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Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered Americaby Gustavo Arellano
What’s So Cosmic About a Burrito?
Two hundred and thirteen miles up in space, the Earth below cerulean blue, the universe around them infinite and awesome, JosÉ HernÁndez and Danny Olivas wanted Mexican food.
The two had come prepared. They were astronauts on STS-128, a NASA mission that flew the Discovery space shuttle to rendezvous with the International Space Station on August 30, 2009. Discovery’s seven-member crew spent ten days at the research station, primarily to resupply the people already up there and to rotate members. Olivas—raised in El Paso, Texas—went on a space walk to repair an ammonia tank, among other tasks; HernÁndez—who picked crops in California’s Central Valley alongside family members as a child—sent his thoughts to our planet en espaÑol. “Espero la cosecha de mi sueÑo sirva como inspiracion a todos!” he enthused via Twitter. “I hope the harvest of my dream serves as inspiration to all!”
On September 8, the Discovery crew undocked from the Space Station. It was morning. It was time for breakfast burritos. The rest of the crew had earlier asked HernÁndez and Olivas if they might cook the meal, because Olivas was the NASA member who knew how to make them best. Of course. A video camera transmitted footage of the duo floating toward the galley of the middeck to open a shelf containing the ingredients needed to construct the cylindrical god in zero gravity: flour tortillas sealed in a vacuum pack, clumps of ready-to-eat scrambled eggs, and fat sausage patties.
Olivas pulled out a tortilla, letting it float in front of him while tearing open a thumb-sized salsa packet. He smeared a smiley face on the tortilla and tried to roll it up; since it wasn’t cooked, the flour flatbread bent into a U-shape but wobbled back into its outstretched natural state. HernÁndez, meanwhile, opened a pouch that contained the patty. Olivas placed the tortilla near the meat, expecting the sausage to plop down on it, as it would on terra firma. Instead, the brownish, glistening mass popped out of the bag, away from the tortilla below it, and would’ve presumably continued on an endless trajectory if the fast-thinking Olivas didn’t snatch the sausage with the tortilla. The salsa acted as a binding agent and secured the incipient Icarus.
The eggs proved more manageable. HernÁndez cut them out of a packet; Olivas used a spoon to guide each minimound onto the tortilla, then promptly chopped them up into smaller pieces, the better to smush and smear—if the tortilla might only bend. The moment of truth arrived: Olivas folded the vessel in half, wrapping one flap over the other, and rolled it tight. Success; a breakfast burrito was born, and more were on the way.
This wasn’t the first time burritos orbited Earth—Olivas had made a batch on his previous visit to the Space Station two years earlier. In fact, NASA had used tortillas for astronaut sustenance as early as 1985, when Mexican scientist Rodolfo Neri Vela requested a pack as part of his food provisions, to make tacos. The media treated Neri’s food choices at the time with bemusement, but astronauts quickly took to flour tortillas—and not just because of the flavor, redolent of flour and slightly sweet, better than most of the sterilized slop astronauts ate. Tortillas didn’t spoil easily. Astronauts could wrap one around anything and make a quick meal. They also weren’t dangerous, like bread, whose crumbs crippled air vents and sensitive equipment.
NASA took tortillas so seriously that they tinkered with the recipe—which hadn’t substantially changed in millennia save for the introduction of flour—to keep stacks fresh for up to six months. Scientists created a nitrogen-filled packet that removed almost all the oxygen present in the pouch, to prevent mold from growing. One major problem arose: astronauts discovered that six-month-old space tortillas became bitter—and no one deserves a bitter tortilla. Finally, NASA found a manufacturer who made an extended-shelf-life tortilla that lasted up to a year and retained its allure, a maker that also sold their product to fast-food titan Taco Bell. Hundreds of thousands of dollars well spent.
