When I was growing up in Austin, Texas, my family often followed Sunday-morning church service with a visit to a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in a strip mall off Interstate 35 for migas: eggs scrambled with peppers, onions, and tortilla chips, smothered with cheese and served with fresh tortillas. Weeknights when my dad worked late, my mom and sister and I stopped at Taco Cabana, a Texas drive-through chain, for soft tacos filled with roasted chicken, black beans, and pico de gallo. Birthdays meant fajitas in the dining room of the Austin Hyatt; really special occasions meant mole enchiladas at the upscale (by Austin standards) Fonda San Miguel.
After we moved to a suburb of Washington, D.C., we were harsh judges of our new town’s Mexican offerings, invariably deeming them inferior to Austin’s (even D.C.’s disappointingly named Austin Grill). So we started making more Mexican food at home. Queso became my mom’s go-to potluck dish, enchiladas a weekend cooking project for me and my sister, frozen margaritas my parents’ favorite way of impressing guests.
To the benefit of psychologists everywhere, people often don’t recognize the weirdness in their families’ idiosyncrasies until they’re already deeply ingrained. So I didn’t fully see the incongruity of a quartet of WASPs appointing themselves ambassadors of authentic Mexican food until I started reading Gustavo Arellano’s tasty but not-quite-satisfying Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
That’s because, as Arellano explains, what most of us think of as Mexican food was invented in America, and it has a long history of being co-opted by gabachos (as Mexicans actually call gringos). Chapter by chapter, Arellano painstakingly traces the paths of dishes—tamales, tacos, burritos, tortilla chips, tequila—and shows how they either were born in the United States or changed irreversibly after crossing the border. He unearths forgotten incarnations of Mexican food, like the stews made by San Antonio’s once-famous chili queens in the late 19th century. He also appraises unexpected ingredients—chocolate, I learned, was traditionally consumed by Mexicans as a foamy, unsweetened drink that I predict will be on espresso-bar menus across the nation within a couple of decades.
Arellano has no problem with Mexican fare’s myriad American transformations—rather, he rejects claims of authenticity and embraces the fruits of cultural intermingling. He has a soft spot for hybrid Mexican-American dishes—burritos stuffed with hamburger patties, hot dogs smothered with beans and salsa—and Korean tacos positively tickle him. He does express a touch of nostalgia on occasion—the best tortillas, per Arellano, are the ones Mexican women used make from scratch before dawn—but unlike certain other (usually male) food writers like Michael Pollan, Arellano doesn’t put traditional ways of cooking and eating on a pedestal. In fact, his most focused and impassioned chapter points out the hypocrisy of white chefs like Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy who have the chutzpah to claim that their recipes are “authentic” Mexican food while denigrating dishes made by actual Mexican-Americans. (Kennedy, the cookbook author revered as the Julia Child of Mexican food, comes across as a real pill: As a consultant, she wouldn’t let the owners of Fonda San Miguel serve chips and salsa. They eventually ignored her killjoy advice and relented to popular demand.)
Arellano makes a living challenging conventional wisdom about whites and Latinos; he’s the columnist behind the syndicated “¡Ask a Mexican!” column, and I like him better as an alt-weekly debunker than as a food writer. Some of his turns of phrase are hilarious, as when he illustrates the breadth of a tortilla by saying that it “can serve as a swaddling cloth for puppy.” Others are baffling—Arellano refers to burritos as “cylindrical gods” so often that it took me a few reads to figure out that a late chapter title, “Is the Tortilla God’s Favored Method of Communication?,” wasn’t missing an object. But Arellano’s worst food descriptions induce both the rolling of eyes and the turning of stomachs. Here is how Arellano describes a dish from a Tulsa restaurant of two cheese enchiladas and a cheese taco topped with cheese, chili, and queso that he claims is one of the best Mexican meals in America: