The Mythology of Authenticity in El Paso’s Mexican Cuisine
El Pasoans have long had a tradition of calling Mexican food in El Paso authentic. This term, though representing pride in our culinary community, is as diverse as the people who use it, and its definition is as varied as the ingredients used in traditional Mexican cuisine. Upon moving to El Paso years ago, I was immediately struck by how many people I met used the term authentic to describe Mexican food in this city. It made me feel like I was about to discover some hidden pocket of true Mexican tradition, and that this secret was openly shared amongst El Pasoans, but rarely traveled beyond the borders of this West Texas city. The notion of authenticity seems to hold special significance on the border region, specifically in El Paso. Authentic Mexican food in El Paso works as a kind of social glue for the population. Just as different cities might have sports teams that establish a connection, as well as rivalry between the people that live in that area, El Paso’s Mexican restaurants garner the same levels of commitment, loyalty, and pride through each person’s idea of authenticity.
After living in El Paso for a couple of years, I would still be surprised by someone saying, “oh, you’ve never been there!” or “haven’t you heard of that place?” There always seemed to be some small, hole-in-the-wall restaurant that had been an El Paso institution that someone wanted me to try. I began to realize that everyone here in El Paso had their own authentic restaurant that was special to them for very personal reasons. I wondered how people were defining their food, as well as their taste in food, and how a word like authentic could mean so many different things to so many different people. Often, when pressed to define the term, individuals would relate experiences or feelings associated with memories of their childhood, coupled with their experiences as adults in the restaurants they recommended. Links were drawn through space and time, forming a complicated web of definitions that read like a roadmap with Mexican food at its center.
I would meet people who were born and raised in El Paso that would tell me of some small restaurant where you could find authentic Mexican food. I would meet young adults who would point me to the popular eateries frequented by those trying to impress out-of-towners. I would be ushered here and there for specific dishes found only at this or that restaurant. There seemed to be authentic Mexican food places in every corner of El Paso, discovered by a few who were willing to share, but only if you could keep their secret. These restaurants could range from already established fixtures of the El Paso landscape, to newly discovered or opened places catering to specific tastes.
While conducting interviews for this project I realized that authenticity in Mexican food here in El Paso involved many different components. Ingredients, preparation, tradition, place, and even the people who prepared the dishes all played an important role in determining what people considered to be authentic. Some interviewees had very specific ideas about what was needed to create authentic cuisine, while others took a more generalized view of Mexican food and its varied forms and tastes. The food seemed to be secondary to the feelings it aroused in the person eating it. For some, it brought back memories of their childhood and shared, often-familial experiences. For others, it simply resembled their Abuelita’s (Grandmother’s) method of preparation – comfort food with south-of-the-border roots.
In an online survey posted to residents living in different areas of El Paso, the most common terms used to describe authentic food were: ingredients, preparation, taste, and freshness. When asked about authenticity in Mexican food, the responses tended towards specific ingredients; Beans, tortillas, slow-cooked meats, and seafood were common terms used to describe authentic Mexican food. Of course, one can only define authentic based on what they prefer, and often times region, tradition, and locally available foods will dictate what is authentic for that area – not what is considered authentic everywhere.
After canvassing a large group of residents, and conducting an online survey, I narrowed down three different Mexican restaurants in El Paso that offered the most authentic Mexican dining experience in the city. I arrived at these establishments by asking all of the participants to name the top five Mexican restaurants in El Paso that they believed represented the most authentic Mexican food. I took the top 3 choices that, on average, were on everyone’s list and made those the focus of my research. Mama’s Tamales (Mama’s) on Lee Trevino on the East Side of El Paso, Lucy’s on Mesa Street by the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), and Kiki’s Mexican restaurant on Piedras street in the Central Area of El Paso were all mentioned, and have the honor of being the top 3 choices when the term authentic Mexican food was used. These three restaurants have many things in common and many things that make them different from one another. The quest to find the authenticity in El Paso’s Mexican cuisine began to feel like Pizarro’s search for the Lost City of Gold – tantalizing and elusive.
