DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Taco USA: A Lighter Look at Mexican-American Food

There's no question that Mexican food is wildly popular in all parts of the United States. So here's a question about Mexican cuisine. What were the 1st foods to make their way north of the border and onto American tables nationwide? If you answered tacos, tortillas, burritos, or enchiladas, you are wrong. The correct answer, according to Gustave Arellano, the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, is chili con carne (peppers with meat in Spanish) and tamales.

Arellano appeared recently at the Smithsonian Museum of American History to discuss his book. The special talk was held in conjunction with the new Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000 exhibition now at the museum.

The author told a packed auditorium of food fans that he initially set out to write a book that made fun of Mexican fast food and such creations as the tater tot burritos in Wyoming. But his research quickly led him to shift his focus. "There is no such thing as authentic Mexican food," Arellano said. He said he discovered that like Italian and Chinese food, Mexican dishes are "simultaneously ethnic and, at the same time, 100% American"

So exactly what is the history of Mexican food in the United States? Obviously, the story has to focus on the Spanish heritage of the southwest. "Chili is the quintessential Texas food, but it is Mexican," Arellano said, citing the rise and fall of the chili queens in San Antonio as a major factor in that story. As for tamales, many sections of the country, especially large urban areas like Chicago, were the scene  of the sights and sounds of the hot tamale men hawking steaming buckets of their product as they walked the city sidewalks. Tamales became so popular that they were one of the major foods first canned. "We now have Mexicans all over the country so we don't have to subject ourselves to tamales in a can," Arellano said. "Americans have a 125-year love affair with chili and tamales."

Arellano said the 1893 Chicago World's Fair played a large role in bringing Mexican food to the American masses. "For many, it was the 1st time Americans were able to taste Mexican food," he said.  However, there were recipes for Mexican dishes in cookbooks in many parts of the country as early as the 1880s.

There is usually a 3-step process behind popular Mexican dishes. "First people hear about it and they want it, then they eat it, and then they assimilate it," Arellano said. Tacos, 1st introduced in the 1920s, and burritos in the 1960s followed that pattern. The late 20th Century introduced the mass production and sale of Mexican dishes by Taco Bell and Chipotle and new concoctions such as Doritos among others. Today, tortilla production is an $8 billion industry. "If you want to be rich, you have to sell Mexican food," Arellano, who also writes the humorous column Ask a Mexican, joked.

The irony is that some of the dishes popular in America were considered peasant dishes or "dirty" food in Mexico. As example, Arellano cited the "gentrification of Mexican alcohol. No proper Mexican would drink mescal. Now they're selling it in bars for $20 a shot".

Unlike some critics, Arellano said he supports businessmen from other ethnic groups who base their businesses on Mexican dishes. "People say 'Oh you are appropriating our cuisine. You can't hate them for that. They came across an idea and they ran with it. They were smart enough to do that," Arellano maintained.

Enterprising chefs are also creating unique Mexican dishes. "We're seeing tamales with lobster, with truffles, but it's still street food," Arellano said. Ethnic groups continue to make Mexican dishes their own. A new trend is Korean bar-b-que being used as taco filling. "I completely celebrate the rise of Asian-Mex for lack of a better term,"Arellano said.

Despite the success of Mexican food, an examination shows that prejudice still is part of that story. "Originally, if you called it Spanish it was OK," Arellano said. "Eventually the idea of eating Mexican food became acceptable.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As part of the afternoon celebration of Mexican food, several taco trucks were parked outside the history museum. Arellano said he grabbed a couple of tacos at one and they were delicious. "Only in America can you have an American son of Mexican immigrants saying bueno for a Salvadoran making a taco,." he said.

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