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.)
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.
SI: How about Tostilocos? You are quoted as discussing this snack in a recent New York Times article. [Tostilocos are tortilla chips piled with tasty condiments like shaved jicama, pickled pig skins, tamarind candies, chopped cucumbers, peanuts and lime juice. And, of course, hot sauce. The name is a mashup of “Tostitos,” the popular American corn chip and “loco.” They're thought to have originated in Tijuana about ten years ago and are now served on both sides of the border.]
GA: No one would dispute that they're not Mexican. But Tostilocos are made with Tostitos — corn chips, made by Frito-Lay, which were meant to replicate an authentic Mexican flavor, and then Mexicans went crazy with it. Who are we to say that Tostilocos are somehow less authentically Mexican than a Taco Bell taco, or some Cal-Mex cuisine made by El Torito?
SI: Tostilocos are so totally rasquache, as you write in your book. Can you explain this?
GA: Totally rasquache! I explain it as the Mexican concept of creating beauty from seeming crap. It's the same with all Mexican food — people will always modify it to their liking. It's Southern California custom culture like hot rods and low riders.
SI: What about fast food?
GA: There are different styles of Mexican food, and some are better than others. The fast food taco can't compare to Oaxacan food, but it's still Mexican.
SI: Who might disagree?
GA: There's an old journalism adage — “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” That's what I try to do. If there's bullshit out there, I write about it. I call out Rick Bayless. And Diana Kennedy. Horrible woman. She has this puritanical approach that the only authentic food is made by poor Mexicans in Mexico.
SI: More and more people are travelling to Mexico to eat; some recent Tijuana trips have been organized by Street Gourmet blogger Bill Esparza. The New Yorker and The New York Times both recently profiled Javier Plascencia of Tijuana's Misión 19. What's the attraction?
GA: It's similar to the idea of Olvera Street — to present an authentic slice of Mexico. Culinary tourism has always been part of the experience of Mexico in the United States. Americans are obsessed with this idea of authenticity. With every wave, they try to get closer to whatever the source may be.
SI: You make the point that Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and non-Mexicans all contribute to Mexican food in the U.S.
GA: It's like a stab in the heart to hear Americans obsessing over authenticity. Take Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken [of Border Grill]. They get bitch-slapped simply for owning a Mexican restaurant. Some people hate the idea that Americans like Rick Bayless have made millions on Mexican food. My response is “Okay. It's a psychic wound. But get over it.”
SI: But why is it that books about Mexican culture tend to neglect Mexican contributions?
GA:We should bring back those stories of people who've been erased from the history books. But you can't begrudge someone for making a business out of food and cooking. There's lots of money to be made off this cuisine.
SI: For example?
GA:Take a look at the biggest tortilla company in the world, Gruma, a cartel, really. They bought up all these Mexican corn and flour mills and have a monopoly. So even Mexicans do that to themselves.
SI: You make the point that Americans like Mexican food better than they like Mexicans.
GA:Mexico and the U.S. have always been prickly with each other. We fought wars, we took over their land. One reason Americans love to consume Mexican food because it's a form of demonstrating power. You don't see that approach with other cultures. America conquered the Philippines and Puerto Rico but there's never been a big fuss over Filipino or Puerto Rican cuisine.
SI: How about Peruvian food? Could it be poised to conquer America next?
GA: Peruvian food won't happen, because it's mostly seafood. And Americans have an aversion to fresh seafood and ceviche. It will never take off.
SI: We also don't hear much about other ethnic cuisines.
GA: Mongolian food was supposed to be big. Korean food is wonderful but won't catch on. Middle Eastern food has something to say because it's mostly meat and rice.
SI: When you first started at the OC Weekly you had never even set foot in a Thai restaurant. Then you began writing reviews, and eventually became food blog editor. How did you go about learning about food and food writing?
GA: Just by eating. Growing up in Southern California you are surrounded not only by Mexican food but also pizza, ramen and teriyaki bowls… You want to taste it all.
SI: What interests you about food writing?
GA: Food writing is about the story. What's the history behind the dish? What's the history of the person who makes it? What does this tell you about a particular community? There's more to food writing than just the food.
SI: You began your editor position in December, right?
GA: Getting that promotion came probably at the worst possible time. I was finishing the book, had to learn a new job, then promote the book.
SI: Any plans after this book is launched?
GA: Maybe I should just relax and be an editor!