"Stories about people, places, authenticity, and the rich diversity of America’s food scene seemed particularly relevant as the question of what it means to be American has been at the core of recent politics."
The idea of authentic tacos, authentic Chinese food, authentic Soul Food, and other authentic ethnic cuisine is debated, along with the idea of cultural appropriation -- which means white people making ethnic food (authentic or not) and using their economic advantages to finance their efforts, thus edging out the ethnic people who are poorer and don't have those advantages. Several buzz words or a "signifiers," make up a food writing vocabulary that speaks "to a contemporary antibourgeois bourgeois culture that selects for 'authenticity,' 'mindfulness,' and 'transparency'" (p. 207).
Chinese food is especially subject to disputes over what is "authentic." The essay by Dan Nosowitz, "What the Heck Is Crab Rangoon Anyway?" explores this topic in a most interesting way. His view:
"Crab rangoon is not inauthentic, and you should not be embarrassed to order it. American Chinese food is its own cuisine, with its own staples and a reasonably long and fascinating history. There’s a fundamental problem with the concept of authenticity in food, because cuisine is constantly mutating and adapting to new ingredients, new people, new techniques, and new ideas. Mexican food would be completely different without the influence of the Spanish and Arab immigrants and colonists; the tomato is not native to Italy; the chili pepper is not native to Thailand. There are old dishes and there are newer dishes, and that can be an interesting distinction. And there is tasty food and lousy food, but using some concept of authenticity alone as a criteria is a flawed approach." (p. 225).
The essay by José R. Rala called "The Demand for 'Authenticity' Is Threatening Kansas City’s Homegrown Tacos" is a discussion of a particular type of tacos that emerged in Kansas City years ago, but is now viewed as inauthentic. However these tacos have a convincing history in the long-established Mexican immigrant community of the area. In 1958 the Spanish Gardens Taco House was opened by a member of this community. "On the restaurant’s menu were enchiladas, tamales, chili, and a regional specialty that developed as a result of the proximity of the area’s Italian and Mexican communities: fried tacos topped with a ketchup-like 'taco sauce' and Parmesan cheese." They were rolled, fastened with a toothpick, and fried. "The popularity of crunchy, toothpick-sealed Kansas City tacos only rose throughout the 1960s and ’70s." Now, thanks to Yelp, these taco places are much less popular, due in part to "the viral nature of media like Yelp reviews that claim the taco is not truly Mexican." (p. 76).
Indeed, Yelp reviewers turn out to be a major proponent of a particularly vile use of the concept of what is authentic, specifically, in propagating a particularly racist view of ethnic restaurants. In Sara Kay's research report, she makes this case very convincingly: "Yelp Reviewers’ Authenticity Fetish Is White Supremacy in Action." She writes:
"The term 'authenticity' is everywhere. Pundits claim that millennials crave it, restaurants boast authentic dining experiences, and Foursquare asks us to make judgments about it. These claims, often used as markers of quality, are employed by diners and restaurateurs alike— often used by owners to evoke a homespun or faraway romanticism. Nowhere does that come into play more than on user-based review sites like Yelp." (p. 230).
"When reviewers picture authenticity in ethnic food, they mentally reference all the experiences they’ve had before with that cuisine and the people who make it— and most of the time, reviewers view those experiences, whether from personal interaction or from interacting with media, as not positive. Reviews tend to reflect the racism already existing in the world; people’s biases come into play. According to my data, the average Yelp reviewer connotes 'authentic' with characteristics such as dirt floors, plastic stools, and other patrons who are nonwhite, when reviewing non-European restaurants." (p. 231).
"And when reviewers use 'authentic,' they put unfair expectations on restaurateurs to maintain a low set of standards for their establishment— much lower than any restaurant serving Western cuisines. The language directly supports a hierarchy where white, Western cuisine is allowed more creative latitude to expand, explore, and generate profits than its non-Western counterparts. The use of 'authenticity' in the dining landscape is counterintuitive. Its usage to promote white supremacist norms furthers an atmosphere that’s antithetical to the spirit of authenticity. The language of authenticity holds up the supremely inauthentic— a single ideology that supports possibly the most powerful social group: white people." (pp. 233-236).
Several other essays in Best American Food Writing 2020 also touch on the development of "authenticity" as a way to critique foods and restaurants. For some time, I've been very suspicious of the way this idea is used -- I've written a number of blog posts about other discussions of the topic, particularly on the subject of American Chinese food and Chop Suey Restaurants of the early 20th century (especially this one: What is authentic?) I've therefore found the theme of "authenticity" in this book particularly interesting.
Also interesting but outside the realm of "food writing" -- a number of food shows on Netflix seem obsessed with authenticity of various cuisines. Many episodes of Chef's Table created by David Gelb, Ugly Delicious with David Chang, the Taco Chronicles, and probably others emphasize the "authenticity" of whatever cuisine they are covering -- and they cover a lot! I especially remember one episode where three of the major explorers of "authentic" cuisine gathered at the same time: the late Jonathan Gold, Gustavo Arellano, and David Chang.
Blog post © 2020 mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.