Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Lately I've been struggling with the idea of "authentic" food. I'm a Jewish girl from Brooklyn who makes a living selling tamales and quesadillas. My tamales use olive oil instead of lard. Recently we even switched to non-GMO masa and parchment paper "husks," in an effort to steer clear of ingredients that most of our customers wouldn't want to feed to their children, if they stopped and really thought about it.
At a handful of markets my business faces competition from a vendor with genuine roots in Mexico. They prepare a menu that is considerably more authentic than mine in the sense that they understand the flavors, recipes, culture, and cooking techniques in ways that I never will. They serve large, inexpensive portions, using primarily industrial ingredients.
Competition is a strange animal. Even when you respect your competitors, you look for ways to set yourself apart from them, and give customers a good reason to buy your product rather than theirs. In my case, I'm looking to set my business apart by choosing my ingredients carefully. But I can't help feeling a bit disingenuous as I struggle for ways to communicate that I'm using "better" corn than the folks who come from the land where corn was first cultivated, whose ancestors built a vibrant and sophisticated mythology based on the sanctity of corn.
On the other hand, the cheap corn that's available in this country--the corn my competitors use--is largely degraded. It's monocropped on industrial farms using seeds that have been selected more for hardiness than for flavor. According to the Center for Food Safety, 85 percent of the corn grown in this country is now genetically modified. It's a safe bet that any corn or corn products that come from mainstream sources,grew from from these suspect seeds.
So whose food is more authentic? I wouldn't venture to claim that mine is, but the question does make me wonder about our collective infatuation with "authentic" food. We crave flavors and ingredients from distant regions prepared using traditional recipes and techniques, but preparing these dishes commercially almost always takes modification, and the foods inevitably lose something in translation.
At the same time, even so-called traditional foods are always changing. Beef and pork aren't indigenous to Mexico (just as tomatoes aren't indigenous to Italy and potatoes aren't indigenous to Russia).
For now I'm looking at the question this way: I wouldn't go so far as to call my tamales ""authentic". But I'm proud of them nonetheless.