Posted on

I’m Mexican American. Stop expecting me to eat ‘authentic’ food.

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.

Posted on

South Korea Vows to Send Aid to North Quickly

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea vowed Monday to move quickly on plans to provide $8 million worth of medical and nutritional aid for North Korean children through U.N. agencies while it also considers sending broader food aid to the country, which says it is suffering its worst drought in decades.

Lee Sang-min, spokesman for Seoul’s Unification Ministry, said the government will discuss its plans with the World Food Program and the United Nations Children’s Fund, through which the aid would be provided, so it reaches North Korean children and pregnant women quickly. South Korea is also trying to build public and political support for providing wider food aid to North Korea, either directly or through the WFP.

North Korea’s state media said last week that the country was suffering its worst drought in more than a century amid reported food shortages.

“The government will first discuss with international organizations over the provision of aid and take measures so that the support arrives (in North Korea) quickly,” Lee said. “On the matter of direct aid, we will consider the matter while sufficiently garnering the opinions of our citizens.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has expressed hopes that aid will help revive diplomacy and engagement with North Korea, which tapered off after a nuclear summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in February broke down because of differences over sanctions relief and disarmament steps. Kim has since declared that the Trump administration has until the end of the year to come up with mutually acceptable terms for a deal to salvage the negotiations.

While the United States has urged allies to maintain economic pressure on North Korea until it takes material steps toward relinquishing its nuclear weapons, White House spokesman Sarah Sanders recently said Washington has no plan to “intervene” if South Korea moves forward with food aid.

But Moon’s government has yet to decide on concrete plans amid growing public frustration over Kim’s government, which recently resumed short-range missile tests that were apparently aimed at pressuring Washington and Seoul.

It is also unclear whether any aid package from South Korea would influence the behavior of North Korea, which has been demanding much bigger concessions from the South, such as resuming inter-Korean economic projects currently held back by the U.S.-led sanctions against the North. A North Korean propaganda website last week described the South Korean proposals for humanitarian aid as disrespectful and said Seoul was trying to sidestep fundamental issues with “hollow talk and boastful credit-taking.”