A Dish on Authenticity

“So,” said a friend, who I hadn’t seen in a couple years, asking about El Take It Easy. “I assume it’s Mexican food, really authentic?”

Which opens a big can of gusanos.

Personally, I consider what we’re doing now at El Take It Easy to be the most authentic project I’ve ever worked on.  But, at the same time, the leading criticism I’ve received about dishes at the restaurant is that they are not authentic.  What gives?  Somewhere we differ in our understanding of what makes something “authentic”.

Consider the kinds of foods that people descibe as “authentic”, the cuisines where reviews of a restaurant note whether adequate numbers of its clientele are of the appropriate ethnic group. Mexican food, Southern barbecue, Thai, Indian, sushi but not the California kind. Chinese but not the Chow Mein kind, Basque but not modern cuisine from the Basque region, Neopolitan pizza but not woodfired California pizza. Sometimes Italian but never checkered-tablecloth Italian, even though I think checkered-tablecloth Italian cuisine is incredibly well-defined.

And cuisines for which authenticity seems never, at least around here, to be much of a consideration: American burgers and diner food, farm-to-table California Cuisine, molecular gastronomy. Escoffier-based French restaurant cuisine. English pub fare and German sausages. Pre-Colombian Native American cuisine and San Diego taco shop dishes.  Wine country cuisine.

It seems to me that where authenticity is relevant, we are reinforcing the difference between the mainstream culture consuming the product, and the marginalized yet coherent culture producing the product.  In other words, by valuing the “authenticity” of the Indian restaurant, we are asserting that Indian-ness is a specific thing, and reminding all of us, Indians and non-Indians, to maintain the distinction between the two.

When in time we allow non-authentic Indian food to be valued, then we are blurring the line between Indians and non-Indians in our culture, which represents both the “positives” of assimilation, and the “negatives” of losing a distinct culture.  I suppose London has begun this process, where “curry shops” are, as far as I know, not held to a standard of authenticity as much as being cheap and delicious.

I’ve never been to India, but I’d wager that most of its restaurants are not valued on how authentically Indian they are, and that people there rarely pay attention to whether a sufficient number of a restaurant’s clientele are Indian.  At the same time, I bet that in India, as everywhere I’ve seen, there are restaurants featuring ethnic specialties from other regions, and those restaurants are expected to hew to a certain ideal of authenticity.

In other words, in this context, “authentic” matters until the ethnic group has assimilated, at least to some degree.  That’s why there’s no talking about whether an American burger is authentic or not — there’s no ethnic group defined by it.  Similarly, in San Diego, the taco shops are such a part of mainstream culture that it’s rarely discussed whether the menu of a given taco shop is “authentic” to the San Diego taco shop ideal.  (But if someone starts putting rice in their burritos and steaming the tortillas like they do in San Francisco, I’m coming with the pitchfork).

If this is true, then when people talk about a restaurant or dish as being authentic, they’re not so much talking about how well this instance of the cuisine mimics other, previous instances of the cuisine, but instead they are talking about how well this restaurant, or this particular cooking, maintains the separation of the ethnic group from mainstream culture.

This situation makes for a very interesting constriction in developing a restaurant or menu: if your cuisine is informed by that of an ethnic group considered both clearly defined and separate from the mainstream, then suddenly there is an expectation that you be authentic, or else you’re alienating people both inside and outside the dividing line.

Which of course is what we did at Easy.

Mexican food is a particularly dicey subject because, to many patriotic Mexicans, these traditional dishes — denoted by UNESCO as an “Intangible Heritage of Humanity” — tie together the nation and culture.  To dilute or debase it is no trivial matter.  On the other hand, sometime in the early 90’s somebody around here had the idea of putting tater tots in a carne asada burrito, and that worked out pretty well.

We never had any pretention at El Take It Easy that we were going to cook Mexican food.  Instead we had the idea that we would ignore the border and cook food that made sense to our region, its history and culture.  At first, that included items like Tijuana’s Kentucky Fried Buches and a McDonald’s-on-artisan-crack plate of pastured chicken nuggets in mole made with organic Oaxacan-style chocolate.

Most common negative reaction to the chicken nuggets?  That the mole wasn’t authentic.  Looking back, I should have told people that in fact we were using the actual recipe used by the staff at the Oaxaca City Burger King. Instead, I would explain that it was prepared from a Tolucan family recipe.  That didn’t matter; the point was that pairing mole and chicken nuggets said something about culture that some people don’t really want said.

At one point I read a criticism that our tacos de gobernador — a food item that I’m pretty sure is less than 20 years old, and one that has been prepared differently in each of the dozen or so places I’ve had it — was inauthentic.   That’s when it became obvious, that the concern with authenticity at our place was not about adherence to any specific recipes, but resistance to our ignoring the boundary between Mexican and not-Mexican.

The wall that runs through our city is just a physical manifestation of the wall that runs through our head; and it turns out the wall in our head is very important to us.

By temperament, I tend to welcome the reconquista, but at the same time, we’ve got a business to run, and one can only tilt at so many windmills, or try to tear down so many walls.  This is not a battle I wanted to fight.

We scrubbed the menu of Mexican-ness.  We took every Spanish word off the menu, if there was an English word to replace it.  Our tacos de gobernador may have been unsatisfying to the experts, but nobody makes a more authentic stir-fry shrimp melt taco than we do.

At the same time, we lost interest in exploring a new bi-national regional cuisine, and started focusing, more or less by default, on the kind of cuisine we’ve been geeking out on the last few years.  Simple, thoughtful food: great local ingredients; plenty of seafood; flavors lighter on the palate; dishes with ample acid; food that goes with wine.  The kind of food our friends in northern Baja have been cooking for years, in the restaurants we love, where we go eat whenever we have the chance.  The kind of food we talk about here whenever we talk about food.

The current result is something that is very authentic to us, to our tastes, to our personal histories, to our friendships.  Food that is authentic to the farmers who deliver to us, and to the valley that grows the olives that made the oil, and to the fact that there is a lot of great shellfish just to the south of us.  When I taste the cuisine at El Take It Easy, I taste the authentic flavors of Max and David, of Chris Broomell and Alysha Stehly, of Warner Springs and Imperial Beach, of Peter Schaner and Tito Cortes, of Don Armstrong and Rafael Felix. It may not be correct to any defined cuisine, but when it’s real and close to the iron, it sure feels authentic to me.

Those are the thoughts that flowed through my head when my friend asked me if El Take It Easy served authentic Mexican food.

“No,” I said.  “It’s more of a wine country thing.”

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