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Book Review: Jeffrey Pilcher, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food

[ 152 ] March 24, 2013 |

Jeffrey Pilcher, the noted historian of food in Mexico, has a new book placing Mexican food in a global context. When thinking of a nation’s food, particularly one as laden with importance and history within the United States as Mexican food, the term that inevitably comes up is “authenticity.” What does this even mean? Is anything truly authentic? That’s an overarching point in a book with too many points to discuss in a relatively brief review. Let me just list a few.

1. What is Mexico? It’s worth thinking about this question. Mexico is a constructed nation-state that even today does not really incorporate all the people who live within its borders. Given the size of the nation’s indigenous population, a lot of the nation’s residents have little invested in the nation-state. Various peoples, particularly in the Yucatan, reject the sheer idea of being Mexican. Moreover, half the nation is now part of the United States and those peoples have their own cuisines that have changed over time. Is Mexico also its migrants in the United States, in Portland and Providence and Queens, as well as San Antonio and Los Angeles?

2. What is Mexican food? Pilcher places Mexican food within a 500-year trend of globalization. Most famously, the corn, chocolate, and chile that make up key elements of Mexican food traveled to Europe while pork, beef, and chicken all came from Europe to Mexico. But that’s hardly the end of the global Mexican story. For instance, tacos al pastor, a fundamental food of Mexico and now the taco culture in the U.S., go all the way to ye olden days of the 1950s and 1960s when Middle Eastern immigrants took pork cooked shwarma style and put it on a corn tortilla, maybe with a slice of pineapple. There’s also the large Chinese immigrant population that brought their own ideas to Mexican food. A related question is whether the Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex food of the United States is truly Mexican? Or for that matter, Taco Bell? Of course in a sense it all is. Given that the United States stole half of Mexico in a naked attempt by the Polk Administration to expand slavery, we shouldn’t think about Mexican food without bringing in the indigenous cuisines of New Mexico, California, and Texas, as well as their hybrid and fusion descendants.

A related but key point is that as Mexican food has slowly spread to other parts of the world, it is seen globally as American food. Much of its original spread was to serve American soldiers near military bases abroad. Its association with American culture for much of the world, not to mention a very real ignorance about Mexico, reinforces these ideas. In most of the world, Mexican food means getting very drunk on tequila American tourist-style. American hippies helped establish a more legitimate Mexican food experience in parts of Europe, but that just reinforced its deep Americanness in the minds of Europeans. The reasons for are pretty obvious–because Mexicans migrate to the United States instead of Europe, there was never an ethnic community established in Europe that would make Mexican food part of the European foodscape.

3. The connection between race, class, and food within the Mexican food tradition is fascinating and multifaceted. The Spanish brought a food hierarchy with them in 1519 based upon the supposed superiority of their own culture. Wine, olive oil, and wheat good. Corn and chile bad. This makes sense on one level since any immigrant group wants the food they grew up with. But because of the conquest and its long aftermath, the idea that Mexican food was somehow lesser than European food was replicated within Mexican society. Elite Mexicans, particularly during the European-looking Porifirato, looked toward remaking their society with European modernism, which meant food as much as it meant creating Haussmann-esque urbanism in Mexico City.

Perhaps more unexpected is how these distinctions became integrated into American culture as well. Why exactly do we think that French food is somehow elite high-class food and Mexican food is best consumed out of a taco truck? What is intrinsically better about French food? I’d argue nothing; I prefer Mexican food to French food. When Mexican food was brought into the highest end of American restaurants, such at the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, it was cooked in a French style. In one 2002 cookbook Pilcher cites by 3 major chefs of American food, suggestions included “blue corn with rabbit, foie gras and pineapple mole, and elote with black truffles.” Nothing wrong with fusion food, but this is also making Mexican food a legitimate food on the international scene by drowning it in French styles and techniques. This is why Rick Bayless is so refreshing. There’s just a lot more respect for what Mexican food is and its potential without pretending it is something it is not.

4. When thinking about “authenticity,” a concept that is always pretty hard to defend in principle, although gray areas exist, it’s worth noting that Mexican food was not created whole cloth in 1675 or something and then remained in place for Americans to discover it. Rather, it was a series of food traditions that often, for one reason or another, became a “national cuisine.” Tacos are a Mexico City invention that didn’t much spread out of that region until after the Mexican Revolution; when they did, they took on the regional innovations that define them today. Perhaps the most controversial food within the Mexican food world is the burrito, often not eaten in much of Mexico. But burritos do go back to at least the 19th century in northern Mexico and became part of California Mexican because they were popular along the modern US-Mexico border. What is truly Anglo about them is the determination that they must be in wheat tortillas, when the available evidence suggests they were eaten with both wheat and corn tortillas. Oaxaca’s moles became standardized with the rise of restaurants that wanted to create dinner specials for different nights of the week and thus took dishes from various villages and made them “Oaxacan.” And sometimes the modernization of food technology and distribution could create nostalgia that then created its own food looking backward to lost times, such as the carne asada that came out of Sonora when processed foods began infiltrating the regional diet.