Just when it seemed that consensus had been reached in terms of one eatery, others would step out of the woodwork to lobby for their favorite, authentic restaurant. When asking a group of individuals what they considered to be the most authentic Mexican food restaurant in El Paso, a kind of competitiveness would arise, with one person trying to outdo the next in terms of obscurity and specialization. It was clear that I needed to focus on a finite number of restaurants in order to accommodate time restrictions, and with the full awareness that the choices I made would be controversial and perhaps even be insulting to some. With the proliferation of mobile kitchens commonly known as Food Trucks in the El Paso area, the notion of authenticity seems to have moved from sedentary establishments to vehicles that can travel back and forth across the border with ease.
Food trucks conjure images of street food in Mexican cities and villages (as well as destinations all over the world) that typically represent the authentic culinary side of the city. These trucks or stands are where the locals eat, shying away from commercialized restaurants where tourists flock to eat the regional food. A cult of authenticity seems to have built up around the idea of mobile kitchens, as much for their supposed ability to travel easily to gather fresh ingredients as for their distinction as a sort of wheeled, home kitchen. Here in El Paso the food truck has appropriated the mystique of mobile kitchens and marketed their food under the philosophy of authenticity. A mobile kitchen’s ability to be ever-present, allows them to target resource-rich areas at times where traditional eateries have often closed their doors and shuttered their windows. However, food trucks rarely made the lists of those canvassed due to their itinerant nature and their specificity of food offerings.
There are two restaurants in El Paso with the name of Lucy’s. Ostensibly, the same people run them and you can expect the same food, but the Lucy’s that is part of King’s X (a bar near the popular Cincinnati area on Mesa street) is primarily a bar that serves food. This makes a big difference in the perception of the food and of its authenticity. One patron of the Lucy’s in King’s X wrote a review on the website yelp.com in which he described the number of bikers in the bar area as being “great for authenticity purposes.” The review implies a correlation between authenticity and legitimacy in terms of an establishment, and often that authenticity can be a culturally biased observation that describes preconceived notions of what Mexican culture is, or how it should be represented.
The Lucy’s located between UTEP and downtown El Paso sees a large portion of its population from the university but also sees lunch groups from the downtown business district. With its very small seating arrangement, the restaurant is reminiscent of older 50s barstool diners, dispensing with the need for servers or a wait staff. Walking in, you are immediately facing the backs of the patrons and the cooks behind the bar. However, the cramped environment actually lends itself to the allure of Lucy’s, giving it an intimate and friendly atmosphere. Large windows wrapping around the establishment’s dining area let in copious amounts of light, and offer views of Mesa Street’s cars and pedestrians while you eat.
Once you’ve walked in, you are compelled to interact with almost all of the patrons and staff, in what can only be described as a friendly, neighborly way. This type of intimacy is what allows the cook to call out to everyone by their first name as they enter the diner. Even occasional visitors are encouraged to interact and participate in the environment. Not only is the atmosphere friendly, but one is immediately struck by the familiar (almost familial) relationship everyone seems to share when dining there. A person could become a little embarrassed that they are not on a first name basis with everyone eating or preparing food.
One of the fascinating aspects of searching for authentic Mexican food in El Paso is the idea of how class plays into the notion of what is authentic and what is not authentic. All three restaurants seemed to cater to a different demographic during different times of the day and were frequented by different populations based on their geographical location. Each restaurant’s use of space (proxemics), along with their physical location within the city played an important role in whom they catered to, and at what times.
Lucy’s location is interesting due to its proximity to the downtown area and the University of Texas at El Paso. With 8,515 total households within the zip code where it is located, the average income level for each household is only $23,018. This is in part due to a large number of rental properties that surround the area (specifically apartments units) and it’s large demographic of students who generally work only part-time and at lower wages. It also reflects the area’s business-oriented properties, as well as the large portion of land occupied by the University itself. However, during business hours, Lucy’s receives an influx of business professionals from the downtown area, as well as those who come from all over the city of El Paso.
Mama’s seems to be a relatively hidden gem in terms of authentic Mexican food in El Paso. The restaurant caters to the large, lower-to-middle-class workforce found on the busy Lee Trevino Avenue on the East side of El Paso during the brunch and lunch hours, closing their doors at 4:00 pm – not open for dinner service or evening hangout. This makes Mama’s a difficult restaurant to visit unless you live in the area, or make a special arrangement to go there for lunch, which many El Pasoans are more than happy to do in order to eat the food.
