Dont't call it Barbacoa
We didn’t even know it was our day- National Taco Day. How do I feel about tacos? Well for me, tacos mean more than a fresh tortilla and the meat, it’s about the whole product. I am the owner of South Philly Barbacoa, and I was trained by my parents to cook this specialty in my hometown of Capulhuac, Mexico. My food, Barbacoa, goes farther than just being a meal; it has heart, flavor, work, spices, integrity. Mine is a hard job that takes long work. It's a lot of hours to take the lamb; butchering, marinating, serving, and presenting; the process is much more than heating a plate of food and placing in some banana leaves. The food should bring an honor with it.
Producers, especially chefs, need to focus on their product, its history, its cultural perceptions, its underlying meanings. Tacos play a very prominent role in my culture. Sure, in essence, they constitute protein in a good tortilla. But more than anything, they represent the act of gathering and eating with your family. They represent enjoying good company and replenishing your body. My people eat tacos after a hard day’s work, but these days some people are turning tacos into the newest foodie cash crop.
Last night, we dined at Mission Taqueria in Philadelphia for the first time and it was very telling. Most Latinos feel a certain way when they realize that other people can prosper off of their cultural food. Weeks before this restaurant opened, a group of men from Mission Taqueria came into my restaurant and ordered half a kilo of barbacoa. They asked me all types of questions, "How many grams of cal (lime) do you put in your water to make your nixtamal?”, “What cuts of lamb do you use for your barbacoa?”, "Where do you buy it?". They asked me, "What do you use to keep your tortillas so fresh?" At that point, I felt a bit paranoid and could not communicate with them efficiently in English, so I chose to walk into the kitchen to grab my tortilla press, and to my surprise this crew followed me into my kitchen. They never presented themselves, never said who they were or where they came from; they could’ve said I’m this person from this place- they weren’t invited into my kitchen. Once they were in my kitchen, they glanced at our workstations, examined our storage methods, and noticed how we were keeping our tortillas warm... which, interestingly enough, is the same way tortillas are kept warm at Mission Taquiera.
I think some people just need to change their perspective. If this crew would’ve told me who they were and their intentions, our interaction would’ve been fine. We could’ve had an open discussion on barbacoa and what the food means to the people who first created it. Pretending to be my clients in order to take advantage of my work and then presenting similar plates with similar qualities to their customers is in very bad taste. They are exploiting people. Initially, I felt uncomfortable watching the head chef inspect my work and then tell his other chef to ask me specific questions about my product. I felt even more frustrated and confused seeing a Mexican lady working at Mission Taquiera waiting for the okay from the white head chef before telling me that I could have additional tortillas for the half kilo we ordered. These are my people and these employees looked at me like they had to hold back. This isn’t just about sharing ideas. You can share your ideas; sharing is how we grow as a community. But don't open a restaurant using the same exact ideas- this is the definition of appropriation.
Mission Taqueria's prices were far too high because they see how profitable this product could be. They don’t understand what a taco actually is. They’re tricking their clients. I understand why people think they can charge so much for a taco - you have to pay your workers and your rent, I understand that. But if you do so, you also have a duty to your customers to present a more meaningful taco. Latinos are the ones putting their hands in this process. They are putting their love into it, but customers are paying high prices for something that might not even be there. It’s not just about the onions or the ambience- it’s about the flavor and what's really behind the food you're serving, especially if it's being presented as barbacoa. What these people are serving is not barbacoa. This isn’t what the food and the culture are about- they’re about having a good spirit and camaraderie towards your neighbors. And what we experienced as Mission Taqueria clearly was about something else.
Mission Taquiera recently uploaded a photo of nopales on Instagram. This saddens and angers me because many people in Mexico only have this type of humble produce, the nopal cactus, which they have to go to outside every day to cut and prepare with some beans and a tortilla for their meal. It makes me upset that people here take this for granted. I know families who wake up early and dedicate their lives to this type of intensive and sometimes painful farming. So it strikes me as offensive that MT is posting casually about the plant on Instagram to garner a hip foodie following. It's not easy to clean, cook, saute, and then serve them. I think this is something that most people trying to market this product don’t understand and I don’t know what they are trying to say. For me, I understand the nopal to be the balancing aspect of our taco. When people eat 2 tacos, their cholesterol goes up, so we intentionally serve nopales to help their cholesterol go down. This is the balance we provide with the meals we serve at our restaurant. We have 4-5 people working hard at 5am on Tuesday to clean and prep the cactus. That's why I feel insulted to see someone saying “Buenos dias nopales" ... are you calling me a Nopal? (For those who don't know, a nopal is often used as a slur meaning dumb or stupid). Tom Culton, who grows vegetables from a place of love for our restaurant commented, "Anything tastes terrible when you use money as the fertilizer."
I don’t think it even smells like tacos in Mission; it just smells like a bar. A bar that has a lot of promotion. Latinos don’t have this same promotional ability in the States. But we give back- we pay our taxes, rent, and we try to do things right. We pay the real price of things- we are forgotten, isolated, and more than anything we are exploited. People see that we are hardworking with good hearts and they often take advantage of that.
As if their undercover recon into my restaurant weren't enough, Mission approached our friend, Steph Irwin, who has worked hard with us over the last year by organizing and fighting for the undocumented community. She is very close to us and they approached her asking her to take over their social media accounts for them … by using our style. Now, I feel nervous putting new dishes we make on Instagram and social media, because they will just be copied, without the soul.
We will continue fighting for the dignity of our culture and community. We think it's important that we went to Mission to see what they were doing and how, but we feel like between the food, atmosphere and clients there is really no comparison.
If you'd like to continue in our conversations about race and cultural appropriation in the culinary world, join us at the next #right2work dinner on November 22nd, by e-mailing email@example.com
(translated by Carolina Torres Toledo)