“I cannot think of anything that cannot be put on a tortilla, or has not been put on a tortilla,” wrote Sandra Magnus, a veteran astronaut, in a blog post while up in the International Space Station in 2008. “When a Shuttle shows up you are in tortilla heaven because they show up with tons of them and graciously donate all of the extras to the ISS crews. You really want to be swimming in tortillas your whole increment.”1
And for short missions of five to seven days? Astronauts often bring their flour tortillas fresh from a Houston tortillerÍa—a tortilla factory. No customizing, no chemicals—just unadulterated rapture. The perfect food.
“Danny is an expert in zero-g burrito making,” HernÁndez radioed to Mission Control after their burrito party. It was a mission of celebration: never had two Mexican-Americans flown up in space on the same mission, and never did burritos shine so brightly. Sure, HernÁndez and Olivas offered a service to their crewmates that hundreds of thousands of their fellow Mexican provided daily back on Earth—prepping Mexican food for Americans more than happy to gobble it up. Their feast made the news; a video soon went viral across the Internet, the astronauts’ beaming, proud smiles as they hoisted their fast food for humanity to see. So high in the heavens, up above the world, the burrito not only had become universal—it was now, finally, truly, cosmic.
Mexican food is at our state dinners, in elegant presentations. Mexican food is in our school cafeterias, packaged as chimichangas or in bags of Fritos, in convenience stores heating on rolling racks, waiting for the hands of hurried customers. Mexican food sponsors college bowl games such as the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and buys naming rights for sporting venues such as the Taco Bell Arena at Boise State in Idaho. Mexican food commercials blanket television airwaves hawking salsa and hard-shelled taco packets and high-priced tequilas and imported beers promising a day at the beach. Mexican food fills our grocery aisles, feeds underclassmen, sits in our freezers and pantries, is the focus of festivals, becomes tween trends or front-page news—and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask your kid about spaghetti tacos.
That wonderful culinary metaphor the melting pot has absorbed Mexican in this country just like so many immigrant cuisines of the past—but in a demanding way, unique from other traditions that have penetrated the American palate. While there are more Chinese restaurants than Mexican in this country, Mexican food is the easier sell—you don’t see hundreds of different soy sauce brands sold at supermarkets like you do hot sauce, or General Tso’s chicken cook-offs at your local community fair like you do with bowls of chili. While pizza is the bestselling and farthest-reaching item of Italian-American cuisine, its rise and that of pasta and subs is only relatively recent; the United States, on the other hand, has loved Mexican food for more than 125 years—bought it, sold it, made it, spread it, supplied it, cooked it, savored it, loved it.
Comida mexicana in the United States is like M. C. Escher’s Relativity, each staircase helping the climber reach a particular plateau but only to whisper promises of higher, better planes, in an endless hat dance of discovery. Americans have defined Mexican food as combo platters and enchiladas, margaritas and guacamole, tortilla chips and actual tortillas, frozen burritos and burritos made to order. Mom-and-pop shops and multinationals. Taco carts and tamale men. Taco trucks operating under cover of night and luxe-loncheras that tweet their latest specials. Beans, rice, carne asada, soyrizo. All of it absorbed by Americans, enjoyed, demanded—and all of it whetting appetites for more. And with this country’s latest Great Migration stretching brown folks beyond the American Southwest and to all fifty states, in virtually all metropolitan areas, from the prairies and flatlands of the Midwest to Maine’s rocky shores, Alaska’s tundra to the Florida Keys, we’re experiencing a renaissance of Mexican food—a perpetual foreigner perfectly at home.
We’ve had generations of Americans who scarf down tacos and burritos like previous generations forked through chicken pot pies and ate pastrami on rye. And that’s just the United States: as globalization sets in, so does Mexican food. Mexican restaurants operate across Europe, in Turkey, in Nepal and Addis Ababa. Down under, Taco Bill’s has sold Australians fish tacos for nearly twenty-five years. Sometimes it’s Mexicans who run these restaurants; many times it’s American expats. Sometimes the locals dine there, but it’s often American tourists who patronize the places, seeking a taste of home. It’s too easy to say Mexican food is an all-American food: to say as much is to ignore the tortured relationship between Mexicans and their adopted country. But Mexican food is as much of an ambassador for the United States as the hot dog, whether either country wants to admit it or not.