The atmosphere is clean and airy, with many traditional Mexican images and decorations on the brightly colored walls. Despite the appearance of a somewhat touristy and polished eatery (in respect to Kiki’s and Lucy’s), Mama’s has received universal acceptance and acknowledgment as being one of the best places to find authentic Mexican food in all of El Paso. While Mama’s has already established itself as a tradition in the city, it has a sense of newness that comes from such a bright and colorful décor.
Perhaps due to their location, Mama’s enjoys success despite only being open until 4:00 pm each day. With 34,452 households located in the same zip code, they are able to serve a very large portion of the El Paso Central and East areas. Their décor is in keeping with their demographic of lower to middle-class workers along Lee Trevino Avenue, considered a major traffic artery running North and South through East El Paso. With an average household income of $42,857, its population on a whole makes almost twice as much per household than the population that is served by Lucy’s, as a comparison.
Kiki’s – located in Central El Paso – sees a large working class population during lunchtime, which changes to young, hip, twenty-somethings in the evening. Work boots and hard hats are not an uncommon site during the lunch hours, with the occasional suit and tie making the trip from nearby law offices. The atmosphere is rather dim at night, lending it a romantic air, especially considering how many people take their dates to this El Paso staple. Even though the lighting is low in the evening and at night, it is certainly not dark, and the ambiance lends itself to a casual and intimate conversation, as well as lively and spirited discourse. At Kiki’s, there is something for everyone, whether you’re wearing a tie or a t-shirt.
Kristine D. wrote a review on yelp.com in which she said: “Having grown up in Dallas but relocated (twice now) to the East Coast for school and work, I am desperately craving authentic Mexican food constantly. Kiki’s blew past any and all expectations I may have had and delivered some of the most delicious chicken enchiladas I’ve ever had”. Another yelp reviewer, Tony M. from El Paso, said that Kiki’s was the “Best place to eat ‘authentic’ Mexican food in El Paso”. With 59 reviews on yelp.com alone, Kiki’s has by far the largest web presence of the three restaurants. Along with the most Yelp reviews, it even boasts a website and a Facebook presence.
Kiki’s sits in an area of El Paso that is generally poor but centrally located. This allows the restaurant to accommodate portions of El Paso’s population from all corners of the city. Commuters, weekenders, UTEP students, and locals to that area all have access to Kiki’s in varying degrees and at different times. With 10,229 households within Kiki’s zip code, and each averaging $23,833 of annual income, the surrounding area relies on having cheap, authentic, and good food within its proximity. Kiki’s accomplishes this by keeping the average meal between the five to ten dollar range and offering large portions of food to its patrons. It also offers a parking lot for patrons, as well as ample parking spots in the residential area surrounding the restaurant.
Even with all of these things in its favor, Kiki’s is now suffering from an identity crisis. With a strong online presence, and a larger patronage consisting of El Pasoans who have newly discovered its “authenticity”, the very idea of its heritage as a traditional Mexican restaurant is being challenged. About.com’s El Paso section has a list of the top 10 Mexican restaurants in El Paso. Kiki’s is the only restaurant out of the three we are covering here that made it to the list. Is this due to its authenticity, or is it due to its online presence and advertising savvy? Does a restaurant’s ability to navigate the world of technology in a smart and meaningful way detract from its roots as an authentic Mexican restaurant, or is it an indispensable tool in an ever-expanding repertoire that adds to its allure?
Due to the perception of Mexican food as a worker’s cuisine, the idea that it could be advertised and packaged using the Internet could be seen as a break from the traditional word of mouth acknowledgment of its culinary value. With people coming in from out of town or out of state, sometimes their only way to find authentic Mexican food is through review sites like Yelp or urban spoon. If Kiki’s is the only one with a robust online presence, they may be steered towards that particular restaurant and miss out on the (subjectively) more authentic Mexican restaurants that El Paso has to offer. To many, there is an unspoken belief that something that is advertised cannot truly be authentic. An interesting idea of authenticity is its ability to draw people in on its own merits, without outside help or coercion. However, word-of-mouth could be seen as both; and the notion that businesses, especially restaurants, can survive without some form of advertisement (grass-roots, or otherwise) is a recipe for disaster.
