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Tacos and the Meaningless of “Authenticity”

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Authenticity is basically a meaningless concept that says everything about the desires of the user and nothing about the history or meanings of an actual thing which the term is used to describe. Nowhere is this more true than in discussing food. One of the arenas where this term gets most bandied around is with Mexican food. But there are many problems with this. Primarily, the biggest issue is that those who are searching for “authenticity” are ignoring both the food ways of northern Mexico and the interaction between Americans and Mexicans and Germans along the U.S.-Mexico frontier through the 19th and early 20th centuries that helped create what we now consider Americanized Mexican food. Looking at the hard shell taco, this piece notes that the ground beef used in what we might call Taco Bell-style tacos is common throughout northern Mexico and that there’s a long tradition of various forms of fried tortillas.

The story of most American adaptation of new dishes in the 19th and 20th centuries relies on two processes: preservation and mass production.

In the late 19th century, the Mexican-influenced dish of choice in the U.S. was chili con carne, not the taco. In Mexico, dried chile peppers are and have always been a major part of the cuisine, but are sold whole, to be toasted and rehydrated or otherwise prepared as the cook desires. The chief innovation that made the American taco possible was chili powder, a store-bought item not found in Mexico.

Chili powder was first sold in 1894 by its inventor, Texan-by-way-of-Germany Willie Gebhardt, for use in chili. “What people don’t seem to appreciate is that getting ingredients back then was not as easy as it is today,” says Arellano. “Today you go to your local Latino supermarket and you can get whatever. Back then, you had to improvise.” Gebhardt was unable to find the chile peppers he wanted year-round, and so bought a huge stockpile of the peppers, which were probably ancho, and ran them through a meat grinder a few times to pulverize them. He later began selling the powder already made—a huge convenience for anyone wanting to make the then-trendy chili. (German immigrants in Texas also tended to wrap their own sausages in tortillas, an early Mexican fusion cuisine, as Arellano told SF Weekly.)

The other ingredients—cumin powder, tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, ground beef—have connections to parts of northern Mexico, but to suss them out would be to ignore the real reason they were used: that’s what was readily available in America at the time. Cheddar cheese is hardly ever found in Mexico, but in the U.S., it’s the second-most-popular variety, after mozzarella. And it was already being used often in Texas, especially in concert with ground beef, in the hamburger. So, sure, cheddar cheese. That’s what’s here, why not?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to think hard shell tacos with ground beef and cheddar cheese are actually good. I would say they are not particularly good, at least compared with basically every other form of Mexican food. But are they real food? Sure. Are they Mexican? Sort of. Are they American? Definitely. Are they “authentic?” Who cares, even if you can define the meaning. If you use chile powder in your Mexican food you cook at home, do you think you aren’t being authentic? And if so, why?

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