town, so the closest thing to Mexican food that I could find was travelling thirty minutes to the small city nearby where they had a Taco Bell. Even then I used to say that my favorite food was Mexican, and this was when I had only eaten Taco Bell. Looking back, I can’t believe that I even considered the subpar flour tortillas and “meat” on my cheesy burritos to be Mexican food considering that now when I am craving a taco and guacamole I can go to places like Taqueria Coatzingo in Jackson Heights, 5burro in Forest Hills, and Tacombe in the West Village.

That being said, while in this class and being able to observe the meaning of Mexican food, and what it means when a restaurant serves “authentic” cuisine, it made me start to wonder whether the food that I love is really Mexican or if it is it a more Americanized version of the cuisine such as Tex-Mex. Is Taco Bell considered Mexican food due to it being loosely inspired by the cuisine that Mexicans brought to America? Or can it only be considered Mexican food if it is a meal that would be made by Mexicans, for Mexican people, in Mexico? Today, I am going to do my best to try and define what “authentic’ Mexican food is, and I am going to take you all along on that journey.

Some things may have changed since this map was created, but here is a YouTube video from Conde Nast Traveler that does a really good job of showing some of the best neighborhoods for your favorite foods in Queens!

For the first step of our journey, I thought it was important to set some ground rules, answering questions like where did Mexican food originate and what are the typical ingredients necessary to signify “authentic” mexican cuisine? According to Aqui es Texcoco, a Mexican restaurant in California, “most authentic Mexican food derived from a combination of ancient Aztec, Mayan and Spanish traditions” (“Authentic Mexican Cuisine: A Heritage of Tradition”). This website focuses on distinguishing authentic Mexican food from the more Americanized “Tex-Mex,” that we are used to. Aqui es Texcoco was even kind enough to provide a list of ingredients that are essential when cooking Mexican food:

fresh and healthy ingredients such as tomatoes, chiles, not jars of store-bought salsa for example

traditional spices (such as coriander and epazote) instead of cumin or dry oregano

maize-based tortillas, not wheat tortillas

soft tacos, not crisp taco shells

white cheese (like cotija or fresh cheese) instead of yellow (cheddar) cheese

cooked corn grains and complete corn cobs rather than salsas and dishes with sweet corn as an ingredient

frijoles prepared from scratch, not Americanized refried beans

[These] are a few key signature aspects of traditional Mexican cuisine to help you distinguish authentic Mexican from Tex-Mex dishes. (“Authentic Mexican Cuisine: A Heritage of Tradition”)

Just by first glance at this list, a couple things are immediately clear. First, Taco Bell would definitely be considered Tex-Mex or American Mex in accordance to this list. They use jarred salsa (more specifically, bagged salsa, but that is besides the point), wheat tortillas, crispy taco shells, cheddar cheese, and refried beans in their menu items. By this list, it looks like Chipotle is out of the running as well, considering that they use flour tortillas, corn salsa, and hard shell tacos.

These places have to move fast in order to keep up with demand, which unfortunately often can mean quantity over quality. Another thing that is interesting about this list, is that since it provides the Tex-Mex versions of authentic Mexican ingredients, it is easy to see how dishes were adapted to fit into an American way of cooking. Americans are all about preservatives, industrialization, and being cost efficient. We use flour tortillas or buy corn tortillas with preservatives because they last longer. We save money on fresh ingredients by buying pre-packaged commercialized salsas, and we use cheddar cheese because it is more common in America, and therefore cheaper. Another positive aspect of this list is that it is unbiased. It is not trying to say that there is anything wrong with Tex-Mex, it is just comparing Tex-Mex ingredients to Mexican ingredients, which is helpful in our quest to determine what “authentic” Mexican cuisine really means. In addition to this list, here is a video further detailing the difference between “authentic” Mexican and Tex-Mex.

Tex-Mex vs. Mexican food

Now that we have a basic understanding of the ingredients that are used in authentic Mexican food, I think it is also important to know more about how Mexican food came to be. As in all cultures, the foods that we eat rely heavily on the resources that are available to us. In order to learn about the authenticity of a food, we need to understand why the food was invented in the first place. Maggie Unzueta from Food and Wine does an excellent job at explaining how Mexican food, and more importantly the Mexican staple dish, tacos, came to be:

Tacos date back to the days when Montezuma and the Aztecs ruled Mexico. Cocoa beans were used as currency, and human sacrifice was often practiced throughout Mesoamerica. Ah, those were the days! Those were also the days when the people of the area used to roll up corn tortillas to scoop up their food. The wives of the farmers and field pickers would take their husbands meals at midday. For practical reasons, they would wrap the food in tortillas, and tacos were born.

