Thursday, May 03, 2012

Mexican Food, American Promoters

As I said in my most recent post, I couldn't resist reading Gustavo Arellano's new book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. It's every bit as good as I expected. I liked the organization by food type. First, Arellano discusses the tamales that were sold by street vendors in many US cities in the 19th century.  Then chili, tacos, enchiladas, burritos, salsa, each becoming well-known, popular, and highly profitable in non-Mexican communities throughout the country. There's also a diversion into the history of a famous tortilla with the face of Jesus on it.

The most salient fact about each popularization, is that Mexican restaurant owners or food vendors or more recently food trucks have developed the foods for American taste, but in every case, it was non-Mexicans who cleaned up by amplifying sales. Taco Bell, the late (unlamented) Chi-Chi's, Chipotle, etc. were all the result of a non-Mexican amplifying what Mexicans had invented. There's really no implication of theft, just that the non-Mexicans seemed to have had the capital and know-how to scale a good idea into a national or regional restaurant chain -- and make a lot of money. Similarly, Arellano describes how most high-profile grocery products like Old El Paso tortillas and salsa, Newman's Own, Pace, Gebhardts, etc. were developed by non-Mexicans, based on the recipes and expertise of Mexican cooks and sauce makers.

Arellano also has a very interesting chapter called "How Did Americans become Experts at Writing Cookbooks on Mexican Food?" I never thought about this either. Non-Mexicans study regional cooking, become well-versed by interviewing Mexican cooks, and they write the books.

The book reminds me of Jennifer 8 Lee's book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which explores how Chinese food became so popular throughout the USA. Both authors have a fantastic grasp of the way Americans of many ethnicities think and how they form food tastes. Both present the experiences of ethnic food producers and what it means to them, not just to the consumers.

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