Q & A with Gustavo Arellano: Taco USA, Mexican Authenticity + Food Writing

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Mon, Apr 9, 2012 at 5:39 PM

click to enlarge Gustavo Arellano, with oranges - G. ARELLANO
  • G. Arellano
  • Gustavo Arellano, with oranges
You might suspect Gustavo Arellano, the brain and wit behind the popular syndicated and OC Weekly column ¡Ask a Mexican!, as one of those Mexican food sticklers who bristles at ideas of yellow nacho cheese, the chimichonga, the chicken fajita pita, enchilada combination plates and Taco Bell's 50th anniversary festivities. Yes, Arellano admits to having once been fanatical about authenticity. But he's reformed.

Years of writing about food, restaurants and Mexican-American issues have broadened Arellano's perspective. He has explained that the epithet "greaser" as leveled against

Mexican-Americans refers to the high fat content of many Mexican

dishes -- pinto beans fried in lard, for example. In turn, Mexicans refer to Anglo-Americans as bolillos (French rolls) and mayonesa (mayonnaise).

"Greaser" certainly doesn't describe Arellano, but it's not a stretch to apply the label to Taquería Zamora, a Santa Ana hole-in-the-wall renowned for giant platters of cheap comida, accompanied by complimentary refried beans topped with salty cotija cheese. Arellano has chosen this taste of Mexico in a strip mall to chat with Squid Ink about his new book (scheduled for release tomorrow), entitled Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. He's clearly a regular. A customer on lunch break whispers to her companion, "There's the Mexican."

This is Arellano's home turf, just a few miles from the Costa Mesa offices of the OC Weekly, where Arellano became editor-in-chief in December.

In 2007, Arellano published a collection of columns as a book; it became a national bestseller and was later translated into Spanish. He followed it in 2010 with Orange County: A Personal History, memoir mixed with history and political commentary. Taco USA combines the topics of Mexican culture and United States history with a new one: food.

Arellano writes in a conversational style with a peppering of Spanish words. The book sets out "to make ustedes hungry," he says. He also wants us to understand and appreciate Mexican food. The chapter titles pose ¡Ask A Mexican! style, provocative questions on topics ranging from the rise of salsa as the top condiment in the United States to the image of Jesus on a tortilla. Sometimes, Arellano expresses his own opinions. Sometimes he brings in evidence -- court reports, historical detail and anecdotes. He tells the story of those who've boosted Mexican food popularity -- Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken and Guelaguetza's Lopez family among them. The book concludes with the Kogi truck phenomenon of Korean tacos. To Arellano, the Kogi truck story perfectly expresses our infatuation with Mexican food. (For more on Arellano about tacos, read his essay in the food pages of the most recent issue of the Weekly -- "Our Tacos Ourselves".)

At Taquería Zamora, a server offers a menu, but Arellano waves him away. He's set on the chilaquiles, the ideal remedy for last night's drinking splurge, he says. Within minutes our lunch is served. Okay, the plates are plastic -- but they could just as well be Limoges china to complement the earthy yet delicate complexity of the masa, chiles and queso fresco.

For several long moments, neither of us speaks. The food is too damn good. Keep reading -- and catch Arellano presenting his book Tuesday at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes at 7 p.m. (And check out his other signings listed here.)

click to enlarge the book is being released April 10 - GUSTAVO ARELLANO/SCRIBNER
  • Gustavo Arellano/Scribner
  • the book is being released April 10
Squid Ink: Spill the beans. Why is Mexican food so dearly loved in the United States?

Gustavo Arellano: Mexican cuisine, like Chinese and Italian, is completely American yet still foreign. And we're so close to Mexico -- sharing a nearly 2000 mile border.

SI: Do you think Mexican food will continue to gain in popularity?

GA: For over 125 years Americans have loved Mexican food -- and never tire of it because it's always evolving. Early on, there were canned tamales. What's next? Hard shelled tacos. After that? Combination plates. And frozen margaritas. It's always "What's next?" When we move on to a new dish we tend to keep its predecessor and sometimes modify it. But it gets modified. So we still drink frozen margaritas, but now people want gourmet cocktails, and mescal and micheladas. In the past 10 or fifteen years there's been growing interest in learning the stories behind the food.

