Recommended Reading: Taco USA

Author Gustavo Arellano with his new book, Taco USA.

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America
by Gustavo Arellano (Scribner, April 2012)

In Taco USA, the Mexican-American journalist Gustavo Arellano explores how Mexican fare—from chile con carne to frozen margaritas—has entered the U.S. mainstream. Arellano notes that, time and again, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs from north of the border have tasted immigrant fare, tweaked (or radically altered) its recipes to suit American palates, and figured out how to mass-produce it. This pattern has held true from the canned chili and tamales of the late 1800s to the hard-shell taco that Taco Bell popularized in the second half of the twentieth century.

Arellano is the editor of the southern California alternative newspaper OC Weekly, author of the syndicated column “!Ask a Mexican!,” and a lecturer in Chicano/a Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Taco USA is thoughtfully researched and full of cultural and culinary history, yet written in an informal, humorous, even conversational tone. It’s a smart read, but it goes down as easy as queso dip.

The book is organized more by cuisine and specific food than by chronology. It covers not only the gabacho-fication (gabacho is used far more than gringo among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans) of stalwarts like hot tamales and steak fajitas, but also explores the Mexican origins of vanilla and chocolate. The latter two flavors, Arellano explains, essentially left their original, indigenous-Mexican producers in the dust (along with their innate complexity of taste) as they rose to global prominence over the past few centuries.

The author also steps back from time to time for a broader look at trends in Mexican-American culinary syncretization. He writes about the Nouveau Southwestern Cuisine craze of the 1980s, the nebulous, hybrid behemoth that is Tex-Mex, and the national domination of the Mission-style burrito via chains like Chipotle.

Though Arellano laments the lack of credit that Mexican immigrants have received for their contributions to the national palate, he’s not a purist. Rather, he decries what he sees as the snobbery of fundamentalist gabacho-Mexican chefs such as the American Rick Bayless and the British expatriate Diana Kennedy. And Arellano is frank about his love for hybridized Mexican food, from LA’s trendy Korean burritos to bacon-wrapped, Sonoran-style hotdogs from a working-class neighborhood in Tucson.

Throughout the book, Arellano is more curious about the underlying narratives of Mexican-American food as he is about how the dishes taste, or what the “authentic” versions are supposed to be. Ultimately, his criteria for a great Mexican meal is also an apt description of the book itself: “Perfection doesn’t exist, but a great story paired with a satisfying lunch? An eater’s dream.”

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We are excited that Gustavo Arellano will be joining us at our annual symposium in October to talk about Mexican influences in barbecue on this side of the border. We’ll be sure to post a podcast of this talk and many others, so stay tuned.