Updated April 18, 2012 — I had a chance this month to chat with Gustavo Arellano, the original “¡Ask a Mexican!” columnist and now OC Weekly editor, about Mexican food in the U.S., the subject of his new book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Arellano is one of the featured speakers at the Go West Book Fest at the Autry on April 29. Naturally, we chatted over a truly fantastic meal at Taqueria Zamora in Santa Ana: Arellano had the tacos dorados and I had the chilaquiles with red salsa and a fried egg on top.
With this book, Arellano aims to fulfill two goals: to guide you through a geographic, historic and ultimately cultural journey of Mexican food across the United States; and to do away with the notion of “authentic-ness” as a criterion by which to judge the quality of Mexican food.
“The whole idea of the book is that, what people feel is Mexican food is, for them, Mexican food,” he said. “It’s their interpretation of it.”
Arellano referred to an interview he had done earlier with KPCC’s Larry Mantle, in which Mantle mentioned Naugles, the fast-food Mexican drive-through chain restaurant that was a part of his youth and of life in Riverside, but that Arellano knew nothing about until he began research for Taco USA. The anecdote is one way of saying that all Mexican food — like all politics — is local and is a product of relentless creative mixing of ingredients and cultures. This not only is true in the bowels of that melting pot called the United States, it’s also true in Mexico, the ostensible home of authentic Mexican cuisine. But Arellano has little use for labels like “authentic.”
Arellano started his book tour at Plaza Olvera’s La Plaza de Cultura y Artes museum, “for karmic purposes,” then moves on to San Francisco and San Diego. But soon, he’s hitting the entire Southwest: Tucson, AZ; El Paso, TX; Albuquerque, NM; Santa Fe, NM; Flagstaff, AZ; Phoenix, AZ. And almost every place he’s visiting has its unique style of Mexican food.
“When I’m doing interviews and doing my pláticas, I’m going to focus on their contributions,” he said. “Especially when it comes to these regional foods, they want to be validated, because for too long they’ve been put by the wayside, derided as not being authentic.”
Arellano notes how skirmishes over authenticity in Mexican food also occur in Mexico, a deeply regional place with many styles of cuisine, all of which, of course, come under the heading of Mexican food — including the relatively recent trend at restaurants like Fonda Don Chon or Patricia Quintana’s Izote in Mexico City, which serve their chefs’ interpretations of pre-Hispanic or pre-Columbian food. In other words, what indigenous gourmands of Meso-America might have eaten before 1492.
“Food is changing so rapidly,” Arellano said. “What’s in today changes so rapidly, because of trends, because of economics, because of whatever. So to have this trend of bringing back this pre-Hispanic food is wonderful because we’re lucky it’s still around. We’re lucky that we even know what it is. That said, there’s no such thing as authenticity. The authenticity game is foolish. Food is the ultimate immigrant. Food travels, mingles, intermixes with other things to create new things. So to insist that somehow this particular platter is not authentic because it doesn’t come from here, here and here, it’s silly. If we want to play the authenticity game, then yea, the only real authentic food is this pre-Hispanic food that existed. But that is not Mexican food.”
Mexico by definition involves the mixing of at least Spanish and Indian traditions, Arellano said. And there are others, too, that also are important to what we think of as typically Mexican: German, Czech, and Austrian immigrants made the beers that are such a big marketing success in the U.S., and the spit-roasted tacos known as al pastor are not that far away from their Lebanese origins.
“I used to be one of those zealots of ‘Taco Bell is not authentic Mexican food’,” Arellano said. “But the person who really turned me over to the dark side was the dean of Tex-Mex cookbook writing, Rob Walsh. He’s won numerous James Beard awards, and he’s always been this very fierce advocate for Tex-Mex food.”
Arellano said it was Walsh who wrote that what is now considered Tex-Mex was, until 1972, just called Mexican food.
“Then, all of a sudden, you have these people like (the celebrated English author and expert on Mexican food) Diana Kennedy coming in and saying, ‘These traditions that mexicanos have been cooking (with) in Texas for over a hundred years, that’s not really Mexican,’” Arellano said. “Who on Earth is a British woman to be telling Mexicans in Texas who have suffered all sorts of discrimination at the time of segregation, that what they’re eating is not truly Mexican? That was the great revelation for me.”
It comes down to what Arellano considers the philosophy of “all tacos are created equal, but some tacos are more equal than others.” In other words, he says, the Taco Bell taco is as authentically Mexican as mole poblano from Mexico’s heartland or a Mission-style burrito from San Francisco.
“Does that mean that all Mexican food is equally good? No, no, no. Not at all,” he says, following up with what for some might be fightin’ words: “I’m not a fan of Taco Bell. They do not make good food. Del Taco? They make better food.”
In the book, Arellano charts the long-time popularity, back to the 19th century, of San Francisco’s tamale men, as well as the rise, in the 1980s, of the Southwestern food trend and of fajitas and, later, the burrito.
“The only constant in all these trends is Americans want the next best thing,” he said. “Americans want the next great Mexican dish.”
And even though he rails at Kennedy and famed Chicago chef and restauranteur Rick Bayless (whose cuisine is featured at the chi-chi West Hollywood eatery Red O) for staking out positions as arbiters of “authentic” Mexican food, Arellano actually praises the enterprise of Americans like (Taco Bell founder) Glenn Bell and, surprisingly, Wild West Show entrepreneur “Buffalo” Bill Cody, whom he credits with establishing the first Mexican food restaurant outside the U.S. Southwest. In 1886, as part of the New York stop of his Wild West Show, Cody set up a pop-up food stand in what was then Madison Square Garden that served tamales, chiles rellenos and chile con carne.
“Cody never explained what Mexican food had to do with the submission of the West, and the ‘Mexican ranchers’ who populated his show alongside Native Americans and cowboys were more accurately vaqueros, the Tejano riders from which the American English ‘buckaroo’ derives and from whose womb cowboys emerged,” Arellano writes. “But Cody’s Mexican restaurant — staffed by Mexicans, with mescal and chocolate shipped in from Mexico to end the meal — became a New York sensation, with lines of Gothamites waiting to taste curiosities, ‘inflamed and excited by the hot chile peppers and the other condiments which burn like caustic,’ according to an observer.”
For the Los Angeles Times’ take on Arellano and his book, click here.