SI: Why did you decide to write a book on the topic?

GA: Because the history of Mexican food in the Unites States is a gaping hole. I assumed it had already been done, because there are so many Mexican cookbooks. But once I started doing research, I realized this is a very unknown history.

SI: Have there been similar books about the history of Mexican food in the U.S.?

GA: A couple. One about the history of Mexican food in Mexico, called Que vivan los tamales! [subtitle: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity] by Mexican food scholar Jeffrey Pilcher. Another book is Recipe of Memory by Victor Valle, which combines memoir, cookbook and history of Mexican food in California. Then there are the books by Robb Walsh who is the Tex-Mex expert.

SI: Were you surprised by what you learned?

GA: I was blown away by finding all these hidden back-stories. Like the tamale vendors who originated in San Francisco over a hundred years ago and traveled across the United States.

SI: How unknown were the stories?

GA: If you do a cursory internet search for Mexican food history in the United States, you'll find very little, and most of it is lies. That's my shtick. Digging up these long lost stories and bringing them to a larger audience.

SI: Speaking of history books: The topic seems so huge. How did you do the research?

GA: It took two years. Microfilm became my best friend and libraries became like home. Newspapers are fountains of knowledge -- not just the stories but also ads, photographs and political cartoons. I went to university libraries locally and whenever I traveled. Once I did my research, I figured out how to bring history into the present day. Are the founders of a company or an old restaurant still around? I tried to tell as many stories as possible, especially the ones that I thought had the most far-reaching implications.

SI: Were you able to fit it all in?

GA: There's still a lot that didn't make it into the book.

SI: Like what?

GA: I wanted to do a final chapter on how Mexican food has spread across the globe, but just did not have time. [Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey Pilcher, due for a September release, also sets out to define "authentic Mexican food."]

SI: What else was excluded?

GA: I had wanted to include a chapter about the Mexican food work force, but then I thought it wouldn't mesh well. So I dedicated my book to the workers. [The dedication reads, "To all the Mexican workers- busboys and waitresses, line cooks and sous chefs, janitors and crop pickers, and so many more -- who toil anonymously in our food industry, making American cuisine even more Mexican than we can ever imagine. "]

SI: You decided against using a linear structure. Instead, the book strings together a series of vignettes. Can you explain your strategy?

GA: History isn't as simple as a timeline or chronology. I believe in thematic history. The history of Mexican food in this country can best be understood by viewing its trends -- for example, the southwestern food movement, the tamale men, the spread of Mexican cookbooks and the profusion of Mexican products in supermarkets.

SI: A lot of material?

GA: At one point I had so much research in front of me, I froze. I was like Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now. I thought, 'What the hell to do with all this research?'

SI: You don't believe that Mexican food can be defined as authentic or not-authentic. Can you explain?

GA: There is no such thing as authenticity! Rice came from the Spaniards. So did beef and cheese. Beer came from the Germans. Only corn is truly authentic.What really matters is whether the food is influenced by Mexico -- whether it has the Mexican essence -- mexicanidad. That's what defines Mexican food.

SI: Can you give an example of a Mexican food some would consider phony?

GA: Denver has some of the weirdest Mexican food in the country. Take the hamburger patty inside a burrito smothered in orange chili. Or the chile relleno wrapped in a wonton. When I first went to Denver, I said, 'This isn't Mexican food!' But over the years I've realized it is an authentic Mexican food tradition. Who are we to tell a fifth-generation San Antonio family that their puffy taco is less authentic than a hot dog from Sonora or Tijuana.

SI: How do Mexicans in Mexico view this issue?

GA: Mexicans in the interior complain that Mexican food in the United States is not authentic. Within Mexico they play the same games! In Zacatecas we would never eat chapulines [grasshoppers]. That's disgusting! But that's what Oaxacans eat. We don't eat pambazos [a type of sandwich common in Mexico City]. Mexican food has different variants.

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