Kiki’s has also been highlighted on The Food Network as a premier Mexican restaurant serving an authentic Mexican dish called Machaca. The host of this particular program is Aaron Sanchez, himself an El Paso native whose rise to culinary stardom has earned him the right to declare any restaurant as authentic without much controversy. He states on The Food Network website that, “You haven’t arrived in El Paso until you’ve had Kiki’s Beef Machaca.” This reference to a specific dish also brings up different ideas of what one could consider authentic.
It may be that many restaurants fall short of atmospheric authenticity but excel in the art of creating one or two specific dishes that elevate them to the status of authentic. In fact, when talking to the local population, you’ll find just that. People will often go to a specific restaurant for specific dishes. The most authentic Machaca is at Kiki’s, the most authentic Green Chile Enchiladas are at Lucy’s, and Mama’s Tamales – well, they have the most authentic tamales. It makes sense, given the size of a country like Mexico, that specific dishes would need to be singled out as representations of authenticity, but aspects such as ingredients and preparation render the same dishes more authentic than others – further obfuscating the meaning of the word authenticity.
Indeed, a great many of the responders to the survey stated that they thought Mexican food could only be considered authentic when talking about a certain dish. Personal taste was often the only reason for seeking out certain foods at certain restaurants. Many people shied away from purportedly authentic Mexican restaurants because they had no preference for the dish that was advertised as such. These dishes ranged from Tacos to Tortas, Mole (pronounced ‘mō’lā) to Machaca and beyond. It is interesting to note that all of the restaurants in question serve these items and each of them is considered authentic in their preparation, but each of these dishes come from very different places in Mexico.
Tortillas (derived from the Spanish torta – meaning small cake) were first used by the Maya, with one legend telling of a peasant inventing them for his hungry king in ancient times. The first tortillas ever discovered date back to around 10,000 BCE and were a primary staple in nearly every person’s diet. Three Mexican states lay claim to the invention of Mole – Pueblo, Oaxaca, and Tlaxcala. These are all in the Central region of Mexico, with the Maya and their tortillas in the Yucatan Peninsula to the East. Machaca, on the other hand, is better known as a Northern Mexico dish and is not that well known in Central and Southern Mexico.
Given that these items are all considered to authentic Mexican dishes in El Paso, one would assume a larger population of people from Central or Southern Mexico living here. However, most immigrants to El Paso from Mexico cross the border from Juarez and take up residence here. The appropriation of dishes from the Central and Southeast regions of Mexico prove that culinary migration can happen from all regions of Mexico and coalesce into a vibrant, authentic cultural heritage. This is what has happened in El Paso with our authentic Mexican food tradition, with each dish (and accompanying region) being represented in many of El Paso’s Mexican restaurants.
In a city like El Paso, the class structure is such that the super-wealthy usually do not engage with the general population in any meaningful way when it comes to Mexican food. The wealthy segment of the population does not contribute or deter from the target audiences of these authentic Mexican restaurants. Patrons of these and other restaurants in El Paso form a backbone of what could be considered a true representation of the inhabitants of the city. Class struggles exist, but the signs are less obvious when visiting El Paso’s Mexican restaurants, which serve as a cultural glue for the people along both sides of the border.
With an average cost of between seven dollars and twelve dollars, each of the restaurant’s meals are ideally equipped to serve the largest segment of the El Paso population. As of 2011, El Paso’s median household income level was $39,573, compared to the national average of $50,502. With these numbers, even given the relatively low cost of living, restaurants could not support themselves if they did not cater to the lower to middle income demographic. Indeed, many of the items on the menus at each of the restaurants were well below the seven to twelve dollar range, allowing for congregation and consumption by those with meager means to afford a full meal.
Add to this a large amount of traffic from Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, and the desire for authentic Mexican food on this side of the border becomes clear. Although the commuters from Juarez conduct most business in the downtown sector, this influx represents a large group of consumers that aren’t part of the census taking in the city proper. Add to this a large segment of domestic workers, landscapers, and day laborers spreading out to the far corners of the city, and you have a population of hungry customers that will feed themselves inside the walls of El Paso’s Mexican restaurants. With over 14,000 people crossing the border into El Paso each day, it is the busiest of all cross-border footpaths between Mexico and the United States.