I could certainly go on. But you get the point. First, it’s a really interesting book. Second, it brings up a lot of valuable points in thinking about not only Mexican food, but how we think about food more broadly.

Comments (152)

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  1. Jo says:

    Excellent review. I’ll get the book. It’s a hell of a thing to read before breakfast, though, with the taco truck not arriving till 6 pm. Mmmm al pastor! Torta Cubana!

  2. c u n d gulag says:

    Whatever it is, Taco Bell ain’t Mexican food.
    More like a chemistry experiment using food-like substances, gone bad.

    Going to Taco Bell, and saying you just had great Mexican food, is the same thing as if you went to a Mickey D’s, and told me you just had a great burger – then you don’t know what a great burger really is, or great Mexican food, either, do you?

    But I do know that I LOOOOOOVES me some “Mexican” food – whatever it is, or wherever it’s from.
    Just not Taco Bell.
    T’ain’t Mexican. T’ain’t food, neither.

    PS: I still can’t get over the fact that the great Rick Bayless is the brother of that useless festering postule on the anus of sports “journalism,” Skip.
    OY!

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Here’s the thing though–those weird Doritos tacos? They are actually pretty similar to street food you find in Mexico. Taco Bell isn’t great food by any means. But it’s not as distant from food in Mexico as one would think.

      • c u n d gulag says:

        Sadly, I’ve never been to Mexico, though I always wanted to.
        In particular, I’d love to see the ancient ruins. And, after exploring, sit down to a great Mexican meal, have a few tequila’s, neat, with some cerveza’s as a chaser.

        Btw: Some of the best Mexican food I ever had, was off a food-truck in Carrboro, NC.
        Man, their stuff was AMAZING!
        I used to drive a couple of miles from Chapel Hill on Saturdays, just to stand in line for their food.

      • Grigori, Trained Octopus says:

        Yes, there’s something here in central Mexico they call “Dorilocos,” which are Doritos covered in things like cueritos (pickled pig skin), japoneses (chile-covered peanuts), lettuce, and salsa picante. Mexicans absolutely do love to do wacky (and sometimes delicious) things with processed American junk food. I’ll take a Mexican-style hot dog over the American variety any day.

        That said, Erik, have you spent any time reading up on the flame wars between Rick Bayless and Gustavo Arellano and Bill Esparza? I liked Bayless’ PBS show a lot, and he seems to be a decent guy who has definitely brought a lot of attention to “real” Mexican cuisine–despite the constant food elitism of the celeb-chef-ocracy. However, he’s also apparently a guy who thinks he can be the only real savior and propagator of things Mexican, which has brought him into conflict with the burgeoning community of Mexican chefs in places like southern California. Anyway, it’s worth reading, if you get a chance.

        Thanks for the review!

        • timb says:

          He STILL has a show

        • Erik Loomis says:

          I read Arellano fairly frequently but I hadn’t heard this. However, given the sizable ego of the average good chef, nevermind that of a celebrity chef, and then on top that the very well-known ego of Bayless’ own brother, and it’s hardly surprising he would be that way.

        • Jo says:

          Oh, and of course now one can get tapatio flavored Doritos, although I suppose tapatio is really an LA thing…

          • TBP says:

            OK…in Mexico “tapatio” is slang for anyone or anything from Guadalajara (no idea of the etymology/origins of the term). I don’t know what it means in terms of Doritos.

            • It refers to a brand of Mexican Hot Sauce(salsa picante) as the flavoring in the chips.

              I have seen it available at many fine Mexican restaurants here in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

              The stuff is hotter than Sriracha sauce. That’s bloody hot, in my book.

              Tapitio

              Tapatío is a hot sauce, produced in Vernon, California, that can be found at many grocery stores in the United States. It rates 3,000 on the scale of Scoville units.[1]

              “Tapatío” is the name given to people from Guadalajara, Jalisco: the company’s founders come from Guadalajara. It is exported to Mexico, Canada, Central America and a few countries in Europe.

              The ingredients, as listed on the product label, are: water, red peppers, salt, spices, garlic, acetic acid, xanthan gum and sodium benzoate as a preservative. Tapatío comes in four sizes: 5, 10, and 32 fl oz., and 1 gallon (148, 296, 946 ml and 3.785 liters), as well as in 7 gram packets.

              The product slogan is “Es una salsa … Muy salsa” (roughly, “It’s a very saucy sauce!”)

              In 2011, Frito Lay released a line of Tapatío flavored Doritos,[2] Ruffles,[3] and Fritos[4] in the United States.[5]

              • TBP says:

                Gotcha. Thanks, I hadn’t seen that brand, what with 800 new hot sauce brands hitting the shelves each month (mostly a good thing, but I just can’t keep up). I’ll look for it.

