Chef Rick Bayless Prompts Question: What Makes Mexican Food Mexican?

PHOTO: Chef and Mexican food expert Rick Bayless

Getty/Neilson Barnard

In case you don't already know him, Rick Bayless is a well-known chef, television host, and cookbook author who specializes in Mexican cuisine -- specifically traditional regional cooking. Recently, a Zagat reporter talked to Bayless about San Francisco's food scene while he was in the city for the International Association of Culinary Professional's Conference and Awards.

When asked whether he had the chance to check out the newer, upscale Mexican restaurants in town, Bayless responded that "San Francisco doesn't really have much of a Mexican food tradition aside from the taquerias in the Mission, which is a fairly limited thing."

The interview, and that comment in particular, garnered some attention among locals, including an SFist post titled "Rick Bayless Bored By S.F. Food Scene" and an editorial piece in OC Weekly, "Rick Bayless Insults Yet Another California City's Mexican Food Traditions."

Both articles mentioned a previous, similar comment Bayless made (or didn't make, as Bayless himself maintains) about introducing Southern California diners to "authentic" Mexican cuisine. Long story short: In 2010, Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, addressing attendees as a fund-raiser for an association of Latino journalists, criticized Bayless for his role in Red O, a restaurant that, as he characterized it, positioned itself as introducing authentic Mexican food to Los Angeles -- a city long-influenced by Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and their respective, often overlapping food traditions. Bayless responded to Gold's comments online, tweeting directly to Gold that he "[t]hought a Pulitzer meant you checked facts. Sneering at me for something I never said is either mean or sloppy. I'm offended."

Bayless is defending himself this time, too. In the comments thread for his Zagat interview, Bayless explained that he had not initially realized he was being interviewed, adding that there "is a lot of Mexican food in SF, but it isn't very similar to what I eat in Mexico. When people talk to me about Mexican in SF, they are usually talking about great tacos and burritos in the Mission. I think most people would agree that SF isn't well know for a plethora of Mexican dinner restaurants."

His follow-up comment brings up an interesting question: "So what?" As in, so what if the Mexican food one eats in San Francisco isn't like the Mexican food in Mexico? Also -- what region in Mexico are we comparing it to? What city? What town? Are we comparing fine dining in Mexico to fine dining in SF, or street food to street food? Are the ingredients used in both cuisines local, or imported? Are they seasonal? Were substitutions made? Are costs and palates and local trends taken into account, or not? In other words: What, exactly, makes Mexican food Mexican? It's a question that continues to pop up when discussing food in the U.S. -- a place where the immigrant experience colors so much of the food that we eat, both locally and nationally. What's New York, after all, without its Brooklyn-style pizza (pizza that, by the way, "isn't very similar" to anything I've eaten in Italy). Or any given Chinatown joint without its uniquely American General Tso chicken dish, or a sushi restaurant without the ubiquitous "California roll"? At what point does a Chinese dish become Chinese-American? At what point does Mexican food tip into the Tex-Mex or Mexicali category? And should these American food hybrids become a footnote, an after thought, or a central thesis when we discuss food from around the world?

That same Zagat comments thread also includes a -- admittedly brief and insult-studded -- discussion (fine, argument) about Bayless' position as a non-Mexican expert on Mexican cuisine.

The answers to these questions about expertise, authenticity, and authority are so often wrought with emotion -- there are few things as personal as the food that we eat -- that it can be challenging to discuss them in any sort of productive way. But it is worth noting that anything relating to culture -- fashion, language, music, pastimes, faith, food -- is mutable and can expand to include new and different influences, both within a place of origin and among the people it continues to influence. To position oneself as an expert on any given culture (and food certainly equals culture) is to allow for this and to handle these changes with grace, not judgment or dismissiveness.

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