Posts Tagged ‘authenticity

04
Aug
10

ways with avocado

I haven’t known many Filipinos or Filipino-Americans, but enough to form a theory. Our two peoples, Filipino and Mexican, were twins, separated at birth–and after that, things got weird.

For instance, one night at Paulie and Jessamin’s place, we were making guacamole, a properly savory Mexican avocado preparation. I described a recent experiment with avocado fool–avocado beaten smooth with lime juice, then folded together with whipped cream. A funny fusion idea that tasted great and certainly wasn’t good for you.

Jessamin, with a background in the Philippines, grinned diabolically, confiscated an avocado, and fished a can of sweetened condensed milk out of the cabinet. She mixed the two together and invited us to try the authentic Filipino version of avocado fool. Paulie (another Mexican-American) and I found it oddly compelling but refused to call it good. J-P declared it revolting. Call it another example of junk foods translating poorly across cultures. It definitely put me in mind of Jell-o molds, avocado pie, and other mid-century experiments with processed foods.

A Twisted Family Tradition ~ The Lime Jello Brain
(Click for Elisabeth Feldman’s Jell-o Brain recipe.)

28
Jul
10

attitudes toward diversity in food

Thanks to Joan for pointing out the differences in tone and language between these New York Times articles, one about Bulgarian-British star chef Silvena Rowe, the other about Tomas Lee and the increasing availability of Korean tacos.

Rowe can indulge, without reproach, an “Orientalist vision” in her “sexy,” “hedonistic” “signature dishes.” (Perhaps she gets a pass because she caters to “the pomegranate craze” in a “Britain avid for new cuisines.”) Her food is the product of great thought and creativity: she “reinvents” herself, “finds” herself, “locks herself in her room” until she gets her variation on someone else’s recipe right. She “preserves” recipes through her innovation, and looks to the past (that outdated Orientalist vision again).

Meanwhile, Tomas Lee and the other Korean taco chefs profiled in the second article (note that they are many; Rowe is one) are “making up a cuisine as they go along.” They hardly think about what they’re doing, much less lock themselves away for research. Inevitable product of the interaction between Korean shopowners and their Mexican employees, Korean tacos were “just lunch” for all these “entrepreneurs” (not chefs, note) who are now trying to “mainstream” Korean food in America. Dave, though, pointed out my favorite line: “The tortilla and the toppings are a way to tell our customers that this food is O.K., that this food is American.” Even so, the article sounds rather concerned that there are so many “trend-conscious restaurateurs with few apparent ties to Korea” who are getting in on the act. (Compare to how Rowe’s tenuous ties, as a Bulgarian-born, Russian-educated British citizen, to the Middle East go unremarked in the previous article.)

Meanwhile, in Arizona, SB 1070 (otherwise known as the Your-Papers-Please Law) with go into effect tomorrow. Andrew Leonard of Salon’s “How the World Works” noted an uptick in Google searches for Pei Wei, the casual pan-Asian spin-off of Scottsdale-based P.F. Chang’s. Were people searching for information on the Pei Wei franchise in Chandler, Arizona, that fired 12 employees for taking May 29 off (unauthorized) to protest SB 1070? Nope, the buzz was all about the cut-rate entrees the chain is offering to celebrate its tenth anniversary. This leads Leonard to a wonderful rant:

What really gets me riled are the ridiculous contradictions baked into the ersatz globalization symbolized by a chain of faux-Asian eateries in a state like Arizona.

Diversity is fine if it applies to the ability of Arizonans to eat cheaply priced cuisine that imitates Chinese or Malaysian or Thai (albeit with all the sharp edges sanded off.) The fact that producing such cuisine for such low prices requires exploiting cheap labor gets swept under the rug. The fact that actual Asians have almost nothing to do with the production of the food is also considered irrelevant. …

But god forbid society itself should become more diverse, along with the food.

The actually interesting story there, about the workers who were fired for knocking off to go to a protest, also shows a limit to the kind of “community organizing” that has been most effective in the minority- and immigrant-heavy service sectors. Not only are significant classes of these workers (domestic workers, farm laborers) not even covered by basic labor protections, but those who are covered are only protected when they’re involved in straight-up labor organizing. Fighting against “race-baiting laws” that make the whole community insecure (including workers who might otherwise organize)? Not covered.

Thanks to J-P for the Andrew Leonard tip. (He also points out that William Gibson probably feels slighted that his 1991 coinage “kimcheewawas” didn’t make the Korean tacos article.)

