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To Gustavo Arellano, Mexican food is a big melting pot

The author of 'Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America' explores the history and types of cuisine, and weaves in a larger picture of assimilation.

April 18, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Gustavo Arellano has written a history of the humble taco that's also about ethnicity, identity and the workings of capitalism.
Gustavo Arellano has written a history of the humble taco that's also… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)

It was a humble Cal-Mex combo plate that first brought enlightenment to Gustavo Arellano.

At the time, Arellano, now editor of the OC Weekly, author of the syndicated ¡Ask a Mexican! column and five-star cultural provocateur, was an Anaheim high school student. His Irish American girlfriend craved Mexican food and steered the couple to a landmark Orange County restaurant.

But when the meal arrived, Arellano was taken aback. Instead of the beloved cactus leaves, goat stew and "stinky cheese" he'd been served since childhood by his Zacatecas-immigrant parents, he was confronted with a plate of dry rice and a glop of refried beans, laced with toxic-yellow queso and smothered in a sour-cream avalanche.

"I thought to myself, 'This is Mexican food?'" Arellano recalled recently. "I was 18, so that was like my first Cal-Mex experience. And I just found it like a really interesting food. What's funny is I love Cal-Mex food now, but I really view it as an ethnic food, like a foreign food to me. It's not my Mexican food."

Which isn't to say, Arellano emphasizes, that it's not Mexican food. As he describes in salivating detail in his new book, "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America" (Scribner: 318 pp., $25), the cuisine that has migrated north across the Rio Grande and the Tijuana border is too big and complex to be neatly wrapped up in tinfoil stereotypes and reductive generalities.

Rather, Mexican American food has become a movable fiesta of hybrid tastes and bold regional experiments that have rendered terms like "authenticity" essentially useless, Arellano believes. If the "classic" Mexican recipes of Anglo cookbook authors like Diana Kennedy, and the cosmopolitan concoctions served at Rick Bayless' Red O restaurant on Melrose are rightly regarded as one strain of Mexican fare, Arellano argues, then so too should Taco Bell. Mexican food is a big, inclusive kitchen, he says; all are welcome who add something to the melting pot.

"I used to be one of those people that just destroyed Taco Bell," Arellano confesses while crunching down on crispy taquitos at the 70-year-old Cielito Lindo taco stand on Olvera Street, a sort of Lourdes for Mexican American culinary disciples.

"And I still have my problems with Taco Bell," he continues. "It's just not good food. But in doing the research for this book I realized, yeah, that's a type of Mexican food. You know, I tell people I am not a food snob. I love Doritos. All Mexicans love Doritos. You put a bunch of Tapatio [sauce] in it — oh, you're set!"

As his fans and critics (both plentiful) know, Arellano's signature dish as a journalist is a generous dollop of pop-culture erudition and political analysis, leavened with meticulous reporting and spiced with politically incorrect humor. A longtime food writer (and now blogger), he made his national reputation with ¡Ask a Mexican!, in which he supplies carefully researched, mildly ironic ripostes to both Mexican and non-Mexican readers' frequently clueless queries.

(Sample: "Why is it that when Mexicans drink they often stab or hit a brother or cousin?" Arellano: "The Mexican family and drinking is as volatile a mix as the Irish family and Jameson, but stats don't support your anecdotal evidence.... As I've written before in this column, 'alcohol' and 'logic' repel each other like 'border' and 'enforcement.'")

Alexandro José Gradilla, an assistant professor in the department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton, says that ¡Ask a Mexican!, like Arellano's other writings, challenges all Americans to look at themselves and their values through different cultural lenses.

"Gustavo's not going to be controlled on a right-left perspective," Gradilla says. ¡Ask a Mexican! is "not just exposing white racism, it's also exposing Latino ignorance about ourselves and others," Gradilla continues. "We're never seen as, 'We're the victims of white racism.' He gives you dirty laundry, warts, everything. He definitely takes on the standard identity politics."

That iconoclastic approach also flavors "Taco USA." Arellano lays out the piquant pre-Columbian origins of Mexican cooking, traces the food's stateside arrival via exiled Mexican revolutionaries and itinerant "tamale men" street vendors, and takes readers on an engaging tour of the power-broker politics behind the development of Olvera Street, L.A.'s urban movie-set of idealized mexicanidad.

Until the middle-late 19th century, many Anglo Americans still regarded Mexican food with suspicion and nativistic hostility, Arellano says. "People used to think that Mexican food was poisonous. There was this urban legend during the Mexican-American War that vultures wouldn't eat the corpses of Mexican soldiers because they contained too much pepper in them, and that they would die."

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