On Authenticity

The other night I was taken to La Siesta, billed as the only Mexican restaurant in Lisbon. (That’s Lisbon, Portugal – the original, folks, and not the Lisbons of Ohio or South Dakota that come up, to hilarious effect, whenever I Google to find a bookshop.) It seemed a welcome change from the usual local far of salted codfish variants, potatoes and soggy greens. Everything gets old after awhile, even the freshest fish known to man.

Of course, I kept expectations low for an establishment whose main draw was its calming view of the mouth of the River Tejo, where the sombreros on the wall looked decidedly mass-produced and not a single person of Mexican origin could have possibly ever entered the kitchen. (In one such Hong Kong mixed-Mex, I had bitten into a microwaved burrito only to find its filling still frozen hard as an Aztec pyramid.)

So I wasn’t surprised by the runny guacamole, more soup than dip, that was obviously store-bought, the tacos in flower-shaped pastry cups, a puree of black beans too blended to taste refried (all at insanely unjustified prices). When I asked for spicier salsa, the waiters, mostly Africans from Portugal’s former colonies, had no idea how to respond. La Siesta did provide a house mariachi band, though with only two members. Upon my testing, their limited repertoire did not extend to Mexican standards like “Guadalajara.” Then again, we diners were far from Guadalajara, perhaps with good reason.

For the millions of faux replicas of different cuisines world-wide, this one ranked decided in the middle. I tried not to calculate how many such disappointing outposts I had visited in my life. (The Swiss yodelers of Seoul, Korea was one travel writing colleague’s fave.) But what did surprise me here, as in many others, was how full the tables were, and how much the unaware and uninitiated seemed to be enjoying their candlelit dates with canned dreariness. Perhaps they really didn’t know any better (though in an age of migration, jet travel and Internet recipes, this seemed unlikely). More likely, my superfluous demand for authenticity is simply as overrated as it is underappreciated. If you take the actions of humanity as polling results, then the vast majority of us would really rather have our meals, experiences and cultures watered down, boiled down, dumbed down, mediated, packaged for easy access, plated for simple digestibility. Never mind the insistence of hipsters and “new age” travelers that something, maybe everything, is lost each time we give in to the shortcut, the guided tour, the purposely bland.

Authenticity, it turns out, is a bit too bony, gritty, hot and threatening for most of us. Real is what we say we need, fake is what we crave.

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