This cross-pollination of cultures and ideas is an ideal setup for the realization of authentic Mexican food in El Paso. People from El Paso and Juarez have family members and friends living on both sides of the border, and they communicate with each other almost every day. These exchanges often happen during the times when families get together to eat. It stands to reason that residents of El Paso would want to have access to the same cuisine they partake of in Juarez or other parts of Mexico, and vice versa. Culinary migration between El Paso and Juarez is an ever-occurring, ever-changing, and organic interdependence between the two cities and their respective populations.
With the same idea of cross-pollination in mind, the business communities share a dependency on one another in profound ways, as well. Businesses in El Paso, especially in the downtown sector, catering to the Mexican population that crosses the border every day. This acknowledgment of their importance for the local economy of El Paso, and their taste for traditional Mexican fare, not only keep prices down but forces restaurants to strive for authenticity in order to compete. Kiki’s and Lucy’s are positioned to take advantage of this phenomenon more than Mama’s is, due to their proximity to the downtown area and the availability and ease of transportation to and from their respective restaurants. However, Mama’s relies more heavily on repeat customers and regulars that make up the community it serves.
This kind of cultural and culinary exchange is unique in a lot of ways to El Paso and the border region. As the largest foot-traffic crossing on the United States and Mexico border, coupled with the fact that the cities are only physically divided by a small waterway known as the Rio Grande and a border fence, the interchange between people, culture, and goods is profound. Not only can ingredients and recipes pass back and forth easily, and on a day-to-day basis, but ideas and innovations are similarly passed amongst the populations on both sides of the border. Recipes that are developed, or have been passed down through the generations, find new homes in local restaurants and in the homes of families living in El Paso. Innovations in both cities are quickly shared between one another, not because we choose to, but because in most respects, we are the same. The artificial border between the two cities is like a door between two rooms, both within the same house.
The notion of cross-pollination from proximity to the border is also another disputed claim to authenticity. Jecoa Ross, an on and off again resident of El Paso for the past 23 years said that “proximity to the Mexico border” was a determining factor in how authentic Mexican cuisine could be. This certainly would give cities like El Paso a well-deserved boost, but other restaurants lay claim to authenticity that are thousands of miles from the US/Mexico border. For instance, in Calverton, New York, there is a Mexican restaurant called Cinco de Mayo that makes the claim that “The Mexican food served here is authentic, down to the house-made corn tortillas.”
We on the borderland might scoff at such a claim due to its proximity to the Canadian border and not Mexico’s, but the owner’s wife was a cook in Mexico. Isn’t that enough? On Yelp.com there are 13 reviews for Calverton’s Cinco de Mayo Mexican restaurant, with 8 mentions of the word authentic throughout the reviews. That is more than Lucy’s, Kiki’s, and Mama’s combined. Reviewers made statements such as “Authentic”, “Delicious” and “The menu is authentic Mexican food and not your Americanized crap”. It is interesting to note that all of the reviewers who regarded Cinco de Mayo as authentic were from the New York area. There was only one negative review from a woman who lived in Southern California – closer again to the Mexican border than the Canadian border.
At first blush, this might seem like an obvious aspect of authenticity, but we must resist the urge to become authencentric. This is a term I have coined to represent a person’s belief that their personal preferences represent an ultimate authority in regards to authenticity. Perhaps the owner’s wife is from a region in Mexico that the woman from California is not familiar with. The woman from California might have ideas that have been shaped by her own experiences in the Southwestern United States, and her palate was expecting a different taste when she went to this authentic Mexican restaurant. Or maybe it’s that the prices range from small three-dollar tacos to plates in the high twenty-dollar range.
All in all, the idea that one place is authentic over another is such a subjective, granular exercise that one would have to take into consideration thousands of subtle minutiae in order to even make an educated guess as to what constituted authenticity in any given scenario. If one were to take into consideration the regional, ethnic, and religious aspects of authenticity, the list of things to consider becomes innumerable. The relationship between time, place, memory, and emotion plays an important role in the internal construction of an idea of authenticity.
