Where can you go for a good taco these days?
If I asked you to share with me your favorite taco joint, where would you send me?
I hope you tell me about your favorites. But lately it seems that instead of sharing what we love and why we love it, we insist on telling people their experience is invalid. We tell them what they should like. We quickly put down other people’s preference and we shun those who don’t agree with us.
I’m currently binging Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Season 9: Episode 1. In this episode Bourdain explores the Los Angeles area through the eyes of the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who live there. He gave us forgotten history like the 1955 mass deportation Operation Wetback campaign. What?? He invites us to challenge our perceptions of what makes a good taco. Is it the ingredients or the people? Is cheaper always better? This episode makes your mouth water. The stories will make you want to savor every bite. Los Angeles a culinary tourism destination? I believe it. Time to rethink those cauliflower tacos.
Bourdain was without a doubt a voice for the immigrant worker and this episode hangs the unasked question, would a taco taste just as good if someone other than a Latino made it?
I’m pretty lucky that we have several Latino flavors to explore right outside Camp Humphreys’s walking gate. Some of them cater to a Western preference. Some of them with a bit more focus on the region they are from. Most of them are good. I’m even looking forward to the Korean-Mexican fusion Vatos Tacos moving within arms reach. Occasionally there is talk of how a place doesn’t make real tacos. It’s not authentic. Which make me wonder, so what does an authentic taco taste like? What does it need to have to be legit?
Are you Authentic enough?
And that’s the other question I have been pondering. What does it mean to be the real deal? Is it about being completely honest at all times and places? Is about being completely open to our daily experiences? I think the first step to understanding if we are being real with ourselves and those around us, is to understand the labels we hide behind.
In life we go through different stages where we wear different labels. Some of them are imposed on us. They can demand certain expectations or represent our different responsibilities. We like to cling to the ones we relate to. We like the ones that give us value. Labels that help other people quickly figure you out and what you are to the community. Labels that make our purpose in life clear.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to labels. It helps us to avoid acknowledging a person’s experience. It encourages people to avoid connecting with a person and invites them to be content with the shallow definition presented. It gives a condensed one-sided narrative.
I guess labels are basically okay if you are using them to describe yourself. I still don’t like using them and it has taken me years to understand why labels irritate me. The moment we use them to describe someone’s life experience we contribute to the misrepresentation. We begin speaking for them and we invite everyone else to do the same. We end up avoiding any effort to seek out the truth for ourselves. Sure. We use these labels to entertain. We use them to fast forward unnecessary or uncomfortable back stories. We also use them to gun down people we think are a threat. Labels are a double edge knife. How we use them matters. Who uses them matters.
Who are you to You?
The truth is over time our identities change. Letting go of the old and embracing our new identity is part of the journey. The basic ingredients we started out with, do not confine our abilities. Rather it gives us a set of experiences we can grow from. Adding complex layers and depth. Over time we evolve from our experiences and come up with new recipes that represent us.
If we take the time to remove the labels we wear for other people, we can see what kind of ingredients we are really working with. If we are happy with the way things are we can keep doing what is working. If we are not happy, we can change things up in a way that serve our own identities better. But if we never take a look, we end up believing in the labels other people see us as.
If it no longer Defines you, Let it go
It is only when we pause and reflect on those labels, that we learn to out grown them. At one point the episode talks about not fitting in. About not being Mexican enough for Mexico and not white enough for America. Being defined by other people’s expectations is confusing for someone looking to understand their own identity. If you are not careful it can rip you apart. But it is evident from the episode that native Angelinos didn’t allow those labels to define them. Many of them decided to define themselves as Californians. They started defining themselves by what they love. In doing so they created a recognizable part of Californian culture. For that reason I am loving this episode! Don’t let other people tell you who you are. Decide for yourself who you are and then celebrate that by doing what you do best.
Leave Room at the table for Disagreement.
Sometimes we get caught up with sharing our preference for things. We need to remember what works for one person doesn’t always work for everyone else. Don’t be afraid to be honest. But don’t let your disagreement over preferences get in the way of having a good time.
Look, Parts Unknown is a delightful mixture of everything I love and come to expect from Anthony Bourdain’s shows. It peels back at the labels and layers we don’t often get a chance to look behind-and accepts all of these experiences as valid. I’m not saying you have to agree with everything he, or any other celebrity, tells you is good. Simply give yourself permission to try something. Embrace the unknown. Decide for yourself if it is good food.
The Art of the Perfect Taco
So what do you think? Would a taco still taste good if it was called by any other name? Would you still call it a taco if it didn’t quite didn’t look like a taco? At what point does it become something entirely new? At what point does a taco fail to be a taco? What is your idea of a perfect taco?
What does this mean for the tacos on my plate? For me it means a taco is good when it reflects the chef’s experience and celebrates the culture of the locals. This kind of chemistry created between them is what makes a place vibrant and welcoming. As a tourist, this is the kind of atmosphere I want to seek out and enjoy. A place that chases the fleeting expectations of tourists kills it for me. There are enough copycats out there who are more than happy with checking the box and making a good presentation. Make more of what you love and what the locals love you for. In my experience you never have to defend a good taco. Authentic or fusion, each bite is a delicious expression of everything coming together.