Let me give ustedes an example. Tom Tancredo doesn’t like Mexicans—no way, no how, no duh. The former Colorado Republican congressman and onetime presidential candidate spent most of his political career railing against a supposed invasion of the United States by Mexico—and while intelligent minds can disagree about unchecked migration to this country, Tancredo flat-out feels Mexicans are downright deficient.
In November 2010, we debated in Denver about whether Mexicans ever assimilate. I maintained that we do; Tancredo didn’t accept the possibility, yet never explained how someone like myself—who spoke only Spanish when I entered kindergarten; was the child of two Mexican immigrants, one of whom came into this country in the trunk of a Chevy; and who now favors English and Chuck Taylor All-Stars—did it. The back-and-forth squabble happened at Su Teatro, an old movie house now housing one of the most vibrant Chicano theaters in the United States. There is no need to go into the details of our discussion, except for one pertinent point: before lambasting Mexicans and our supposed refusal to join American society, Tancredo joined me for a Mexican dinner.
The restaurant was across the street from Su Teatro: El Noa Noa, a large eatery that advertises itself as the Mile High City’s “best and most authentic Mexican restaurant.” At night, Art Deco-style neon lights flash the restaurant’s name on its marquee, a reference to a legendary nightclub in Ciudad JuÁrez that was the subject of a famous Mexican song. A party on your plate. The atmosphere isn’t aggressively ethnic: no strolling mariachis or women fluttering fans and eyelids. Eaters sit; waiters bring out a plate of chips and salsa and fetch drinks. People of all nationalities come in to eat, though the clientele leans more to American than Mexican.
Tancredo and I sat down near the middle of the restaurant; Patty Calhoun, editor of Westword (the city’s alternative weekly, which carries my “¡Ask a Mexican!” column), and others joined us. We traded small talk, saving our salvos for the discussion to come—but around us, tables whispered, fingers pointed. Some people approached our table to greet Tancredo, wish him luck for the evening. Another woman offered her appreciation for my upcoming public confrontation of someone she considered a living embodiment of Satan. She wanted to make a scene, but her chile relleno supper was getting cold.
Our plates came. I drank tequila, of course; Tancredo, a dry red wine. He ordered the tamale dinner, hold the rice. Two of them, slathered (or, as more accurately stated in the Denver lexicon, “smothered”) in green chile, each as long as a palm, as thick as a copy of this book, sat before him. They shimmered with the dabs of lard needed to make a tamale moist and more than mere cornmeal and shredded pork. I stole bites of the same plate from Calhoun. Soft, spicy, filling. The pork’s sweet essence melted on my palate; the green chile piqued toward the end. These weren’t the tamales of my youth—they were smaller, but that was okay. The chile—borne from the fertile soil of southern Colorado—seared differently from the Mexican chiles I grew up on and were so flavorful, they needed no extra salsa.
Tancredo thought so as well. He polished off the plate, laughing and talking between each bite, getting fueled for a night to decry the very culture that had just fed him. More than a year later, I can only recall some of the points of our philosophical fisticuffs, but the scene I can’t get out of my head is Tancredo’s ear-to-ear, tamale-induced smile. Tom Tancredo may not like Mexicans, but he sure loves his Mexican food. Of course he does.