Dr. Meredith Abarca, an expert in food studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, uses the term “loyalty to the palate” to indicate the subjective nature of taste and authenticity. Loyalty to the palate describes a process by which individuals begin to regard authenticity in terms of memory and memory sensation. A person may have a notion of authenticity that is built on more than just taste and texture. It begins to fall into the realm of nostalgia for much more: memories of a childhood kitchen, the sensations associated with family gatherings and special occasions, or even marked occurrences in one’s life that, through personal significance, created a memory that is inextricably tied to the food being eaten at the time. Loyalty to the palate is an interesting idea because of the physiological changes that occur from childhood to adulthood in terms of our palates. Those changes could mean that the very idea of rekindling an “authentic” experience through food may indeed be impossible for most people. The food may be prepared in the same way and under the same conditions as it had always been prepared, but the individual may taste it differently as time goes by.
Loyalty to the palate plays an important role in understanding peoples’ views of authenticity in El Paso’s Mexican restaurants. The patrons of Mama’s, Lucy’s, and Kiki’s all express their loyalty to these restaurants through their palates. Familiar tastes will draw repeat customers, often creating an ever-spreading concentric circle of influence based on an individual’s commitment to a certain restaurant, or more frequently, a certain plate. As more and more people discover the relationship between their favorite dishes’ nostalgic relationship to authenticity, a loyalty through the palate is born that tends to connect individuals to places more thoroughly than simple brand recognition.
Dr. Abarca has been challenging the notion of authenticity for years, describing it as a process of longing – a desire for something we no longer have. An individual may have a specific memory that is directly linked to the food or smells that they experienced during that time. For instance, an individual’s idea of authenticity may, in fact, be tied to a desire to relive a shared moment between a loved one who has since died. The link between memory, smell, and taste has been well documented. Dr. Abarca has been formulating the idea that nostalgia for food, as well as people, places, and specific times are the building blocks of our ideas surrounding authenticity.
Connections to place through sensorial stimuli help to establish palate loyalty on an emotional level, rather than a purely intellectual level. Individuals begin to associate a place with a sense of contentment and nostalgia they experience through the consumption of certain dishes within that environment. The mixture of time, place, and food become the building blocks of tradition, which easily translate into notions of authenticity. An adult who experiences Kiki’s Machaca plate may use it as a means with which to experience a feeling of authenticity through nostalgia, whereas a child experiencing that same environment will be formulating their ideas of authenticity, perhaps playing out the same role later on in life in a different restaurant.
In her book, Authentic or not, It’s Original, Dr. Abarca brings up the loss of authenticity and the hijacking of food culture through the act of writing down recipes in cookbooks. When recipes are shared within a specific culture, the recipe can be organic, changing in relation to individual palettes, as well as societal changes. These dishes retain their original base while allowing for experimentation within the confines of local ingredients, techniques, technology, and traditions. When these recipes are codified and shared, often crossing ethnic, environmental, as well as ideological lines, they are at risk of being manipulated into something they were not originally meant to be.
Dr. Abarca’s groundbreaking research and philosophical approach to authenticity and food have brought about some very interesting ideas. Her epistemological approach food authenticity has led her to conclude that people often dismiss the food that is in front of them for the elusive authenticity of their past. It is only an individual’s ability to dismiss the subjective notion of authenticity that allows them to participate in the appreciation of food as it is now. New methods of preparation, as well as culinary migrations across borders throughout the world, offer us previously unheard of opportunities for culinary experimentation and palate cultivation. Given these ideas of diversification, recipes and cookbooks begin to take on a different meaning. They act as culinary skeletons, which can be built upon by anyone who has access to them, creating and molding new and exciting dishes that may have been inconceivable decades ago.
We are living in an age where the idea of authenticity is at once useless, as well as incredibly sought after, given our diversified range of ingredients and individualized tastes. Accessibility, once the purview of the wealthy, is not necessarily a matter of wealth or influence. Our ability to transport and deliver food from one corner of the earth or country to the other has given everyone the opportunity to expand their culinary experiences. However, even in this day and age, class has been proven to be a remarkable barometer for how individuals determine authenticity in Mexican food here in El Paso. A person of wealthy means might grow up eating different types of foods based on their availability or their method of preparation than a person of little means. A person who has money, or was born into it, might have opportunities to travel outside of their birth region to enjoy colloquial dishes from other parts of the country. Their pallets and tastes would surely be affected by these circumstances, and contribute to their ideas of what is authentic or not authentic.
