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A Taco in Name Only -- a Detroit Ethnic Food Journalist's Lament


August 10, 2018, 9:39 AM Tostada Magazine
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Avocado tacos from El Parian.

Years before anyone heard the term cultural appropriation, many were the disappointed eaters with close ties to their ethnic homeland who gazed at the plates laid before them in one restaurant or another, and sighed. Or wept.

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Serena Maria Daniels: "I began to notice a disturbing pattern." (Facebook photo)

Italian pizza bears only scant resemblance to the stuffed-crust monstrosities turned out by American chains. We saw a bibimbap the other day that was no more Korean than Jerry Seinfeld. Is it any wonder that a nation that appropriates everything would find new riffs on the taco too?

Serena Maria Daniels, lamenting in her Tostada magazine, has had enough of this "fusion" crap:

[At] the inaugural Taco Showdown held late last month at Eastern Market, I was joined by a panel of three other judges to sample more than a dozen taco offerings at the contest, prepared by eateries from all over Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

Competing, some of the most beloved taqueros in the Metro Detroit region who put forth some their best performances on display for more than 1,500 taco-crazed fans.

But when our scores were tallied up one by one, I began to notice a disturbing pattern among my fellow judges.

Guess what the pattern was.

I cringed when the other panelists gave high marks to unremarkable chains that churned out uninspired fusions on the classic taco, while some of the most celebrated Mexican eateries in the region were getting knocked down in points for things like “presentation” or for being “too spicy.”

"I was the lone Latinx judge," notes Daniels, a former Detroit News reporter and Metro Times food writer.

Her throwdown about the showdown comes down forcefully on a Free Press list of "5 taco spots to try in metro Detroit area" by a writer who was a contest judge:

Glaringly absent from the slapdash list: any Detroit presence whatsoever, even though the Motor City is home to the largest Mexican population in Michigan. Nor was there any real narrative about the time-honored recipes that these taqueros brought to the competition.

This sort of writing might have been acceptable when food journalism was still considered fluff written by white reporters or critics for the enjoyment of wealthy, mostly white readers accustomed white tablecloth fine dining and comfortable labeling tacos as ordinary street food.

But food writing has evolved to give readers a glimpse into other cultures and traditions, it’s become the tie that binds us as a society, a lens from which we can communicate our shared histories.

It's a good read, exploring questions that chefs, designers and other practitioners of practical arts have argued about forever -- is it influence or appropriation? A tribute or a ripoff? Can any old food put in a folding flatbread/tortilla-ish thing be considered a taco? Should authenticity count for anything?

And -- because it's not just about food -- shouldn't food journalists be more respectful, or even acknowledge, these dishes' roots? Who gets to sit at this particular table?

Read more:  Tostada Magazine


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