In an era of fake news and general cultural dishonesty, it shouldn’t be surprising that many of us seek authenticity.
Watch any episode of “Check, Please,” the excellent public television program featuring Alpana Singh and a panel of citizen reviewers, and you’ll likely hear the word “authentic” mentioned several times. People will say that food at one restaurant is “authentic French,” or that food at another restaurant is “authentic Mexican.” When people say a food is “authentic,” what they usually mean is simply that they like it. A more objective definition of “authentic” relates to how the dish was originally prepared.
National Enchilada Day is May 5, so I took it upon myself to research the origins of the enchilada, which is now generally understood to be a tortilla wrapped around meat or cheese and served in sauce. “Enchilada” is the Nahuatl word for “chili,” or pepper, flanked by a Spanish construction “en-” and “-ada.” The word “enchilada” means “seasoned with chili,” and it’s possible the first enchiladas where simply tortillas, filled or unfilled, with chili peppers in a sauce or worked into the cornmeal of the tortilla.
Dr. Gary Feinman, who curates Mesoamerican anthropology at Chicago’s Field Museum, told me “There is no evidence that prehispanic peoples made enchiladas that were similar to today. To begin, they did not have cheese. They…likely added sauces from jars cooked over fires.”
Though many enchiladas are now baked, it seems unlikely that they were baked by Maya and Aztec peoples. “Prehispanic Mesoamerican peoples,” Feinman said, “used earth ovens to roast the ‘hearts’ or piñas of agave/maguey plants.” Such earth ovens are suited to long cooks (necessary for fibrous agave hearts). It would probably have been preferable to cook enchiladas in earthen ware “jars” over an open fire, if indeed they were cooked at all.
To be an enchilada, all it takes is a tortilla “seasoned with chili.”
Recently, we sat down to lunch at Margaritas on Oak Park Avenue. I ordered enchiladas Suizas, which is one enchilada dish whose origin is well documented – and thus one dish whose authenticity can be objectively evaluated in terms of conformity to the paradigmatic original recipe. Enchiladas Suizas, filled with chicken and drenched in tomatillo sauce, were first served in 1950 at Sanborn’s department store in Mexico City. They’re called “Suizas” because they’re topped with Chihuahua cheese, and cheese is, you know, big in Switzerland.
Alas, the enchiladas Suizas at Margarita’s, though they were filled with chicken and served in tomatillo sauce, were not topped with any cheese at all but rather drizzled with crema, the Mexican cream sauce. Lacking cheese, this dish at Margarita’s might be called “inauthentic.” When judging a dish, however, what probably matters most is taste, which has nothing to do with a dish’s relative authenticity.
On National Enchilada Day, Cinco de Mayo, I will be in Mexico City celebrating both holidays by having “authentic” enchiladas Suizas at Sanborn’s department store, their point of origin.