16
Jun
10

romanticizing peasant food

Going back to the section of Jeffery Pilcher’s Que Vivan los Tamales I mentioned last week, about the Mexica’s butterfly- and leaf-shaped tortillas, and their seed-spangled tamales impressed with snail shell patterns: it seems that food writers (Pilcher, the chroniclers he cites, many others past and present) can’t resist romanticizing certain kinds of food. Broadly, it’s peasant food. Witness the cucina povera prixe fixe that was my introduction to fancy dining in San Francisco. But anywhere that has been colonized, it’s more than just peasant food; it’s also pre-colonization food.

Whichever variety, most writing about this type of food is highly romantic and ignores issues of class and history. Perhaps some Italian peasants from a simpler time regularly supped on oil-cured sardines, stuffed turkey breasts, and Negroni sorbet, but we know for a fact that many more were suffering from pellagra on a diet of unlimed corn and emigrating to the United States as fast as they could. And maybe the Mexican nobility’s feasts featured decorative breads, sauces with thirty ingredients, and stuffed fowls galore, but we know that their society was highly stratified, and I imagine that everyday fare for the Every Man was more like what I experienced in rural Guatemala at the turn of the 21st century. Black beans, corn tortillas, chilis, wild greens, fruit, and atol, with meat of any kind being a pretty big deal. Even if the average diet was a little more varied than that, the intervening centuries of oppression that brought it to its current pass never seem to matter when it’s time to romanticize what might once have been.

15
Jun
10

link round-up

I just spent six days on at the bike shop, which is why new posts have been spotty. Rest assured we’ve been eating well Chez Cervantes-Ferguson: my lunch leftovers today included lamb steak, zucchini casserole, and homemade basil pesto.

Summer is in full effect at the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market, and San Francisco even had two genuinely warm days last weekend. So I’m primed for:

Light, summery recipes
Mexconnect’s Sopa Fría de Sandía y Jitomate re-works one of our favorite Mark Bittman salads as a soup. In a related article (with more recipes), Karen Hursch Graber shares Alice B. Toklas’ remark, apropos of gazpachos, that “recipes, through conquests and occupations, have traveled far.” And the Jul/Aug issue of Cook’s Illustrated has a recipe for pureed tomato gazpacho, along with a description of pre-tomato versions: “yesterday’s bread, almonds, garlic, olive oil, and water … mashed … together into a humble potage.”

Meanwhile, Joumana at Taste of Beirut offers an appealing spiced cheese salad, and Mark Bittman a quick pasta preparation with shallots, peas, lettuce, and proscuitto. Bittman has also been experimenting with using tomatoes to deglaze his pans.

Old News
Besides continuing to love Mark Bittman and Taste of Beirut, I am also charmed all over again by Robb Walsh, and his latest analogy: authentic Mexican restaurants are to Tex-Mex as Ballet Folklorico is to Freddy Fender. Or, if Freddy is too old-fashioned for you (say it ain’t so–he was my favorite rodeo performer when I was a kid!), Walsh recommends Chingo Bling.

Environmental News
But summer isn’t all good food and fun commentary. The BP oil slick has forced the 134-year-old, family-owned P&J oyster shuckery to close, lending credence (as though it were needed) to this Facing South article on Louisianans’ fears of cultural loss to environmental damage.

In better news, the EPA has moved to ban the insecticide endosulfan, which is known to cause neurological and reproductive damage in humans (especially farmworkers) and animals. Counties in California’s Central Valley are also mandating pesticide buffer zones around schools.

Miscellany
In a recent podcast, James Howard Kunstler discusses urban food production past, present, and future, and the need to preserve rural lands regardless of what we can produce in our cities.

Jan Chipchase reports on the cultural significances of breath mints.

This one is more for me than anything, since J-P and I will be leaving for London (then Helsinki, then the Isle of Wight) a week from tomorrow: James Ramsden’s highlights from this week’s Taste of London. I love the preponderence of Malaysian restaurants on his list: is it Britain’s new Indian?

25
May
10

link round-up

More Questions of Authenticity and Fusion
Members of the Daring Kitchen take on Robb Walsh’s recipe for stacked green chile enchiladas. Australian suggestions for simulating tomatillos include gooseberries with sugar and green tomatoes mixed with tamarind paste, lime juice, and prune juice. Robb Walsh’s report on the results of the challenge links to recipes from London, the Netherlands, and Canada.

Taste of Beirut reminisces about a childhood favorite, chocolate salami: a French confection made from American and Middle Eastern ingredients and exported back to the Middle East. In which of those locations is it most authentic?

