A couple weeks ago I RSVP’ed to attend a book talk and signing to coincide with the release of Gustavo Arellano’s new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America at UCLA. I was looking forward to it as I enjoyed Gustavo’s two previous books (Ask A Mexican and Orange County: A Personal History) and couldn’t wait to read the results of his research on the popularity of Mexican food across the US. I follow him on Twitter and Facebook and he’d been dropping hints about his research and trips on both and in articles on the OC Weekly. Plus, is there any topic better than Mexican food and drink?
Anyway, I also like Gustavo. He’s a funny, entertaining and opinionated writer covering topics a lot of other journalists ignore. I’m also a fan because we share similar roots. Our mothers were both born in El Cargadero, a pueblito outside of Jerez, Zacatecas. His more autobiographical books felt like I was reading my own familiy’s history.
I never went to the book signing. That afternoon, my Dodger loyalty trumped my Cargaderense roots and pride. Who says Mexican immigrants and their children don’t acculturate or assimilate? Sorry, Gustavo. I ditched your reading but I did buy and read Taco USA. I went the e-book route since I didn’t want to wait for it to ship and didn’t feel like making a trip to the bookstore.
Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America Review
Taco USA is a must read and worth the money you would have spent on dinner at your favorite Mexican restaurant or a couple of meals from your favorite taco truck. I read slowly, wanting to savor — sorry for the pun — the descriptions of a lot of new-to-me takes on Mexican food outside of Southern California. I was also disgusted by some of the many culinary crimes committed in the name of making Mexican food palatable to white Americans’ taste (see: canned tortillas… guácala!).
Back to the book, the first two thirds are a chronological history of Mexican food in the US. Gustavo recounts the heyday of chili queens in Santa Fe and tamale men from San Francisco to Chicago at the turn of the century. Even back then, ambulantes (street vendors) were a big part of the Mexican food culture, or what passed as Mexican food. I had no clue why cartoon characters crowed about “hot tamaleeees!” Now I know. Other things I learned: the taco (hard, fried style not the ones above) didn’t become popular nationwide until the 1950s-60s; why non-Mexicans are the most popular Mexican food writers and chefs; the origin of nachos; and why chicken, shrimp or veggie fajitas is a misnomer.
My favorite chapters were about the burrito and Mexican food cooked by and for Mexican people. I attribute that to my LA and California bias. Gustavo begins the chapter on the burrito by describing the Manuel’s Special giant burrito at El Tepeyac Café in Boyle Heights (East LA, for the LA outsiders).
I have a particular affinity for El Tepeyac even though a lot of people don’t think the food is all that great. My grandparents, Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni used to live right around the corner from El Tepeyac. Literally. During parties, we used to peek over the wall into the El Tepeyac parking lot. My parents met when they were part of the youth group at Assumption Church, which is across the street from El Tepeyac. It’s where they got married. My siblings and I were baptized there and several other aunts and uncles married there. My roots run deep.
I started the burrito chapter, “What took the burrito so long to become popular”, with warm fuzzies. And then Gustavo went on to the Mission style burritos in San Francisco (my favorite burritos) and how they inspired chains like Chipotle. I’ve had two Chipotle burritos, both bought by someone else. I don’t get the hype. He also answered a baffling question about the origin of San Diego -berto suffixed chain restaurants. My favorite is the Adalberto’s by my tío Beto’s house in Chula Vista. Their carne asada nachos are amazing.
Gustavo’s chapter on the rise of Mexican food made by and for Mexicans made me hungry and sad that my favorite Mexican restaurant on the westside shut down a couple years ago. I was introduced to Oaxacan food in the late ‘90s by friends and quickly grew to love their moles, enchiladas and chilaquiles. I didn’t know at the time that Oaxacan restaurants were still relatively new in LA. The westside outpost of La Guelaguetza closed down recently. It bummed me out. That was my go-to spot for taking friends from out-of-town for Mexican food they couldn’t get elsewhere. Sadly, I never tried the chapulines (grasshoppers).
The latter third of Taco USA focuses on Mexican food products and drinks in US stores. This was less interesting to me, except when Gustavo discussed the history of brands like salsa El Tapatio. I was used to seeing it on the table at home, but was surprised when I started to see it as a condiment in restaurants or as a flavor for Doritos. I also got confused by all the entrepreneurs making money off Americans’ tastes for tortillas, salsa, tequila and more.
My only criticism is that Gustavo doesn’t discuss one popular critique or fear of Mexican food: it’s unhealthy and fattening. He does discuss the xenophobic fears, e.g., Mexican food is dirty, too spicy, or it’s going to cause some unfortunate digestive issues. This one got to me when I was losing weight and would read “Going out for Mexican, help!” on the Weight Watchers message boards as if Mexican food needed to be feared. Yes, I know, there are a lot of popular Mexican dishes that are fried and/or very cheesy. I love some of those, but it’s just one type of Mexican food. I lost a bunch of weight without ever giving up my beloved tortillas, (both corn and flour, not the cardboard like whole wheat kind either), tortas and tamales.
A life without tortillas would just be sad. I think Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Brown Buffalo, said it best:
What value is a life without booze and Mexican food?
Gustavo is currently on a media and book tour. Check out his schedule here. For more on the book, you can find a short interview with Arellano on LA Bloga and an excerpt in the LA Weekly. He also was on NPR this week discussing the rise of tacos and the origin of Taco Bell.
Edited: The NYT reviewed Taco USA in the Dining & Wine section this week. It’s a great review and gives you more of an overview of the book and about Gustavo’s career as a food critic and expert on all things Mexican American. If you haven’t exceeded your 10 pages/month limit, go read it.