Social mobility is also a determining factor in determining someone’s ultimate idea of authenticity. The poor who become wealthy typically eats differently than they did before. Their tastes change depending on the food available to them, and their ideas about what is authentic are redefined by their ability to procure resources for the preparation of Mexican food. The rich who become poor often have a harder time adjusting to a reduced culinary experience, and end up feeling that authenticity is beyond their reach. Given these terms, it would be easy to regard authenticity as having a neatly defined economic marker.
Another aspect of class that is often overlooked is the idea of changing attitudes that come with age. Generational views in any culture are rather diverse, but they can even be more diverse when it comes to food. On the other hand, food is sometimes the constant that one can rely on to trace family ties and tradition within the El Paso Mexican food community. This one aspect of day-to-day living for all humans begins to take on a profound significance in establishing a cultural identity, adherence to social structure, or even a rebellion against tradition. If someone in El Paso doesn’t like Mexican food, they are not dismissed easily as having different tastes or preferring other kinds of foods. They are often regarded with suspicion and derision, having broken that sacred tie to the culture in which they live.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the term authentic in this context in its 2-C definition: c: made or done the same way as an original. However, as we’ve seen, this begins to feel like a cop-out definition in light of the real history of Mexican food and it’s original preparers. If we held true to this definition, none of the foods we currently eat could be described as authentic. One would have to go back to 10,000 BCE to find the original method of preparation and recreate it, and even then it would be difficult to find someone willing to eat it. And this definition is even vaguer than the interpretation. “Made or done the same way as an original” is a hard marker to pinpoint. This includes the preparations, the ingredients, the tools, the knowledge, the weather, everything.
Perhaps this is why our notion of authenticity is so varied, convoluted, and so personal – so, authencentric. Everyone feels like they can keep a little of the secret to themselves, enlightening those along the way they feel are worthy. The process of protecting the authentic breathes life into what it means to be authentic. Mexican food is not considered authentic in El Paso if it is served in a Denny’s or TGI Friday’s. I would venture to guess that even the best chefs from Mexico could work in a Denny’s or TGI Friday’s kitchen using traditional ingredients and preparation methods, and the food would still not be considered authentic. Authenticity is as much about acknowledgment as it is about taste. As Dr. Abarca has observed, the idea of authenticity limits one’s perspectives on what constitutes good food, regardless of other factors, while serving to also limit one’s capability in terms of food exploration.
The very building where food is served begins to define the idea of authenticity. Proxemics within that building determines whether or not the Mexican food there is authentic. Remember Lucy’s had two locations? The fact that one of them has a bar attached to it gives it the atmosphere of being non-authentic – at least not in strictly culinary terms. Perhaps the same food is served in both places in exactly the same way, but it is the perception of the place that dictates the authenticity of the food. It is true of different kinds of food, as well. Chinese food served within the boundaries of any big city’s “Chinatown” is traditionally seen as more authentic than those restaurants residing outside of those specific locales. If a Mexican restaurant moved into a building that had previously been a Chinese restaurant – and had architecture reflective of that Chinese heritage – the restaurant would be faced with a crisis of identity. Physical identifiers illicit emotional responses from potential customers and the building itself would challenge the validity (or authenticity) of the Mexican food served in the establishment.
Going beyond even the building, an interesting, hidden aspect of authenticity is its direct link to otherness. Food is generally considered authentic when it is removed from its natural environment and transplanted somewhere else. Mexican food in Mexico is generally considered indigenous, not necessarily authentic. However, when removed from Mexico and placed across the border in a town like El Paso, it takes on another, deeper connotation. It introduces itself to the new environment while remaining prideful of its heritage and place of birth. The question must be asked: Does Mexican food become authentic only when it is removed from Mexico and treated in the same way as it is in Mexico? How do proxemics and preparation hybridize to create authenticity?
A mythology is created around the word that binds each person to his or her own definition of that word. Authentic is code for “I vouch for this food. For myself, the knowledge I possess, and my heritage”. As a white male transplant to El Paso, I can only use the hallowed “authentic” when I am referring someone to a restaurant that was recommended to me. I have no historical pallet to draw upon, no familial lineage that allows me to speak authoritatively about Mexican food in El Paso. I only have trust of my friends and family to guide me to experience the meaning of authenticity. Within those parameters, I am regarded with suspicion when I recommend Mexican food. In fact, even with interviews and numbers to back up my recommendations, I am met with distrust, and am usually confronted with a list of other restaurants that could be considered more authentic.
