Food in Translation!

Nationality and language are unavoidable barriers that food can overcome. Food is a language of its own! Knowing Spanish may help if you are ordering dinner at a Mexican restaurant, yet you can get by without these language skills. The experience of biting into a taco con carnitas is something that language cannot provide. It supplies you with a history of a nation and people through the ingredients of the dish and the flavors they provide.

If a person sits down at a Mexican restaurant who has never eaten Mexican food, they are most likely to look for items on the menu with which they are most familiar. Rice, okay. Beans, sure! They may ask their companions or the servers where the tacos are listed. The wariness and perhaps panic becomes apparent on the person’s face. Yikes. Why does this occur? Can food be scary? Fear of food is a factor in a separate psychological equation. In this case, the unwillingness to eat unknown food can be attributed to “picky/fussy” eating:

Two factors have been shown to contribute to rejection or acceptance of fruits and vegetables: food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy’ eating. Food neophobia is generally regarded as the reluctance to eat, or the avoidance of, new foods. In contrast, ‘picky/fussy’ eaters are usually defined as children who consume an inadequate variety of foods through rejection of a substantial amount of foods that are familiar (as well as unfamiliar) to them (Dovey et al).

The behavior of adults who are not happy to try new foods at an ethnic restaurant are relatable to the behavior of children! It is not food neophobia, but rather “‘picky/fussy’” [Dovey et al.,] eating due to the fact that many human beings do not have an interaction with a wide variety of cultures and so cannot understand their food vocabulary.

In America, there are more than 54,000 Mexican restaurants making it the third most popular menu type (chdxpert). How many of these 54,000 establishments are authentically Mexican? Determining what is and what is not “authentic” creates confusion. If a person has never been to Mexico then they do not know what makes something authentically Mexican. This makes it difficult to acknowledge the Mexican establishments that engage in traditional cooking practices, such as Mitla Cafe. Once the American consumer can determine authentic establishments, they can then separate these establishments from ones that have been industrialized or “Americanized”. Sometimes it is just difficult to know. Other times, it is easy to tell such as the case of Taco Bell where foundational cultural practices are sacrificed with the purpose of modernization and globalization.

drake taco gif.gif
What would Drake’s take on #tacoliteracy be (Giphy)?

Or, perhaps Mexican culture has been displayed for profitable circumstances and consequently misinterpreted for generations:

Image of a mariachi band in a restaurant (

By engaging in participant observation, drawing on open-ended interviews, and analyzing the content of available data regarding restaurant culture, the author argues that the accomplishment of Mexican authenticity is a social construction. However, despite its socially created qualities, the author contends that performances of authenticity and ethnicity affect not only how individuals understand each other, but illustrate the challenges faced by different groups of people in the commercial production and consumption of identity [].

In this abstract, Gaytan is noted to demonstrate how Mexican authenticity in reference to restaurant culture is an element of social construction. In other words, it is a shared, determined viewpoint on Mexican identity made by the American people based off of their experiences in a restaurant where they eat Mexican food. This eatery is not authentically Mexican, however, but Mexican-American (Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, or other-Mex). The American interaction with these eateries creates their mindset on what is Mexican food. Mexican-American individuals face ongoing controversy between knowing what is authentically Mexican food and what is Mexican food in America.

The question of authenticity causes much debate and separation between cultures at times. For a moment, consider the benefits of intermingling the two cultures. You could attach this thought to unique tres leches creations in a nearby bakery. Cambridge Core published a web article with the topic of food preparation behaviors of Mexican-American mothers of Southern California and how they were influenced: “Participants of the current study stated that they prepared dishes that were traditional to their Mexican culture, but also frequently prepared American-style dishes, describing them as fast and easy with opportunities to incorporate healthy ingredients”. The Mexican-American mothers benefited from both their Mexican and American heritages, seeing the positive attributes in both and combining these to create the best outcome on the plate. They experimented with ingredients, mixing American and Mexican condiments. The food was their tool. It also allowed them to prepare meals quickly, allowing for the opportunity to do more. Cooking was not the main priority for a Mexican-American mom living in Southern California. These women also took the initiative on a positive diet change, fiddling with meals to integrate more healthy options than were available prior to this time.

