Mexican Food Isn’t as Mexican as You Think

Reading between the lines.
March 31 2012 12:22 AM

Queso Banditos

Taco USA reveals—and appreciates—how Americans co-opted tacos, tamales, tortilla chips, and tequila.

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The chili is an angry, dark red; flecks of beef sit around the spicy goop. It sings of San Antonio’s queens—not too sweet, not far removed from the cauldrons that gave palpitations to the original easterners who clamored over it, unctuous enough to trap a small animal. The heat of the plate and the steaming ingredients means that the queso coagulates over the cheese taco and assumes the consistency of Play-Doh.

Arellano Gustavo.
Gustavo Arellano

Photograph by Matt Otto.

I’m all for creativity in food writing—God knows I don’t need to read another description of macaroni and cheese as “comfort food” —but reading that a dish is enraged, contains goop thick enough to drown a squirrel, and resembles children’s modeling clay does not make me want to eat it.

The biggest problems with Taco USA, though, are problems of depth. Arellano has done a hell of a lot of reporting and unearthed some fascinating facts about Mexican food in America. But—with the exception of his evident disdain for Bayless and his ilk—he doesn’t say what he thinks about Mexican food’s assimilation into the mainstream, nor does he do much to situate his crispy taco shells in a broader cultural or political context. We see over and over that privileged whites profit from Mexican food while Mexicans are deprived of credit for their own creations, but Arellano doesn’t tell us the mechanisms by which this injustice occurs. (He rarely even utters the word racism—perhaps out of fear of alienating the portion of his audience that’s demographically more like my family than his.) The structure of his book doesn’t help—by organizing his chapters by dish rather than chronologically or by geographical region, Arellano makes it hard for readers to see how Mexican food—and Mexicans—changed in America over time.

Arellano’s most powerful and complex anecdote comes in his introduction. He once publicly debated former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, a hate-spewing xenophobe, over whether Mexican immigrants are capable of assimilating into American culture. Before the debate, the two opponents dined together at a Mexican restaurant across the street. Tancredo ordered tamales in green chile sauce and happily ate every bite on his plate.

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That’s the kind of cognitive dissonance—hating a people but loving their food—that gives a cultural history momentum. And, in that introduction, Arellano hints at the widespread bigotry that has deprived Mexican-American cooks of the rewards of their inventions even as Mexican food has gained popularity: “caricatures of hot tamales, Montezuma’s revenge, questionable ingredients, Frito Banditos, talking Chihuahuas and sleeping peons littering the landscape and continue to influence American perceptions of Mexican food and of Mexicans.” But Arellano never explores these stereotypes, and instead of offering a synthesis of his findings at the end of his book, he chickens out: His final chapter is a top-five list of his favorite Mexican meals in America (including the Play-Doh one). As a postscript, he pays lip service to the idea of cultural criticism with a few paragraphs (quoted wholesale from another scholar’s book) analyzing the image of the sleeping Mexican that’s popular in Mexican restaurant signs and logos. But for the most part, he shies away from engaging with the racist stereotypes and xenophobia that he grapples with regularly in “¡Ask a Mexican!”

But Taco USA’s lack of context reflects the way many Americans, like me, are used to eating Mexican food: happily and thoughtlessly, with all that cheese short-circuiting our critical faculties. And the book still has a lot to offer. Arellano’s reporting may not be deep, but it’s broad, and he manages to squeeze in mentions of just about every Mexican restaurant (including, believe it or not, both Taco Cabana and the dining room of the Austin Hyatt), product line, and preparation in the country. If you’ve ever wondered about the roots of Taco Bell or why fajitas are called that or who invented the frozen-margarita machine, you’ll find answers here. If you’re bored of the Mexican options in your town, Arellano will offer you fresh ideas from the other side of the country—french-fry-stuffed burritos, anyone? And if you fancy yourself an ambassador of authentic Mexican food, Arellano will put you in your place right quick—but then he’ll join you there, because queso may not be authentic, but it sure is good.

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.

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