The notion of authenticity in El Paso’s Mexican food tradition is tied directly to the people who eat it. Depending on your background and viewpoint, authenticity draws upon color lines, socio-economic divides, age, experience, locality, lineage, patronage, and so many other tiny and significant details that separate, as well as bind us together. Perhaps one of the greatest dichotomies about authenticity is that it needs consensus to exist, but too much consensus will kill it. It begs for the regional analogy of a cactus that needs water to grow, but too much water will drown it. Seen in this light, popularity ruins authenticity, and the very thing that makes a restaurant popular might also be the thing that ultimately brings about its downfall.
To muddy the waters even more, genetically modified foods profoundly challenge the notion of authenticity. The food industry, especially here in the US, are constantly trying new and often controversial ways to extend the growing seasons of foods, as well as their shelf-life when they reach our supermarkets. This often means genetic manipulation and hybridization of certain foods that are commonly used in Mexican dishes. The very notion that the food we use in our preparations may be molecularly different than what was previously used to prepare the same dishes challenges the notion of authenticity at the very core. Food authenticity begins to be tied to food authentication.
Food authentication was first used in 1861 on whole bean coffee – an expensive commodity at the time. It was found that “31 out of 34 samples contained adulterants such as chicory, roasted wheat and burnt sugar.” With the food industry changing the very molecules of the fruits, vegetables, and meats that we consume, where does authenticity fit in? The example of the coffee bean helps us to understand the idea of food ownership, as well as the corporatization of food in the modern world. “The desire to make a fraudulent profit from the misrepresentation of food has been a feature of society from historical times.” With the advances in transportation, refrigeration, preservation, and immigration – its no wonder big business is seeking to capitalize on their own brand of certain staples.
These fraudulent practices can have serious, deleterious effects on the people who consume them. “In 1981, in Spain, the ingestion of an oil fraudulently sold as olive oil caused an outbreak of a previously unrecorded condition, later known as toxic oil syndrome (TOS).” Three hundred people died right away and most of the population exposed to the tainted oil continued to have chronic medical conditions related to the exposure for the rest of their lives. One of the main concerns for genetically modified Organisms (specifically food), is their long-term effects on the population, as well as their increasing genetic differences to the original food product.
Cities used to build up around their food markets. It was a direct response to availability and accessibility to food that created the very environments in which people lived. As technology expanded, it was no longer necessary to live right next door to the market to get fresh ingredients for food preparation. Fresh food began to take on a different meaning, expanding the length of time that people considered their food “fresh”. Preservation techniques were developed to add longevity to market produce as the time it took from farm to market, and from market to kitchen became longer. In modern times, food availability in cities like El Paso is no longer an issue. Supermarkets supply an endless stream of packaged and processed food for cheap and plentiful consumption, while “organic” markets sell items that are branded as “fresh”, “local”, and “organic”. However, those terms lose their meaning and become marketing tools to sell goods, just as the term authentic has been appropriated by businesses to draw customers.
There is no doubt that El Paso has a profound connection with its Mexican heritage, especially when it comes to food. Despite the pitfalls of using the word authentic to describe El Paso’s Mexican food tradition, there are many elements found in this city that contribute to its use. In fact, an argument could be made that El Paso is uniquely positioned as one of the only places in the US where the term authentic can be used to describe the Mexican food found here. We have the tradition, the heritage, the culture, the ingredients, the people, and with all of those things – we have the proximity to Mexico itself. El Paso is just “other” enough to use the word authentic when describing Mexican food in the city’s restaurants, but it is also an extension of Mexico. El Paso is a mix of traditions from the United States and Mexico that merge harmoniously between supply and demand – Mexico’s unique and wonderful cuisine, as well as our desire to eat it. But there is one consistent view among all El Pasoans when it comes to authentic Mexican food: No one does it better than Abuelita.
This video illustrates the diversity of ideas that go into what is considered “authentic” in Mexican cuisine.