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Lilo watches in dismay as Stitch stuffs his face with food (Giphy).

While judgments and frustrations may initially present themselves in an intercultural interaction, the key to understanding is patience. Food can help! Spoken word is not a element necessary to order food at a restaurant. Somebody can point to their desired option on a menu and the server will know what is being requested. It is an unspoken conversation. Language, then, should not serve as a barrier when ordering food. If the customer and the server speak different languages there is a way to positively progress with the request. Not putting effort into the interaction will result negatively and will not allow for progress. “ESL consumers can also be perceived as low literate customers in terms of their English skills”, (Mattila). This stigma can be produced automatically, yet can be eliminated by interacting with the other person. Similarly, stigmas can appear in the mind of the customer as well:  “‘They are too friendly…they don’t respect us enough,’” (Matilla). A person who is in an environment where they are different from everyone else, speaking a different language, feels like an outsider. They may have the initial feeling that they are being talked down to because they cannot relate to the people around them. It could be that the people who are familiar to this environment are just trying to communicate with this person. Language and expression seem to befuddle everyone.

Food, though, is an excellent source of communication! You can learn about the history of a nation by studying one dish! Mole poblano specifically traces its roots to Puebla, Mexico. Mole is a type of mildly spicy chocolate sauce, although it does not taste like chocolate. The taste is more closely related to a barbeque-style of sauce, at least in this region. It is thick in texture and rich in flavor. Mole sauce varies from region-to-region in Mexico. In America, the same pattern occurs. The mole in Texas is different than in Kentucky. California-style sways from New York City. Where it is and the people who live in that particular region determine the sauce’s flavor.

Authenticity is a term thrown about too frequently. It is the reason the question of authenticity presses the heart of this assignment. It is necessary to tribute the history of a dish such as mole poblano and its Mexican region of origin, however this does not mean change is restricted. However, to make changes to a recipe without paying mind to the people and culture who have held that recipe close and passed it down through generations is not okay: “Tradition without awareness of history and without possibility of change is mere stereotype, and innovation without consciousness of genealogy and situatedness is sheer experimentation” (Weiss 74)In other words, it is okay to tinker with age-old recipes, but be mindful of their origins. Pay respect! Next time you prepare a cultural dish, think about where it originated and how it transformed to be on your plate that day. If you are unsure, perhaps do a bit of research. You may eat your tacos and learn more than you thought you would!

stitch baking
Stitch teaches himself how to bake, although the cake does not turn out quite as expected (Tenor)!

Authenticity is relative. What is authentic to you depends on where you grew up and what you know. The food you ate every day, the types of restaurants in your neighborhood, and the level of cultural interaction you experienced. Food serves as a factor of higher influence in more ways than we think. It can tell us more about people than they may communicate with us, themselves.


Works Cited

Baker Stitch GIF.” Tenor.

Dovey, Terrence M., et al. “Food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy’ eating in children: A review.” ScienceDirect, vol. 50, issue 2-3, pgs. 181-193.

“Factors influencing food preparation behaviours: findings from focus groups with Mexican-American mothers in southern California.” Cambridge Core, vol. 19, no. 5, pp. 841-850.

Gaytán, Marie Sarita. “From Sombreros to Sincronizadas.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 01 Jun. 2008. 16 Mar 2018.

Mattila, Anna S. “The Impact of Language Barrier & Cultural Differences on Restaurant Experiences: A Grounded Theory Approach.” ScholarWorks @ UMassAmherst,  01 Jul 2011. 16 Mar. 2018.

“Mexican food is the 3rd most popular menu type in the USA, representing 8 percent of the total national restaurant landscape.” chdexpert, 13 May 2014. 16 Mar 2018.

Taco Love GIF.” Giphy.

Weiss, Allen S. “Authenticity.” Gastronomica, vol. 11, no. 4 (Winter 2011), pp. 74-77.

World 5 Reactions GIF.” Giphy.