My girlfriend and I really like Tamales. We will go anywhere to find them. She likes the ones with pork. I prefer them with cheese but am willing to compromise with chicken. If not, it’s beef. You throw in some rice and beans and we’re set. However, being that neither one of us is Latinx (although we have been mistaken to be on numerous occasions) our search for the best Tamales is limited to Mexican American restaurants from Lakewood to Seattle and everywhere in between. Always in the back of my mind, I wonder how good these Tamales are compared to someone’s family member preparing them in their kitchen? Home cooking always upstages anything that can be ordered from a menu. For many Filipinos this is how they feel about Filipino restaurants. Many a Filipino have echoed the sentiments that, “sure this (insert any Filipino dish) is okay but I like how lola makes it.” My mother always told me what makes Lumpia so irresistible is that it’s cooked with love. Anyone that has ever had Lumpia made by a Filipina mother can attest to the truth in that statement. I’m sure Tamales prepared by an abuela is along similar lines. This inquisitiveness follows me like George with his curiosity whenever we eat at a Mexican American restaurant. How much of a difference is there? This line of thought naturally leads me to think about racism (go figure).
One day while we were at a Mexican American restaurant in Lakewood, in between salsa dips with corn chips and waiting for our Tamales to triumphantly emerge from the back kitchen, I observed the patrons at this establishment. There were a few POC’s strewn about here and there, but for the most part the customers were white families enjoying their Friday evening with some Mexican food. Tacos for the kids, Nachos for mom, and Fajitas for step-dad. I wondered how many people will have this limited representation of food on their plate serve as their only reference point in understanding Mexican culture? Moreover, many Mexican American restaurants cater to the (white) American palate which is really just watered down versions of something more authentic cooked up back home in let’s say Chiapas. A lot of these dishes are merely covers of the original song. Then I thought about the advent of Chop Suey back in the mid-19th century and how that was more or less an attempt to attract white people to visit Chinese restaurants. So in essence, Chop Suey is as American as apple pie– only in yellow face.
What does it mean when our cultural heritages that date back thousands of years are commodified and relegated to “exotic” dishes on a menu or sitting on the shelf of the ethnic aisle at a grocery store? How much can a person understand a group of people by simply consuming jejune renditions of their cuisine? When you factor in how many neighborhoods in this country are segregated along class and ethnic lines, this culinary experience becomes a major source of cultural consumption. Then if you add into the equation–misrepresentation in the media, miseducation in school, and what we have on our hands is a recipe for distortion and disaster. In many respects, it would appear that food exemplifies one of many ways as to how this country interacts with different cultures. It discards what it deems unappealing and appropriates what it likes.
After asking for boxes and footing the bill, we made our exit back into the world full of contradiction and mayhem. The sun was setting and the contentment of eating exactly what you were craving for fell over me, this was as first world as it got. As we held hands and walked to my car, I thought about what my homegirl once said about conservative America and their problem with immigration reform, “ya’ll want the food but don’t like the chef.”