Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales: Flavors from the Griddles, Pots, and Streetside Kitchens of Mexico by Roberto Santibañez Wiley, 2012
Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano Scribner Books, 2012
Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher Oxford University Press, 2012
If one were to randomly drive the streets of central or eastern Los Angeles on most evenings, one inevitably would capture a scent that would immediately rouse one’s stomach and taste buds. The aroma would consist of meat cooking on a grill, sometimes emanating from a taco stand or burrito truck, or even from a dark corner in an empty lot where several people would be queuing to eat a meal on the fly. On weekend nights, the smell would be additionally captivating and the demand for its consumption much higher.
What would be cooking, you may ask? Mexican food. Probably beef or chicken — succulent, marinated and always tasty — and there would be lots of it and very difficult to resist. White smoke would be rising from the grill, Mexican banda music or Spanish-language radio would be playing in the background, men in vaquero hats chatting loudly. But what would also confound the out-of-town observer are the different types of people from different ethnic backgrounds arriving from other parts of the city just to partake in the scene, and, of course, the very delicious food being served.
For a brief moment, gone would be the perception that LA’s streets are unsafe, because the intensity of the aroma and the desire to sample the food being cooked would be so compelling. This is Los Angeles, and whether in the barrios of East LA, the tony neighbourhoods of West LA, downtown, mid-city, the valley, or Hollywood, the setting would be similar. Here, and in other parts of the US, Mexican food is a part of American culture, deeply embedded and almost more American than Mexican itself.
For years, a common misperception was that predominantly Mexican or Central Americans stood in lines waiting for food to be cooked by perfect strangers on city street corners or in food trucks in the middle of the night. Not so. Often the meal of choice not only in Los Angeles but throughout the US, Mexican food is now found on menus everywhere across the country and indeed the world. A search on the internet for others who have expropriated the taco and moulded it to their liking will produce the Norwegian taco, the Seoul taco, and even the Kung Fu taco. The fact is that we are in the midst of a Mexican-American food obsession that has led to tortilla-wrapped meals being a staple across the world.
A spate of recently published books highlights this rising — and probably permanent — trend that is Mexican-American cooking.
Roberto Santibañez, a food critic, author, and chef of Mexican descent recently published the highly acclaimed Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales, a cookbook certainly worth devouring. In learning the art of preparing Mexican cuisine, as is indicated in this marvellous cookbook, one understands why the appeal is so strong. Santibañez, a proprietor of very popular restaurants in New York City, focuses on modern-day Mexican “street” food. His focus is not on America’s streets but on what Mexicans today are preparing in Mexico — from the source itself. What better way to learn than from the food’s origins?
The book does not disappoint. It covers an array of recipes that include the big three items (tacos, tamales, and sandwiches, or tortas as they are called in Mexico), but also salsas and condiments (think tomatoes, lemons and hot spices), in addition to desserts and beverages (so much more than just margaritas!).
Santibañez is a master in preparing this art and he attributes his enthusiasm to his years observing his own culture and, as he calls it, the “food paradise” that is Mexico City and other cities across the country. The book includes well-written anecdotal introductions to every chapter in addition to mouth-watering photographs that compel one to try many of the recipes, all of which seem manageable and even fun. Very little is obscure and most ingredients are found throughout the world, further emphasising the simplicities of Mexican cuisine, as well as the spiciness, intensity and even sweetness in some of the guidelines he offers. Because Santibañez focuses on modern day — one could say pedestrian — Mexican cuisine, it is a stark reminder to anyone why Americans (and many across the world) find this food so alluring. The food is always perceived as fresh, unpretentious and simply very tasty.
In Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, journalist Gustavo Arellano argues that what is considered today to be Mexican food is more an American concoction. The book is full of an assortment of interesting trivia: from the influence of chocolate on Mexican fare to how Doritos came to exist to the role of the always dangerous tequila in all of this.
