Gustavo Arellano writes "Ask a Mexican," a syndicated weekly Q&A about all things, and anything, Mexican. Two summers ago, I rendezvoused with The Mexican himself in Hatch, New Mexico, where we broke tortillas at the Pepper Pot. I was in town to buy green chile for the freezer. He was researching his third book, which was to be called Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
Taco USA has finally been published. It's full of history researched, rescued and retold, and flavored with fun and important stories from the present, as it chronicles the impact of Mexican food on American culture. The cuisine has seeped into surprising places, like the canned chicken tamale rations sent to American soldiers in the Philippines during World War II or the invention of Doritos at Disneyland or the breakfast burritos that were rolled at the International Space Station, by popular demand from the crew, by a Mexican-American astronaut named Danny Olivas.
In a recent phone interview for the Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque, Arellano and I spoke about Mexican food in America today and where it might be going. In a nutshell, I'd say if he were trading shares of Mexican-American he'd be buying a modest stake in Denver-Mex (or Den-Mex cuisine), holding onto his California-Mex (Cal-Mex) interest and selling his Tex-Mex for whatever he could get for it. And he'd be looking to make significant purchases in regional Mexican cuisines from south of the border states like Nuevo León, Coahuila and Chihuahua that have supplied much of what Americans know of as Mexican.
Den-Mex, he says, is a gem that's virtually unknown off the I-25 corridor. He's particularly infatuated with the Denver burrito, aka the Mexican hamburger, which, he told me on the phone, is "essentially a smothered burrito, usually with beans and chicharrónes, but with a hamburger patty inside. Right smack dab in the middle, it's all scrunched up in the middle of the burrito. And it's smothered in Denver-style chile ... It's an orange chile. And not chili con carne. This would be more like a chile from New Mexico ... It is a bizarre chile ... unlike anything you've ever seen. And it's also spicy as hell."
"Den-Mex is the cousin of New Mexico-style food, because there is that very strong connection between the people who settled southern Coloradoall those Hispanos, they all came from New Mexico. They know the cult of the [chile-] smothered burrito. They know the cult of just chile, of good fulsome chiles and being able to eat them."
Arellano's forecast for classic Tex-Mex is not so upbeat. Restaurants that serve those hot, oblong, cheese-drenched combo plates that epitomize Tex-Mex food, with their dollop of sour cream and puddle of refried beans, are no longer opening in significant numbers. While chili con carne has worked its way into heartland recipe books, it's no longer on the march. In recent years, the rise of Cal-Mex sped the decline of Tex-Mex as well, Arellano writes in Taco USA. "The burrito only reached Texas in the second part of the twentieth century."
- Photo courtesy of Gustavo Arellano
Arellano doesn't quite pronounce Tex-Mex dead, but in his book he quotes what he calls an "inglorious obituary" to Tex-Mex food that was printed in Texas Monthly. "'We will always love our yellow cheese. But as dishes from Mexico's heartland apply for permanent residency in Texas at an ever-increasing rate, we're on the threshold of a new culinary era: the time of Mex-Tex.'"
I personally would take albondigas, chiles en Nogada and natillas any day over most Tex-Mex I've known, and in his book Arellano describes it as "platters baked in an orange goop resembling a dairy product." But on the phone, his assessment of the dying guard was more glorified. "I'm a fan of Tex-Mex. A lot of people dismiss it as trash, but it's not. Tex-Mex has its own charm. Look at what food writer Robb Walsh is doing in Houston with his restaurant El Real Tex-Mex [Cafe]. He basically set that up because he himselfan apostle of Tex-Mex, a friend and a mentor of minefelt that Tex-Mex food was slowly disappearing."
Food may be the focus of Taco USA, but it's only one of the ways that Mexico has influenced America. And Arellano has his sights on all of them. Perhaps that's why, as he told me, the most disturbing stereotype about Mexicans to him is the idea that they don't assimilate into American culture and contribute to society.
"It's the Americans who refuse to believe that we can do that," he told me. "I would use my family's example. My parents came to this country 40 years ago. I'm their oldest. The first language I spoke was Spanish. The only language I spoke when I entered kindergarten was Spanish. Here I am speaking to you in English."
Arellano dedicates Taco USA "To all the Mexican workersbusboys and waitresses, line cooks and sous chefs, janitors and crop pickers, and so many morewho toil anonymously in our food industry, making American cuisine even more Mexican than we can ever realize." America, he implies, is more Mexican than we realize. Assimilation is happening at every level of society. It's history. And America is eating it up. As Taco USA notes, salsa has overtaken ketchup as America's leading condiment.
While Main Street America is getting hip to chips and salsa, elsewhere the creative forces of assimilation are experimenting, with interesting results. As Arellano told me over red and green bowls of chile, in Hatch, they're putting French fries in burritos in San Diego, green chile on the burgers in New Mexicoand of course putting their burgers inside their burritos in Denver. And they're selling panocha in Chimayo during Lent, something that even an open-minded California Mexican like himself had trouble comprehending at first.
"Panocha is a New Mexican pudding made with brown sugar and [sprouted] wheat and sold during Lent. You gotta try it, man. It's also a different name for vagina. So imagine a Mexican like myself from southern California coming here and seeing all over the place during Lent 'panocha one dollar, panocha one dollar ...' I'm like, What? Then I realize it's pudding. Good pudding, man. Oh my God is it good."