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 gone through 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 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 in front of a heinous mural of a corpulent iguana wearing sunglasses and a sombrero. We’d scarf down cheesy quesadillas 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 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 just what’s most readily available. Anyone can be an expert in themselves. Even me. 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 who I can only call tourists: white people, straight people, whoever. And tourists want authenticity.
A recent study of Yelp reviews for New York City 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”? Much like 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 to be a framed photo of someone’s dead grandpa.
[How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — and then make it trendy]
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 brow 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 tourist 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.