January 16, 2009

First Person:

Didactic Dining Rituals

By Al Carlos Hernandez

Did you ever notice, as a Latino, that when you are invited out to dinner by a non-ethnic acquaintance, they always want to take you to a Mexican restaurant? Is it just me, or do I have nacho on my shoulder?

Realistically, I don’t think it’s racism as much as a “seeker sensitive” accommodation. If the people who are inviting you to eat were indeed racists, they wouldn’t want to be seen in public with you in the first place, (unless they were a republican running for office, pining for a photo opportunity. The business axiom, “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” is continuing to be true.)

This is not to say as Latinos that we don’t do the same thing to Asian, African American, or Middle Eastern friends. If they are not an intimate, we try to accommodate them by putting them in a social situation where we perceive they will be the most comfortable. When it comes to entertaining gringos you can take them anywhere. They are always game, omnivorous and quite willing to drop the plastic and pick up the check.

I am certainly guilty of taking Asian friends to Chinese or Japanese restaurants just to show them how multi ethnic I am by trying to demonstrate an ability to work the chop sticks. There have been several occasions where I wanted to beg the food server for a tortilla or some chips to scoop up the Mongolian beef, and have embarrassingly sprained my middle finger trying to spear a pea.

Food servers in Asian establishments are experts at noticing when a round eye is experiencing angst. They always try to slip me a fork to speed me along because they need to get started on cleaning the noodles off the ceiling fan, fishing the pot stickers out of the aquarium, and pinching the rice out of the hostess’s hair. No doubt the kitchen homies in the back have been taking bets as to how long my chop stick foray would last. I start getting suspicious when an assistant cook comes out and shakes my hand as we leave.

As a confirmed urbanite, I have ventured into BBQ, chicken and waffle places with my African American friends. They always bring the hottest hot sauce possible, assuming that, if I am Latino, then I am acquainted with all things peppery, ergo the insult Pepper Belly. I shouldn’t punk out when it comes to slathering Louisiana 3 alarm hot sauces. Embarrassingly, I am one of the few machos who can’t use hot sauce of any kind. My tenure in Spanish radio ruined my stomach for life.

As a middle class Latino, I am a perpetrator of this brown on brown culinary classism myself. Once, we had the opportunity to host the legendary Tejano singer and band leader Little Joe Hernandez during his stay in San Francisco. We took great pains to take Joe into the Mission district in San Francisco to find an “authentic” Mexican restaurant. Joe, always an outspoken diplomat, said, “Why are you taking me here? I eat Mexican food all the time. We should do Thai, Indian, or Italian. If you want Mexican food I’ll take you to my mom’s house when we get back to Temple, Tejas.”

True to his word, several months later, I found myself at Joe’s mother’s kitchen table in Temple, Tejas eating the best menudo of my life. I quickly realized that, when traveling with Joe and La Familia, munudo for breakfast was more medicinal than mechanistic.

Is it disconcerting when a non-Latino friend takes you to better Latino restaurant than you have been able to find for yourself. You then bring the matriarchs of the family there for their seal of approval or their twisted look of chagrin. In either case you’re picking up the tab.

We shouldn’t be too quick to take an Asian friend to a chop suey joint, an African American friend to a BBQ palace, a gringo to The Outback, or a broke homie to a taco truck.

We Americans are living in a post ethnic, post modern era, whereby cultural and humanistic growth as a familial nation will come from the homogenization of ethnic sensibilities and tradition.

Take a new friend to lunch, or better yet, have them over to your house. National unity starts one person at a time.

Al Carlos Hernandez writes from Hollywood.

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