On ‘Authenticity’ and Why I Just Want a Burrito That Tastes Good

by Mark Wilson

Looking for a burrito? You might go to Yelp to help you find a taqueria, and ideally, you want a taqueria with high ratings. Bad restaurants get low ratings for lots of reasons: the people who work there are nasty, the food is bad, the place is dirty. On many reviews, though, there’s a reason that’s never valid.

“It’s not authentic.”

Authentic, in its second definition (the first one, “authoritative,” is obsolete), means “worthy of acceptance as conforming to or based on fact,” “conforming to an original,” or “made or done the same way as an original.” Something can be authentic in the sense that it should be taken to be real; for example, a person’s signature can be authentic — as opposed to a forgery — meaning that the person whose signature that is can be said to have endorsed the document’s contents. But the second and third sub-definitions for “authentic” imply that something needn’t be real in the sense that it is the genuine article. It could be an authentic Ming vase, in the sense that the vase really is from the Chinese Ming dynasty. Or the vase could be authentic in the sense that it’s made in the same way as a vase from the Ming dynasty. The latter, however, we would say is a “reproduction.”

Returning to Mexican food, the complaint about a lack of authenticity seems to fall into this third sub-definition; namely, that some American Mexican food is an unfaithful reproduction of the food actually made in Mexico. Cilantro rice and whole-wheat tortillas are not authentic. The word authentic, though, stands alone, as though it carries with it a vast amount of meaning, so no explanation is necessary. Certainly a word like “Holocaust” needs no further explanation, but authentic is not a self-defining word.

Reading a Yelp review of a local taqueria, one reviewer happily notes that a particular taqueria has the “[b]est authentic [M]exican food this side of the [B]ay,” and then proceeds — without irony — to tout the vegetarian burrito. Is the reviewer unaware that “vegetarian” is as far from Mexican authenticity as Mars is from Venus? Or is the reviewer misapplying the word “authentic”? Or, better still, is “authentic” a word devoid of meaning? I’m not picking on this reviewer merely to pick on her; I’m using this as an example of how “authentic” means nothing.

It means nothing for several reasons.

The first reason is that “authenticity” is in the eye of the beholder. A person might claim that Buca di Beppo, a national chain of “family-style” Italian restaurants, is not “authentic.” But authentic in what way? Certainly the food itself is not Italian. It probably comes from a restaurant supply store before it’s cooked (if indeed it’s cooked and not, in the fashion of national chains with large menus, defrosted and microwaved). The recipes could be Italian. But what does “Italian” mean? Italy didn’t exist until 1861. Before then, the nation known as Italy was several nation-states in close geographic proximity: Rome, Tuscany, Sardinia, Sicily, Sardinia, Parma, and so on. Buca di Beppo certainly isn’t authentic Sardinian food, but it might be close to authentic Sicilian food, which relies on large portions and plenty of meat.

Second, saying something is not authentic doesn’t communicate anything useful about food. Did it taste good? Was it overcooked? Undercooked? Too many spices? Too few spices? How was the plating? Not enough stuff on the plate? We don’t know, because “authentic” doesn’t tell us anything except what we already knew: that is wasn’t prepared by a Mexican grandmother back in Oaxaca. Even so, perhaps we don’t know that it wasn’t prepared in such a way, and the speaker means to say that the food did not conform to the norms of the country from which it came. If I went to a French restaurant, I’d expect that “French” means lots of cream sauces, not cheeseburgers. If I didn’t get any cream sauces, I’d feel cheated. But “French restaurant” doesn’t mean “French recipes” per se. It could mean “the French style.” The authenticity obsession doesn’t tell us this, either. In the aforementioned French restaurant, I’d be doing a lot better to say that there weren’t enough cream sauces than I would to say it wasn’t authentic.

Third, saying something is not authentic doesn’t communicate what people really mean. In this TED Talk, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a major spaghetti sauce company that marketed “authentic” Italian spaghetti sauce, meaning that it was similar to what Italians used. Italian spaghetti sauce is pretty thin, consisting of just tomato paste, water, and spices. The spaghetti sauce company did taste tests and discovered that, even though customers said they wanted “authentic” spaghetti sauce, they preferred to eat sauce with chunks of things in it — peppers, onions, vegetables, and so on. But that didn’t make sense; at the same time that customers said they wanted “authentic” sauce, they also wanted a sauce that was decidedly inauthentic.

So the pasta sauce company took a chance and relied on what customers ate, instead of what they said, and made pasta sauce with chunks of things. The sauce flew off the shelves. This fun anecdote demonstrates that, when people say “authentic,” they either don’t mean that in the sense that they’re indifferent to whether food is authentic, or they mean something else (likely, “this doesn’t conform to what I think Mexican food should taste like”).

Lastly, authenticity is frequently narcissistic. Saying something — Mexican food, for example — is authentic is a code word for an entire sentence: “I’ve either been to Mexico, or know esoteric things about Mexico; therefore, I’m in a position to judge whether this food is like the food I knew about from visiting Mexico or learning about Mexico.” Really, it’s the speaker inviting himself to talk a lot or it’s an opportunity to one-up someone else on knowledge (“If you knew as much about Mexico as I do, then you’d know that this is nothing like the food in Mexico”).

Now, “authentic” could be saved yet. It could mean “I’ve had food from Germany made by German grandmothers, and I enjoyed it, and I don’t enjoy this food.” But you probably don’t mean that you didn’t enjoy it because it wasn’t made by German grandmothers (which you already knew). You either didn’t enjoy it because the food from Germany was normatively better for some reason, or you preferred the way that food was prepared for some reason, and don’t prefer the way this food was prepared. Again, because the word “authenticity” is ambiguous, we have know what of knowing what the speaker means by invoking it.

So, please, world, let’s dispense with “authentic” as a descriptor for anything that’s not a signature or that’s not actually a vase made during the Chinese Ming dynasty. It does a disservice to language usage and it makes finding lunch a whole lot harder.