"Ethnic" dining and "authentic" foods: More and more, these terms are coming under scrutiny in a national conversation that is becoming very interesting indeed.
Just yesterday, I had a phone conversation with a journalism student at Southern Methodist University who wanted to hear my take on Tex-Mex and "authentic Mexican" cooking.
I pointed her to a terrific story by Gillian Ferguson published in the Los Angeles Times a couple weeks ago, in which Ferguson ran around L.A. discovering the city's inventive tacos with Enrique Olvera, the star chef of Mexico City's celebrated restaurant Pujol – touching on the the myth of authenticity along the way. So what if the tacos dorados served at L.A.'s Mariscos Jalisco aren't just like those he finds in Mexico City? Olvera doesn't complain that they're not authentic. Rather, Ferguson quotes him as saying "that's the beautiful thing about food. It's yours. It doesn't belong to the culture, it belongs to you." Olvera defines authenticity as "who you are, not where you're from."
The myth of authenticity is one that Krishnendu Ray, chair of nutrition and food studies at New York University, tackles in his new book The Ethnic Restaurateur – along with America's complicated relationship with so-called ethnic cuisine. Roberto E. Ferdman posted a thought-provoking interview with the author on the Washington Post's Wonkblog a few days ago. In it, Ray discusses"the lie we like to tell ourselves" (as Ferdman characterizes it), "a subtle hypocrisy" in our culture that suggests that while we pretend to love foreign cuisines, the truth is that we think they are inferior.
"We want ethnic food to be 'authentic,'" writes Ferdman, "but we are almost never willing to pay for it.
Ray explains why: "When we call a food ethnic," he says, "we are signifying a difference but also a certain kind of inferiority. French cuisine has never been defined as ethnic. Japanese cuisine is not considered ethnic today. Those are examples of cuisines that are both foreign and prestigious. There is no inferiority associated with them."
Indian and Chinese are another story, according to Ray. And yet they are two of the world's great cuisines. As is Mexican, as food-lovers who have traveled and eaten much in Mexico will attest.
It reminds me of the closure of Alma five years ago, just months after it earned three stars in an enthusiastic review and talented chef Anastasia Quiñones took over the kitchen. I had planned to name it The Best in DFW New Restaurant of the Year before its abrupt demise. Its owner, Tristan Simon, told me at that time that people didn't want to pay $20-plus for the carne asada, even if the restaurant was using great-quality beef.