It’s not just Tom who holds this contradictory position. From the early days of Mexico’s birth in 1810, when our young country longingly looked west toward its newly christened southern neighbor’s vast territories, lonely and so full of potential, Mexican food has entranced Americans even while Mexicans have perplexed Americans. In the history of Mexican food in this country you’ll find the twisted, fascinating history of two peoples, Mexicans and Americans, fighting, arguing, but ultimately accepting each other, if only in the comfort of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The greatest apostles of Mexican food in this country haven’t been Mexicans but rather Americans who, having tasted from the bread of life that is a steaming taco, a pot of menudo, or a foil-wrapped burrito, sought to proclaim its gospel with every new unearthing. While we’ve long quarreled with Mexico over seemingly everything, we’ve always embraced the food, wanting to experience the “authenticity” of the other half: enjoying the meals Aztec emperors might have feasted on before meeting their fate, dining before handsome bronze-skinned waiters and pretty seÑoritas, eating like a Mexican might eat on the street, in poverty back in Mexico, in the cantina, through cookbooks, canned products, classes, trips to the motherland or the local taquerÍa—but always within the prism of America. That consumption hasn’t always been pretty: caricatures of hot tamales, Montezuma’s revenge, questionable ingredients, Frito Banditos, talking Chihuahuas, and sleeping peons litter the landscape and continue to influence American perceptions of Mexican food and of Mexicans. But even negative stereotypes and digestive concerns never stopped our collective yen for the stuff.
Mexican food’s American journey is obviously personal to me. I consider tortillas and hot sauce as essential to life as oxygen, walk through the day with a bag of Serrano peppers in my pocket, have served as a food editor for a newspaper for nearly a decade, and have always pushed my paper to treat Mexican food seriously. My fondest childhood memories usually involve smuggled cheese wheels from my parents’ ancestral villages; my mom was a tomato canner and got up early in the morning to make us a Mexican breakfast of eggs and beans, went to work, and returned in the evening with the wherewithal to make us a full meal for dinner. Mexican food is a way of life, which isn’t a surprise, of course. But that so many Americans, with no blood ties to Mexico, who might not even like the country, revere my cuisine? The reporter in me is fascinated; the Mexican in me, flabbergasted.
This book isn’t about me, though: it’s about a food that deserves documentation, examination, celebration, and to be hailed as the epic it is. While Mexican culinary culture is an unquestioned part of America’s gastronomic essence, the stories behind how we got to this point are largely unknown. The evolution of food in the United States has, until recently, been dismissed as a frivolous subject, but we’re now in an age of culinary reminiscing, when scholars and journalists alike examine cuisine as customs. The history of Mexican food in the United States has bubbled up in articles and chapters in books over the years, but never in a full volume that tracks each foodstuff, each craze, each pioneer, each controversy.
What’s so cosmic about a burrito? Everything. It says something about us that Taco Bell makes billions of dollars in sales each year, that Koreans in this country are making millions by stuffing their barbecue in tortillas and selling them from fancy food trucks—and it’s a good thing. Anyone who dismisses this reality as not indicative of something seismic in the American story is more deluded that someone who thinks refried beans are actually fried twice. It’s been conquest by a thousand tacos, a million tamales, and a hell of a lot of salsa, which surpassed ketchup as America’s top-selling condiment back in the 1990s. Through interviews and archival material, via chronological and thematic chapters, and never, ever losing focus that we are, after all, talking about food, behold the story of the best cuisine on Earth, one now set on taking over the world. The United States is on the losing side of this Mexican-American War—and boy, are we grateful.
One final point: this book is not about the history of Mexican food in Mexico. Mexican cookery is as multifaceted, if not more so, than its American cousin, with each state offering unique culinary practices slowly trickling into our country, as I mentioned earlier. But those who dismiss Taco Bell, the taco pizza, even a church enchilada booth as somehow not Mexican because Mexicans aren’t the main consumers or creators miss an imperative point. We must consider the infinite varieties of Mexican food in the United States as part of the Mexican family—not a fraud, not a lesser sibling, but an equal. As I’ve driven and flown around the country and come across a mild salsa, a mutated muchaco (a ground-beef taco served in a pita bread by the midwestern Taco Bueno chain), and other items I immediately wanted to decry, I remembered the concept of what the legendary Chicano scholar AmÉrico Paredes deemed Greater Mexico: that the influence of Mexico doesn’t cease at the Rio Grande. Wherever there is something even minutely Mexican, whether it’s people, food, language, or rituals, even centuries removed from the original mestizo source, it remains Mexican.
Even in outer space.
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