Like most things American, Mexican food today has been dabbled and experimented with so much — in addition to being franchised and promoted in the old fashioned American way, with an infusion of intense marketing and expansion — that it is multifaceted, and, some would argue, almost too Americanised. Arellano does not argue that any of it ceases to be Mexican in nature per se, but that it is unique because it has been tampered with as much as it has. He consistently reminds us, however, that the key ingredient and most important quality of the food is that it is indeed of Mexican descent — his reason for it being in such high demand across the globe.
Arellano takes his readers through a journey that is never controversial, despite a few stark realities: that tacos were popular in the US before the influx of Mexican immigration in the latter half of the 20th century; that franchising Mexican food only works in the US, and not in Mexico, no matter how hard US businesses try; and, most predominantly throughout the book, that what is usually called Mexican food in the US is rarely ever authentic. While one surely cannot ignore the influence and ubiquity of salsas of various types; the preparation of so many condiments, fruits, and vegetables; and certainly the tortilla-based cuisine in various shapes and styles, Arellano reminds us that these are more recent versions of the food found only outside Mexico.
The fact is, as Arellano demonstrates, Americans seem to have more of an obsession with the food than probably Mexicans themselves. Americans authoring Mexican cookbooks? The arrival of Tex-Mex food? Salsa outselling and outproducing the all-American staple known as ketchup? How is all this possible? Arellano examines these questions with solid details and shows his readers how Taco Bell (100 per cent American) epitomises the issue. In all, Arellano captures his readers’ attention by emphasising why Mexican-American food will survive. His vignettes are charming (Mexican-American NASA astronauts dreaming of Mexican food while in space?) and his examples are amusing and captivating. As Arellano shows, the food is everywhere and it is loved by most:
“Mexican food is at our state dinners, in elegant presentations and in our school cafeterias, packaged as chimichangas or in bags of Fritos, in convenience stores heating on rolling racks, waiting for the hands of hurried customers. Mexican food sponsors college football games and buys naming rights for sporting venues. Mexican food commercials blanket television airwaves ... fills our grocery aisles, sits in our freezers and pantries, is the focus of festivals ... and yet while there are more Chinese restaurants than Mexican in America, Mexican food is the easier sell.”
The fact is it has been around longer than General Tso’s chicken or the American pizza and arguably even the world-famous hamburger. It is not authentic, but even Arellano thinks that is OK; it is still Mexican.
Jeffrey Pilcher contributes to the argument with a stellar study of the history of Mexican food. The University of Minnesota cultural historian relies on countless oral histories and archival documents and newspaper accounts to relay to his readers the evolution of a part of American culture. In Planet Taco: A Global History, Pilcher also tackles the question of authenticity, the universal reach and influence of Mexican food, and what Mexicans in different geographic regions of Mexico eat. He shows us that cultural differences within Mexico point to different styles and methods of preparation for Mexicans themselves: that there is no nationalised or uniform way to prepare food. Indigenous background, geography, modernity, level of education, and class all influence what Mexicans choose to eat.
With a historian’s touch, Pilcher provides very important background information that both students of history and the average layperson will appreciate. His discussion includes the history of corn crops, the influence of pre-Hispanic origins, the impact of chocolate and the chile (among other vegetables), as well as the Creole and French (yes, French) imprint on Mexican food today.
Pilcher also dives into how the taco specifically became world renowned. He explores the fast-food nature of Mexican-American food and how that is perceived within Mexico. He also manages to capture the essence of the demand of this very special food within America’s borders. The narrative is lively and convincing, and he manages to include even a few recipes and inspiring photographs that encapsulate the history of something special within US borders.
Pilcher’s book is balanced and a sound read. His ability to tell a good story while showcasing some of the problems with “Yankee ingenuity transforming Mexican culture” within the US raises both an appreciation for the consumption and understanding of Mexican fare, but also of the nature of globalisation and the long arm of American business. Still, Pilcher shows how and why Mexican cuisine has become globalised on its own and why this matters.
All three authors — Santibañez, Arellano, and Pilcher — show their readers exactly why Mexican food remains the hot item on menus everywhere. But most importantly, they demonstrate how Mexican culture is deeply embedded into mainstream American culture. Whether or not Americans recognise this and appreciate it is another story.