Let’s start with a brief discussion of Mexican cuisine in the United States.
This is a tale familiar to many around the world involving the assimilation, rejection and appropriation of people and their cuisine. Mexican food in the US stands out due to a huge dichotomy: there are a large number of people who do not welcome Mexican people or their migration yet adore the food.
I think it’s fair as an outsider to say that for at least 150 years the US has treated Mexico with no small amount of disdain: from the annexation of swathes of the country to the imposition of repressive economic, crime and drug policies. Yet there’s so much monetary value in its cuisine. Taco Bell is a behemoth. Donald Trump is as anti-Mexican as they come, but would proudly and falsely post that his hotels and restaurants made “the best tacos”.
And this is where the issues of assimilation and discrimination become fully entwined. The advent of mass food industrialisation certainly hastened it: the production of things like canned chile con carne and jarred salsa simplified historically significant and regionally diverse dishes to rake in the bucks—as noted in the article, salsa has made more revenue than ketchup for 30 years—while generations of Mexican Americans struggled to juggle the horrors of racial oppression, a desire to be accepted, and the challenges of feeling like they were sufficiently embracing their heritage.
This is not to either pick on Americans or elevate Mexicans in particular. Similar issues of acceptance and appropriation abound—here in the UK, generations of Chinese, Indian, Caribbean (and many more) families have faced the same challenges.
And it sort of leads us into this odd battle involving authenticity and neutrality. At best, the appropriation of cuisines—usually by Anglicising names and replacing ingredients, tools and methods with those more familiar to the target nation—is in pursuit of some perceived neutrality and accessibility which is in fact centred on whiteness. This should be rightfully challenged, especially when compounded by the pursuit of money: you end up with situations such as Jamie Oliver calling a microwavable product ‘Jerk Rice’ that bears little resemblance
to the dish.
Despite the fun of a Twitter pile-on
, I’m less bothered these days by issues around ingredient replacement. For example, using pancetta or (gasp) streaky bacon in an all'Amatriciana dish: guanciale might be abundant in Amatrice, but I can’t reliably get cured pig jowl on my high street, and I’m not flogging pasta to punters anyway. I will, however, be marching on my local Italian restaurant for their various war crimes, including serving plates of claggy, unsauced spaghetti with huge amounts of ragu merely blobbed on top. Outrageous. (Not as outrageous as this