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Mezcal: Hybrid Authentication

The third in our series of abstracts of papers submitted for SAFN’s annual Christine Wilson Award. Winners have been selected and will be recognized at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. From Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet, this one raises important questions about what, exactly, is being preserved in efforts to insure that foods maintain their “authenticity.”

Mezcal: Hybrid Authentication

Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet
University of Vermont

How can foodways thrive in a global market and still maintain their local characters? In January 2016, students from the UVM Food Systems Graduate Program went to Oaxaca, Mexico to study such challenges. During our stay, we met Adolfo who showed us the art of making “authentic” mezcal, that iconic drink of the Mexican terroir some say has the potential to provide the economic incentives needed to repopulate Oaxacan communities impacted by outmigration. This micro-macro analysis deconstructs the “authenticity” dimension of mezcal production, to expose authenticity as a flexible social construct that resembles social branding. By incorporating ethnographic elements, the authenticity branding is coupled with Adolfo’s hybrid approach of production to suggest a way to foster community economic development: concurrently producing a hand-made, “authentic” mezcal for locals and tourists visiting Oaxaca, and another that is scaled-up to capitalize on the global market economic opportunities by convincingly putting the “authentic” Mexican terroir in the people’s mouths around the world. This paper argues that in order to protect Adolfo’s foodways, the aim should not focus at preserving mezcal itself, but primarily at preserving communities where mezcal is produced, and that the mezcal denomination of origin (DO) should be reformed accordingly.

mezcal-production

“Authentic” Mezcal Production: Mezcaleros cutting cooked agave piñas. In the background the open vessels made of an entire cow hide where the crushed piñas are mixed with water for the fermentation process.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, awards, Christine Wilson