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Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America [Hardcover]

by Gustavo Arellano
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“In this entertaining nod to culinary and cultural histories, journalist Arellano traces the roots of Mexican food in the U.S. and explores the cuisine’s many offshoots, underscoring why salsa is now our #1 condiment… Arellano makes the point, one that’s particularly relevant in today’s heated immigration debate, that as much as some Americans may protest Mexican immigrants, they’re in love with Mexican food.” —Publishers Weekly

“An appealing cultural exploration of Mexican food in the United States…. Readers will come away not only hungry, but with a deeper understanding of the Mexican people and their cuisine.”—Kirkus

“In a chatty, lighthearted style and with mordant wit, Arellano traces the steady northward creep of Mexican cooking from Texas and the Southwest into the heart of Yankee territory­.”—Booklist

“[Arellano] manages to squeeze in mentions of just about every Mexican restaurant (including, believe it or not, both Taco Cabana and the dining room of the Austin Hyatt), product line, and preparation in the country. If you’ve ever wondered about the roots of Taco Bell or why fajitas are called that or who invented the frozen-margarita machine, you’ll find answers here.”—Slate Magazine

“Gustavo Arellano…is perhaps the greatest (and only) living scholar of Mexican-American fast food.” (The New York Times)

“An informative,entertaining glimpse into the story of how Mexican food entered Americanpopular culture.” (The Wall Street Journal)

About the Author

Gustavo Arellano’s ¡Ask a Mexican! column has a circulation of more than two million in thirty-eight markets (and counting). He has received the President's Award from the Los Angeles Press Club, an Impact Award from the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and a 2008 Latino Spirit Award from the California State legislature. Arellano has appeared on the Today show, Nightline, NPR's Talk of the Nation, and The Colbert Report. For more information, visit AskAMexican.net.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Introduction

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 defic...
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