As cities grew and the Spanish invaded, people migrated to find work. Mexico City was the largest city in the world – and is still one of the largest – and attracted people from all over the country. With this massive migration came foods from the different regions. Stands started popping up left and right, offering specialty tacos from every part of Mexico. Street carts eventually came about, making it easier for people to enjoy muy rico tacos at affordable prices. (Unzueta)

Unzueta confirms that Mexican food as it is known to be can be traced back to the Aztecs. However, she goes into deeper detail, explaining how tacos were actually invented as a convenience factor for the workers in Aztec civilization. They had access to a lot of corn to make tortillas, and their wives were able to prepare their lunches to go by wrapping all of the food up into tortillas and sending their husbands on their way. As time went on, this taco practice spread to Mexico city, which eventually birthed the street cart, or as we all like to call it, the taco truck. Now I can know that when I stand in line at Birria Landia to get a delicious taco on the go, that it never would’ve been possible if the Aztec wives did not need to figure out a way to be able to give their husbands food to go to keep them fueled during a long day of work.

So after the long journey from Aztec civilizations, through the Spanish Invasion, and into Mexico City, how did Mexican food enter America, and why was it adapted into this popular version of cuisine referred to as Tex-Mex? Hayden Field of The Daily Field attempts to create this road map while discussing how different “Mexican” food is in Mexico:

The history of Tex-Mex cuisine is as convoluted as that of Texas because Texas and Mexico were both part of the Spanish colony called New Spain for over 300 years. Texas separated from Spain in 1821 but maintained ties with Mexico until Texas became one of the United States in 1845. According to Thrillist, settlers came to Texas and experienced the relatively nearby Mexican cuisine for the first time. Appreciation for the food grew and people started to make it with common Texan ingredients like wheat flour and beef scarcely found south of the border. (Field)

Based off of this description, Field makes an argument that Tex-Mex was born purely based off of the resources they had available. Although this is partly true, I also think that there were some acts done while creating Tex-Mex that attempted to strip the Mexican-ness out of a food by americanizing the ingredients. So although I agree with Field about the food changing due to resources available, I think it also had to do with people in marketing and corporate who did not think that branding a food as purely Mexican would sell well in America. Author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Gustavo Arellano weighs in on this issue during an interview with Rick Paulas of WAMC:

“In some ways, people feel cheated,” he explained. “They feel that Tex-Mex masqueraded as Mexican food for all these years.” And now that more of mainstream America is discovering what they perceive to be “authentic” Mexican food, the more they’re turned off by the lard-and-cheese-laced plates that most Texans adore. Outside of Texas, says Arellano, the tide has turned against Tex-Mex despite its deep roots in our country. (Paulas)

As someone who grew up thinking Taco Bell was Mexican food and then moved to New York and ate real Mexican food, I understand this feeling of being cheated. It also makes me feel ignorant because for my entire life I have been saying that Mexican food was one of my favorite foods, even though what I really meant was that Tex-Mex was one of my favorite foods. In reality,I did not have the privilege of trying authentic Mexican food until a couple of years ago. At the same time, I can imagine that Mexican people feel extremely cheated because companies like Taco Bell and Chipotle are using their culture as a blanket statement to sell food that is not even their own. Their culture is being falsely represented, and I know that would make me extremely angry. For example, I am Lebanese and I know that I get frustrated when I order baklava or tabbouleh and it is completely different from what my grandma makes.

This baklava did meet my standards!

So how can we do better? How can we know that the ingredients are accurate, that the people cooking understand the culture properly, and that the restaurants that we go to are authentic? In saying so, how important is it to value authenticity?

This is a very tricky question. It is obviously important to value a culture’s tradition and not claim something to be one thing when it is really another just to earn a profit. But at the same time, isn’t the mixing of culture’s a positive thing that allows the world to get to know and appreciate culture’s outside of their own? Surekha Ragavan argues that, “A faltering issue with authenticity is also its refusal to acknowledge the fuse of two or more cultures” (Ragavan). When it comes to Tex-Mex, at its roots was it genuinely the reality of two cultures fusing? Are the problems with Tex-Mex that Arellano describes mainly a fault of bigger companies and corporations? If that is the case, than is it okay to keep enjoying Tex-Mex guilt free? Or do I have to feel guilty for liking Chipotle even if it brands itself as Mexican when it is not technically authentic? Elahe Izadi attempts to answer that question while discussing how important authenticity is to enjoying food. She puts it very simply by saying what really matters is whether or not “the food is good and comes from the heart” (Izadi). 

At the end of the day, all anybody really wants out of their food is for it to be delicious and to provide them with the nutrients that they need to go about their day. Of course it is valuable to know that tacos came from ancient Aztec civilizations, made their way into Mexico, then into Texas, and then across America. It is also important to be aware and avoid restaurants that falsely claim to serve authentic cuisine just to make a profit, because that is disrespectful to an entire culture. However, there is nothing wrong with foods and cultures blending to create something delicious. That being said, keep eating tacos whether you like corn or flour tortillas, fresh or canned salsa, and homemade or refried beans. As long as you hold a respect for the work put into your meal and the people in history that helped to bring it to your plate, then go ahead and take a big ole, guilt free bite!