Cuisine as an agent of acculturation
Scanlon, Paul Joseph
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Culinary acculturation is the process by which members of groups adapt their cuisines to their social, cultural and physical situations. The current wave of Mexican immigration, particularly to areas of the United States that have been relatively untouched by former waves, provides an excellent opportunity to observe culinary acculturation at work in the public sphere, and in doing so better understand it’s correlation to cultural incorporation and cross-cultural acceptance. The purpose of this project is thus to determine whether and how Mexican American cuisine acculturation, acceptance and popularity relates to cultural incorporation and acceptance. This project focuses on self-classified Mexican restaurants, their restaurateurs, and the restaurants’ customers. In particular, it attempts to answer why and how individuals in Houston, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia choose to eat various types of Mexican cuisine, and how this changes over time. These two sites were selected for a comparative study based on their dramatically different histories of Mexican immigration. It was assumed therefore that people in Houston—which sits on land that used to belong to Mexico and has had a long history of Mexican immigration and Hispanic/non-Hispanic contact and integration—will have more experience with Mexican cuisine than Atlantans. The data collection of the proposed project was divided into exploratory and explanatory phases, and an observational survey of all 1058 restaurants across both cities was conducted. In addition to interviews with restaurateurs and customers, similarity data was collected and the customer respondents were asked to complete a survey about their culinary and cultural experiences. The results of the various data analysis steps confirmed that Houston and Atlanta treat Mexican food differently from one another. Business strips that serve only Hispanics, stark in Atlanta, are largely absent from Houston; fewer restaurants serve only Hispanics or only non-Hispanic in Houston than they do in Atlanta; the menu items in Houston more closely resemble traditional Mexican cuisine than those in Atlanta. Significant differences between how non-Hispanic customers in Houston and Atlanta were also observed. Specifically the amount of interactions with Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and the frequency an individual eats at Mexican restaurants, appear to have a strong relationship with the breadth and depth of an individual’s knowledge about Mexican cuisine. I posit that Mexican cuisine acculturation is due to the conflicting influences of the popular culture and of culinary/cultural experience. I furthermore find that eating ethnic cuisines, dishes, and flavors becomes normative when an individual or group has enough knowledge to challenge their previous understandings of the cuisine that was dictated by the pop culture and media.