The National Museum of American History’s cafe celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May) by adding Asian flavors to the menu at each of its stations. You’ll find pizza with Asian plum sauce and black rice used in a recipe that actually called for purple rice, but the title of their blog post about it proudly proclaims the exclusion of one of the oldest Asian-American fusion dishes (one with a history similar to chili gravy’s): No Chop Suey Here.

Locavores Tackle Meaty Questions
Culling the pest population in a deer-hunting class (actually, a deer skinning and processing class) in Charlottesville. Thanks to Jon of Audrey and Jon for the tip.

Mission hipsters consume another kind of pest at a cricket- and mealworm-tasting.

More Things Hipsters Do
Sell coffee from a bicycle-mounted stall.

Sell seed packets (seed bombs) from old gumball vending machines.

Follow-up: More on Arizona, Tavern on the Green, BP
Arizona’s racial profiling law raises worries about this fall’s lettuce harvest in Yuma.

New York City has revoked Dean Poll’s contract to re-open Tavern on the Green after he failed to reach an agreement with the restaurant’s workers’ union. The city is looking for a new new operator.

It’s about time: the BP oil slick has made Cake Wrecks.

20
May
10

mis migas: autenticas o no?

Late night –> slow morning –> lazy breakfast.

Are these migas? All the elements are there: stale tortilla chips (the eponymous migas, or crumbs), eggs, cheese, salsa picante. Does it matter that the salsa is the liquid variety (Tapatio, specifically), rather than pico-like? How much does that change the identity of the dish? If I’d had a jar of Mrs. Renfro’s or Green Mountain Gringo in the fridge and had used that instead, would my breakfast have been more authentic? What if I had ginned up my own salsa? It’s what I would have done if there’d been onions and canned tomatoes in the pantry. (I really need to get to the grocery store.) And would my salsa have been even more authentic if I’d had fresh tomatoes instead of canned?

In The Farmstead Egg Cookbook, Boston suburbanite Terry Golson presents her recipe for huevos rancheros with an apology: “I don’t claim that these are totally authentic huevos rancheros, but they are delicious and very easy to make.” She fries an egg, puts it on top of a fried corn tortilla, and tops that with salsa from a jar and some queso fresco (more authentic than my cheddar). Clearly it’s the ease of the dish that worries her, but I also remember reading about someone of a similar background to Golson’s seeing a Mexican woman cooking a sauce from scratch for a breakfast dish and being slightly appalled at the effort required. (It’s not that hard, really, if you have the ingredients on hand.) It seemed primitive and patriarchal, and not something that a busy, modern woman could take home to the US.

How should we judge the authenticity of Mexican or Tex-Mex egg breakfasts, parvenus to the public faces of both cuisines? In Que vivan los tamales, Jeffrey Pilcher reports Marilyn Tausend’s finding that “The habit of eating eggs for breakfast, when transferred [through mid-century tourism] from the United States to Mexico, stimulated creative experimentation rather than slavish imitation. In searching for national counterparts to Eggs Benedict, Mexican chefs served huevos rancheros (ranch-style eggs) fried with tomato-and-chile sauce, huevos albañiles (bricklayers’ eggs) scrambled with a similar sauce, and huevos motuleños (from Motul, Yucatán) fried with beans, ham, and peas. Soon, no hotel with pretensions to luxury could neglect its own ‘traditional’ egg dish on the breakfast menu.”

The taint of Americanism seems to be one of the factors that earns Tex-Mex scorn from Diana Kennedy and her followers. Does the fact that these egg dishes are a product of U.S. tourism make them any less authentically Mexican? They did originate in Mexico, after all. You can’t get much more “authentic” or “interior” than the Yucatán. Does the fact that they are innovations, rather than traditional dishes, make them less authentic?

Whatever the answers, my lazy migas were very tasty.

10
May
10

the root of the pill

In Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Sidney Mintz identifies the 19th century commercialization of sugar beets as “the first important seizure by temperate agriculture of what were previously the productive capacities of … tropical region[s].”

This tidbit stuck with me, and I’ve spent some time trying to come up with other examples. Often, it’s temperate chemistry that undercuts tropical agriculture, but I think that’s within the spirit of Mintz’s comment. Indigo, natural rubber, and palm oil (replaced as an industrial lubricant by petroleum products) have been undercut this way.

This morning, Richard Grijalva brought the case of barbasco and the birth control pill to my attention. Barbasco is the wild yam indigenous to Mexico from which chemists learned in the 1940s to synthesize the steroid hormones that made the Pill possible. Gabriela Soto Laveaga’s Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill tells how the Mexican government encouraged peasants to cultivate barbasco for this new use, and then to use the new product to regulate their own population growth.

