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The United States of Tacos
It's Americans, not Mexicans, who are responsible for the rise of margaritas and moles north of the border.
If you want to know how misguided Tyler Cowen’s arguments are in explaining the popularity of Mexican cuisine in the United States, consider a word that he never uses in his essay: immigration (“The Cookbook Theory of Economics,” July/August 2013). Talking about the rise of margaritas and moles in the United States without mentioning the immigrants who brought these marvels to el Norte is like ordering a taco without the tortilla.
I agree with Cowen that the modern-day ubiquity of Mexican food is helped by large-scale production, whether through fast-food giants like Taco Bell or through the salsa industry, whose annual sales have famously topped those of ketchup. But Cowen ties this triumph to economic development in Mexico. As I explain in my book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Americans, not Mexicans, are the most enthusiastic acolytes of Mexican food, and it was Americans, including Mexican-Americans, who pioneered the innovations that allowed Mexican food to become the global cuisine it is today. In fact, Mexico rails against the commodification and appropriation of its culinary heritage. If it were up to Mexicans, their cuisine wouldn’t be a worldwide phenomenon but rather something as ossified as the Tanzanian cookery whose rareness Cowen laments. Chefs and food writers like Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy feel the same way and base their cookbooks on this stuck-in-the-amber Mexico, so using cookbooks as a litmus test of a cuisine’s reach doesn’t speak to its influence once it leaves its native land.
Thankfully, the American appetite doesn’t hew to such backward thinking. The ceaseless waves of Mexicans to the United States over the past century have kept Americans intrigued with the cuisine by introducing new items with such regularity that Mexican food is like a seven-layer bean dip, with the most assimilated items on the bottom and newer trends on top — each of them authentically Mexican, each of them eagerly gobbled up by Americans. Everything we now take for granted, from guacamole to chili, tamales to Corona beer, was once considered exotic, even foreign, until immigrants introduced it to los Estados Unidos. Witness the relatively recent success of burritos, a staple of northern Mexican cuisine that has been in the United States since the 1950s but that became popular only after the rise of Chipotle in the 1990s. It is Americans who decide whether these newer meals will become commodified, and it will be American companies, run by gabachos and Mexicans alike, that will be the beneficiaries of this decision, not Mexico.
Finally, Cowen has the state of Mexican food in the United States all wrong. He says Americans mostly get “northern Mexican food,” yet the only foodstuffs from northern Mexico that ever penetrated the United States were burritos, flour tortillas, fajitas, and nachos — important contributions, yes, but they pale in comparison with what central and southern Mexico gifted the United States: enchiladas, tequila, carnitas, mescal, and so much more. And the ubiquitous taco, that most iconic of Mexican meals? It only entered mainstream American cuisine after the Mexican Revolution, brought forth from central Mexico by — sí, señor — immigrants.
Editor, OC Weekly
Costa Mesa, Calif.
Tyler Cowen replies:
Gustavo Arellano mostly gets my argument wrong and then piles a series of misunderstandings on top. No one doubts the role of immigrants in transmitting Mexican (and other) cuisines to the United States and around the globe; that is merely stating the obvious, so I chose to focus on other factors. But there are many immigrants to the United States who have not transmitted their cuisine with equal facility, one obvious example being Filipinos. That is the difference we need to account for.
In addition, Arellano thinks I am mostly talking about Taco Bell and the like in my article, when my discussion explicitly takes a very different tack. The relevant commodification of Mexican food here is the economic development that occurred in Mexico (largely throughout the 20th century in squares, public markets, and restaurants) that was a prerequisite for carrying the cuisine forward to other locales — exactly my thesis. There are plenty of dishes from Mexican villages that have not yet been commodified — in Mexico — and have had no real chance to cross into the United States.
Oddly, Arellano portrays Mexicans in Mexico as “ossified” and Americans as the dynamic commodifiers, a gross injustice to both Mexican culinary creativity and the relative successes of the Mexican economy in much of the 20th century. Among other misunderstandings, burritos were popular in the United States well before Chipotle, which, by the way, had little of its growth in the 1990s.