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Interrogating the “Authentic” Local Ethnic Restaurant

M. Ruth Dike
University of Kentucky

I moved to Lexington, KY last August to start a PhD program in Cultural Anthropology. After a few months, I decided to ask my fellow graduate student Daniel, who grew up in Cholula near Mexico City, about where I could find “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington. I wanted to know because I thought it would be nice to take my fiancé, Mario (who grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico until moving to the US in the 4th grade), to a restaurant that could remind him vaguely of his mother’s cooking (however futile that may be). Daniel obliged and even drew me a map of “Mexington” (no joke, that’s what Lexington calls it) with three “authentic” restaurants on it.

It was awesome that Daniel was so willing to show me places of “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington but thinking back on it now, this wasn’t the best way to ask where to find less-Americanized Mexican food, or any type of international cuisine for that matter.

A few weeks later, we did end up going to Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez with a few other friends late on a Tuesday night. Below is a picture of my meal:

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

What even makes food authentic? Is it how long it’s been cooked in a certain way in a certain country? How far do we go back to look? 50 years? 1500 years? Are all the regional versions of couscous in Morocco just as valid as an imaginary “national” version of couscous? Is Neapolitan pizza more Italian than Sicilian pizza? Are we looking only at “authentic” Mexican food in Mexico or also in the US? Is Mexican food served in other parts of Latin America “authentic”?

When writing this post, I have to recognize my own privilege in being able to ask Daniel where “authentic” Mexican restaurants were in Lexington. Why don’t people ask me, “Where can we find “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis?” Am I any less knowledgeable of American food (having grown up in Memphis) than Daniel is of Mexican food? No, but we don’t expect Americans to make broad sweeping generalizations about a monolithic homogenous cuisine like we do for Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Moroccan, French, or other types of cuisine. We have regional varieties of American food but don’t realize that other countries are just as regionally diverse (thanks Olivia for this point). So maybe we should ask ourselves, would I ask that about American restaurants of my American friends?

And yes, I have had people ask me where to find good barbeque in Memphis (my choice), but the fact that they know to ask about barbeque because I’m from Memphis shows that they actually recognize America’s regional diversity. The way we use “authentic” in everyday life masks the regional variety of our local ethnic restaurants.

Why has no one ever asked my fiancé Mario (who has lived in Memphis since the 4th grade) about “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis? Is he less knowledgeable about American cuisine than I am? Nope. But sometimes I ask Mario to guide me through all of Mexican cuisine and culture. I realize now that it’s not fair to ask my international friends and family to represent an entire place and culture anymore than it’s fair for them to expect me to represent all of American culture.

There can be a complicated relationship between Americanized ethnic food and those from the culture that a restaurant might be trying to represent. Jiayang Fan, for instance, admits in The New Yorker that she loves General Tso’s chicken, but feels embarrassed about ordering it in Chinese restaurants. Mario loves Taco Bell. He doesn’t call it Mexican food but he does go there during the day.

Our friends and I thought the meal at Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez was delicious. I was impressed with the variety of meats offered and the distribution of ingredients in the burrito. Mario thought that his meal was tasty but that the carne asada in his burrito could have been a little fresher (we did go around 8 pm). I was reminded that Mario grew up having tasty carne asada at various weddings, quinceañeras, and baptisms throughout his life and had a much wider range of experiences with it than myself. Also that his mother is a cooking goddess.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

We need to stop using the word authentic in a way that homogenizes ethnic cuisine when we ask our local Cultural Tour Guide** (ahem, friend) about local international restaurants. Instead of using the word authentic, you could ask, “What region do you think this Chinese (or Italian or Mexican or French or Pakistani) restaurant most identifies with?” “Are there any restaurants here that serve food that reminds you of home?” “What local restaurant has the least-Americanized food from your culture?” or simply: “What do you recommend around here to eat?”

Or you can use asking about “authentic” cuisine as a starting point for a deeper conversation about other cuisines. I think all too often we use our knowledge about sushi or pho to show our cultural capital without actually knowing much about another culture.

Eater.com editor Joshua David Stein says that, “there’s nothing more authentically American than inauthenticity.” Perhaps instead of searching for authenticity in ethnic cuisine, we should be searching for the complicated lived experiences of our international friends.

I’d like to thank Daniel V., David B., and Olivia S. for their insightful comments about this blog. This blog was inspired by another awesome article about food cultures written by Amy S. Choi as well as graduate seminars in the Gastronomy program at Boston University and the Anthropology program at the University of Kentucky.

*By international I mean any immigrants/visitors from other countries.

**The term “Cultural Tour Guide” was introduced to me by Olivia Spradlin, who heard it in a Gender & Women’s Studies graduate class at the University of Kentucky.

Ruth Dike considers herself a food anthropologist and recently started her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can learn more about her here and reach her at mruthdike@gmail.com.

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Filed under anthropology, ethnicity, Food Studies, foodways