Today no one–whether in the pharmacy or in the campo–remembers this part of the Pill’s history. Which reminds me of a another tidbit from Mintz. Writing about the temperate world’s shift from a preference for the whitest (and therefore purest) sugars to browner, less-refined varieties, Mintz notes that the latter were once traditional foods of the poor but are now “expensive relics of the past … [on] the tables of the rich, … now produced in modern ways that make money for people quite different from those who formerly produced them.” I wonder if barbasco’s involvement with science has given its consumption a similar trajectory, and if Laveaga’s book has anything to tell us about it.

07
May
10

A Tex-Mix Manifesto

What exactly is Tex-Mix, besides a cute term I came up with for my own household cuisine?

Tex-Mix uses the Tex-Mex flavor base in preparations from other cuisines. Tex-Mix cuts bagna cauda with lime juice, eats hummus with jalapeños and tortilla chips, and adds canned tomatoes with chiles to French lentil ragouts. Tex-Mix puts comino in its candied sweet potatoes. Tex-Mix thinks Moosewood’s bulgur-based vegetarian chili is clever. Tex-Mix was spiking its brownies with cayenne long before Mexican chocolate was cool. Tex-Mix takes garlic for granted.

Tex-Mix plugs elements of other cuisines into the forms that define Tex-Mex. Tex-Mix swoons over Lebanese quesadillas and amardeen margaritas. Tex-Mix wonders about tamales filled with smoked duck and cherry demiglace. Tex-Mix even enjoys a broccoli and tofu burrito with Thai peanut sauce—sometimes.

But bland grilled veggie wraps are right out. And Tex-Mix would never dream of emptying that undercooked zucchini into a bowl with some hard black beans and a dollop of fat-free sour cream and calling the result Mexican. Whether its food is good for its health is not Tex-Mix’s main concern. Tex-Mix gets enough exercise. If Tex-Mix leaves out the lard, it’s probably because duck fat seemed tastier in that recipe.

Tex-Mix doesn’t care if duck fat isn’t authentic. In fact, Tex-Mix doesn’t care if it is. (The Mexica had Muscovy ducks, after all). Tex-Mix loves pickled jalapeños, flour tortillas, and pinto beans. It took Guatemala to teach Tex-Mix the joys of fully cooked black beans. It’s not self-conscious atavism but the need for a bitter note that puts cocoa powder into Tex-Mix’s Texas Red. That chili makes a great Frito pie, by the way. It’s also terrific over vermicelli—that’s not Cincinatti, that’s la abuelita’s home cooking. What’s more, esta abuela puts peanut butter in her mole, and has never touched a metate. But her cooking is absolutely authentic.

Tex-Mix loves and respects its grandmother, but it didn’t learn all its recipes from her. Did you? There’s no getting around it: Tex-Mix is mixed. (Before that was cool, too.) Tex-Mix owns it. Tex-Mix understands that innovation and eating what you like are as important to cuisine as tradition and eating what you know. Tex-Mix is not humble. Tex-Mix avers that it improves on its grandmother. Tex-Mix has a broad palate, and Tex-Mix knows how to cook.

21
Apr
10

link round-up

Labor
My friend Guille came back yesterday from a week of pressing OSHA and DOL officials for better legal protections for domestic workers, day laborers, and farm workers. It looks like Secretary of Labor Solis is on board.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, federal marshals are trying to keep H-2A guestworkers out of a Friday court hearing that could affect their working conditions. They’re being excluded, presumably in the name of homeland security, because they don’t have US-issued IDs, though they all have their Mexican passports and H-2A visas.

Cuisine
Robb Walsh catches Mi Abuelita’s Homestyle Mexican Restaurant in Galveston mixing restaurant and homestyle versions of Tex-Mex by offering a chile relleno served with beans and fideos. Fideos are pasta, usually vermicelli, for those not in the know–like commenter Mary, a life-long Texan who nevertheless had to Google the term.

Mexconnect reports that “creative Mexican chefs” are now using hibiscus juice “in a variety of both sweet and savory dishes, including marinades, sauces, sorbets, granitas, jellies and trendy cocktails.” The article makes me think about how the status of the people doing the cooking–in this case, “creative,” “trendy,” and “Mexican”–affects what we think about the food’s authenticity. It also makes me wonder how long before the jamaica craze sweeps north.

And more east-meets-west Tex-Mix from Taste of Beirut: Lebanese quesadillas.




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