In Search of an Authentic Mexican Restaurant

Stephen Christ
Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Departments: 
Sociology

After a day at work, you are in the mood for Mexican food, but you want something authentic—not the Americanized Tex-Mex food that’s ubiquitous throughout the Midwest. But how do you determine which restaurant offers the most authentic Mexican culinary experience? According to a study published by Stephen Christ, who recently completed the requirements for his doctorate in sociology at MU, whether or not a Mexican restaurant is authentic is completely subjective, but also socially organized in systems of power.

Christ says the owner of a Mexican restaurant may claim to have the most authentic facility because his chef is from Mexico or he has more employees from Mexico than any of his competitors. But Christ says his research found that the power to define something as authentic  rests not with the restaurant owner but rather in the hands of white consumers who have little experience or knowledge of Mexican food or traditional styles of preparation.

“For the restaurant owner and staff, the most important claims to authenticity have to do with who is the most recent immigrant or who has the most Mexican employees,” Christ says, “but for the consumer, the most important consideration is ‘how much does this food fit my expectation of what Mexican food is based on growing up and having taco day at high school or eating at Taco Bell?’”

Christ says he grew up in Brownsville, Texas, and experienced one form of Mexican-American culture and food. When he came to Columbia in 2010 to pursue a degree in sociology, he encountered Mexican-American food that was labeled the same as it was in Texas but tasted much different. When he began planning for his dissertation a couple of years ago, Christ decided to study the idea of how the same thing can be so different simply based upon location.

For the past two and a half years, Christ says he’s been doing ethnographic research by volunteering to work at more than a dozen Mexican restaurants.  He says restaurant owners and staff initially were suspicious of his motives and assigned him menial tasks like shoveling snow from parking lots. But Christ says he eventually overcame those barriers and was accepted as a member of the community. He was invited to private parties at restaurants, religious celebrations at homes, and even participated in a local Mexican restaurant soccer league. He says this access allowed him to examine how authenticity in a Mexican immigrant community is accomplished in a restaurant context. Christ says this access also offered insights into how racial and ethnic communities consciously police themselves to protect the reputation of the restaurant in order to produce and maintain a profit. In fact, he says, a restaurant is only as authentic as profits will allow.

“This relationship between business and aesthetics envelops the organizational culture of Mexican restaurants,” Christ concludes in his paper, The Social Organization of Authenticity in Mexican Restaurants.  “Every element and resource that Mexican restaurants utilize directly relate back to their economic potential.”

This fall Christ will begin teaching at Truman State University in Kirksville as an assistant professor of sociology.

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