Frontier Psychiatrist

Run for the Border: A Review of Gustavo Arellano, Taco USA

Posted on: July 16, 2012

Gustavo Arellano, Taco USA, Mexico, Mexcian food
Gustavo Arellano, Taco USA

One of my favorite places to eat as a kid was a Mexican family restaurant off the Saw Mill River Parkway, 35 miles north of Manhattan. Since then, I’ve eaten Mexican food across the country: tacos in Brooklyn, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Denver, mission-style burritos in San Francisco, enchiladas at the 24-hour San Antonio landmark Mi Tierra, and nearly everything on the menu at Tacos El Pueblito in Nebraska City, where local cuisine also includes fried gizzards and runzas (American empanadas that taste more like Hot Pockets).  I also try my best to cook Mexican-style food and have picked up a few tricks: steeping red onions in red wine vinegar, marinating fish in lime and cilantro, slow-cooking pork for carnitas, and after slicing jalapeño or habanero peppers, not touching my eyes or my private parts.

I’m hardly the only gringo with these tastes. A new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America reveals that salsa has displaced ketchup as the America’s top selling condiment, nachos are the third largest concession food after popcorn and soda, and the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of tequila. And in case anyone thinks the taco truck is a hipster invention, in 1901 a L.A. police chief called the popular tamale wagons “a refuge for drunks who seeks the streets when the saloons are closed for the night.”

Taco USA tracks the tremendous popularity of Mexican cuisine and its spin-offs, including Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, and West-Mex, which feature a bastardized version of Tater Tots. Author Gustavo Arellano (who writes the syndicated weekly column ¡Ask a Mexican!) offers a lively and entertaining gastronomical and historical tour, equal parts research, reportage, and riffs. While it certainly whets the reader’s appetite, Taco USA also aims at history buffs, and anyone intrigued by the paradoxical, parasitic, and symbiotic relationship between America and Mexico. Beneath its celebration of food, the book critiques culinary capitalism in a tale tinged with irony and prejudice.

Taco USA is a story of conquest and reconquest, invention and reinvention. Arellano begins with the Spanish conquistadors, who subjugated Mexico’s indigenous people and adopted their foods, including maize, vanilla, and chocolate. (As he sarcastically notes later in the book: “Mayans never ate burritos”) From there, he moves to the “tamale kings” and “enchilada queens” who popularized Mexican street food in the late 19th and early 20th century, then to the gringos who  accelerated the boom of “Mexican” food in America. Inspired by the success of McDonald’s, chains like Taco Bell, Chi-Chis, El Torito, and Taco John’s caught on with the masses, paving the way for today’s Qdoba, Chipotle (both born in Denver), and Mexican menu items at countless American restaurants. Later, gringo defenders of “authentic” Mexican food such as Diana Kennedy, Susan Feniger, and Rick Bayless made Mexican alto cocino via their restaurants, cookbooks, TV shows, and gastro-tourism. In the 80’s and 90’s Mexican food was reborn again as Southwestern Cuisine, a fad that blazed for 15 years then faded. And throughout the century Mexicans-Americans and gringos alike helped instill now-familiar flavors into the American culinary consciousness.

Foodies will appreciate Arellano’s passionate paeans to his Five Greatest Mexican Meals in the U.S., which can be found at El Rancho Grande (Tulsa), El Guero Canelo (Tuscon), Alebrije’s Grill (Santa Ana), Chico’s Tacos (El Paso), and Grandma’s The Original Chubby’s in Denver. He’s equally passionate about the food he hates, particularly a well-known cross-border fusion:

Tex. Mex. Tex-Mex. A hyphen separates two cultures that faced off in blood, but are forever linked around the world. Each exists on its own, each is fine separate from the other, but together the phrase now conjures up something almost universal: culinary disgust. Platters baked in an orange goop resembling a dairy product. Oily. Gas-inducing. As early as the 1930s, Mexican chroniclers lambasted the cuisine as inauthentic, a gabacho conspiracy created to dilute Americans’ perceptions of Americans perception of American cuisine.

Clearly, more than taste is at stake. In Taco USA, food is a symbol of a historic and ongoing culture clash between Mexico and the United States, a theme of  Arellano’s weekly columns, which include Should We Deport Illegal-Immigrant Gang Members Back to Mexico?, Should We Create a Marshall Plan for Mexico? and Can President Barack Obama Be Blamed for Mexico’s Woes?

The book also hints at larger tension between Mexico and the U.S. In June, President Obama signaled a shift in immigration policy, catering to an increasingly large and increasingly influential Latino population. Oliver Stone’s new thriller Savages  and a recent New York Times Magazine article about  how Sinaloa, a Mexican cocaine cartel makes its billions both speak to the “drug war” that plagues both countries. The lead image in Love, Money, and Other People’s Children, a July 13 photo essay in the  Times Magazine,  is Luz, a nanny from Mexico. Americans may love Mexican food, but the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico remains complex and divisive.

Back in high school, three of my friends had a short-lived band called The Tacos. Their only song was “Tacos from Hell.” I forget the verses, but the chorus went like this: “We ain’t no burritos/Nachos or fajitas/All we are is some meat in a shell/Prepare to eat a taco from hell.” Immaturity aside, the song confirms Arellano’s main point: Mexican food and “Mexican” food are now as quintessentially American as  teenagers who start rock bands. And no matter what the song says, tacos are clearly from heaven.

Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed two new novels: The Listeners by Leni Zumas and Flea Circus by Mandy Keifetz. His last food-based article was a review of Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. He loves tacos.


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2 Responses to "Run for the Border: A Review of Gustavo Arellano, Taco USA"

[…] Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include: Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano, a dual review of The Listeners by Leni Zumas and Flea Circus by Mandy Keifetz, and The Secret of […]

[…] That Ate the Whale, Rajesh Parameswaran’s I Am An Executioner, and Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA. He likes to gamble, but not in […]

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