During our first Meso event we also had a discussion, opening the floor to critiques of the palomitas recipes. What we discussed was the role of authenticity in food. Does it exist? Before beginning Meso, Christina and I mulled over the idea of what the concept of “authentic” means in practice, both in culture and in food. What we were stuck between were two ideas: one, that there is no “real authenticity;” whatever one makes is authentic. Two: where the dish originated is truly the “authentic” version. Yet, this dichotomy seems overly simplistic, does this leave room for a hybridity of “authentic” things? In the United States, we are a mish-mash of cultures, so there is bound to be a jumbling of what we might call authentic, right? Christina and I are both aware of the grey areas often created by cultures colliding, so can we draw the line when approaching authenticity in food? Is there even a line? Should there be a line? These are the things that keep us up at night here at Meso.
During our discussion, we talked a lot about who makes authentic food, where it comes from, and some of the certain foods we consider authentic. One of our guests made a comment that summarized the spirit of the conversation: narratives created from (authentic) personal experiences with food seem to trump food made in an authentic, or what is perceived to be in an authentic way. I was really drawn to this comment. If you ask most Chicagoans what their favorite Chicago-style hot dog stand is, you will get a variety of answers. I remember arguing with friends of mine who grew up in Chicago, went to the same high school, and lived about a ten-minute drive from each other on the city’s northwest side. Yet, they had very different opinions about what the best Chicago-style hot dog is, arguing that as far as they were concerned the place closest to their house was the ONLY hot dog to be consumed in Chicago. On the surface it would seem that there can’t possibly be that much difference between different all-beef dogs, with yellow mustard, white onions, pickle relish, a dill pickle, tomato slices, sport peppers, a dash of celery salt, all on very similar buns. However, these guys swore up and down the merits of their particular favorite dog, the one they grew up with. “The one they grew up with.” I think this is a really important aspect that we will have to consider in our future Meso projects: the role of memory and the narrative derived from it.
To truly experience food, we use our senses: sight, sound, touch, and of course taste. But, I sometimes forget how our senses can open memories for us. For me it’s the memory of my abuelita handmaking tortillas at 5 am, preparing for that day’s breakfast. The sight of her working from the small light above the stove, the sound of the pit-pat in her hands and the sizzle on the griddle, the pieces of masa stuck to her hands as she created balls to flatten, or how she put a little butter on the hot and fresh tortilla to feed me. To me, that’s an authentic way to make tortillas. Is it the authentic way? Of course not. Does that make the store bought tortillas not authentic? No. One of my earliest memories is going to the local Mexican grocery store with my Dad in Milwaukee and buying El Rey tortillas – watching as he went through boxes and boxes of the plastic wrapped bundles, searching for the freshest. We would then enjoy some tacos that came in red plastic baskets lined in wax paper from the taqueria in the back of the store. For me, both tortillas – the homemade and the store bought – serve as authentic. Authentic in the memories they conjure, which bring back the tastes, sights, sounds, and loved ones involved.
In our search for the authentic, we find nostalgia. Here nostalgia plays a key role in how we each define authenticity. Whether it’s me yearning for tortillas, an immigrant trying to recreate a recipe from the mother country, or my friends trying to find a hot dog that beats the one they ate as a kid, there are powerful sentiments at play in those experiences. I think nostalgia is great, as it allows for each of us to be able to define our cultural authenticity, which allows for multiple authenticities and personal narratives to coexist. Out of these unique conditions can arise different hybridities of experience. To me, this is great because we can explore food, customs, and narratives. This ability might be the true spirit of being American.
Moving forward I want to explore the “multiplicity of authenticity” (bear with us, we are still working out what this means), which allows us to enjoy all our narratives of authentic experience, regardless of how they are made.
Do you have a favorite authentic memory about a recipe? What does authentic food look like to you? Let us know what you think.