        • gabacho says:

          Bayless started out by saying he was bringing authentic Mexican food to LA and it was all downhill from there.

          Arellano’s “Taco USA” which covers how what is commonly thought of Mexican food was either invented in the US or resulted from a traditional dish mutating once it crossed the boarder is a fun read. The book is much more a history of the dishes rather than Pilcher’s broad cultural examination. The Mexican definitely believes Taco Bell and Tex-Mex are authentic types of Mexican food.

    • UserGoogol says:

      All foods are chemistry experiments. To divide food into “real food” and mere “fake food” is kneejerk traditionalism, and to attack food for being bad chemistry experiments instead of just not being very good is bigotry.

  3. RobNYNY1957 says:

    One other thing that might be worth mentioning is that when cuisines move abroad, they tend to become fixed as “rich people food” or “poor people food.” (I don’t mean anything pejorative about either term. Poor people food is food that is associated by ordinary families with daily life and and can be prepared by a family member. Rich people food is food that is associated by ordinary families with special events and/or preparation by a professional cook from outside the family.)

    Chinese food in America is mostly banquet food, very far removed from what ordinary traditional Chinese would eat except at weddings. In America, South Italian food (red sauce and pasta) is poor people food, while North Italian cuisine (veal cutlets and shellfish) is rich people food. Even when the foods are the same become fixed differently: The Jewish versions of chopped liver and eggy bread (challah) are poor people food, but the French versions are called terrine and brioche, and they are transformed into rich people food.

    Mexican food has largely become fixed as cheap, informal food. You would stop off for a taco after a baseball game, but not after the opera.

    Things change over time and space, of course. In my family as recently as 50 years ago, freshly baked bread was poor people food, with my grandmother making four loaves a day, year in and year out. Now it’s rich people food, with exactly the same bread my grandmother made being available only artisinal bakeries, prepared by highly trained and experienced professional bakers.

    • Hanspeter says:

      The cow/beef, pig/pork, chicken/poultry etymologies are all old english/old french splits most likely arising from the Norman invasion. So all the animals kept the Old English names, but the meat became Old French.

    • Decrease Marher says:

      Grits vs. polenta.

    • kerFuFFler says:

      There is high end Mexican food. But a lot of what has been popularized up north is the casual fare. Tacos are largely unacceptable post-opera dining because they are eaten without cutlery like corn on the cob or barbecued ribs—–also not appropriate choices for formal dining.

      That said, most Mexicans are poor and most of their cuisine is peasant fare. I suspect that it originally gained popularity because the authentic stuff was very fresh and tasty—–tortillas with a shelf life of one day are so much better than the ones peddled up here that “last” for six weeks. Fresh avocados, fresh tomatoes, lime juice, fresh peppers, onions……people on vacation tasted the freshness and noticed how good fresh food was. But now, here and in Mexico prepackaged, boxed, canned, and bottled foodstuffs are mostly what is found and good old-fashioned Mexican food is a rarity.

      I make my own at home with real ingredients but I have found no substitute for the fresh tortillas. The masa harina up here makes horrible tortillas. Back in the day, Mexicans would form long lines to buy the fresh masa made from fresh ingredients that had never been dried up and ground into a flour. I have not been back in a long time and worry that Market Forces are making the time honored cooking traditions obsolete. I hope I’m wrong!

    • KadeKo says:

      My add-in: Big pieces of meat v. small pieces.

      When it comes to poultry that means re-remembering that everything wasn’t “born” being made with a filet of chicken breast. I mean, to look at the ordinary American restraurant menu, one would think science has grown a chicken with just two parts: Breast meat and wings.

      (But that’s cool, cos it means more thighs for me to cook at home.)

      • RobNYNY1957 says:

        And chicken thighs used to be almost as gamy and dark as duck breast. Not as fatty, but it needed slow cooking. Today’s thighs can be sauteed.

        • Rhino says:

          The decline of the chicken is in many ways the worst of all the North American food catastrophes. This was brought home to me on my first trip to Thailand, where the chickens run essentially wild, and taste incredible.

    • Murc says:

      In America, South Italian food (red sauce and pasta) is poor people food,

      … right.

      Because you never see high-end celebrity chefs dedicating literally years of their lives to perfecting their pasta in red sauce dishes, or writing entire cookbooks dedicated to just that dish. It’s totally poor people food.

      Speaking as someone of south italian ancestry, you are just wrong about this.

      • Djur says:

        Just because there’s upscale versions of red sauce dishes doesn’t mean “red sauce Italian” doesn’t have certain connotations of class and quality. And dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, etc. are red-sauce dishes that have become working-class staples (and signifiers).

        • Murc says:

          I’m with you on pizza, but if pasta with red sauce is a working-class signifier that’s completely alien to my entire life experience.

          I mean, I am just one person, so that’s a tiny data point. But I grew up rich, and still associate with plenty of relatives and friends who are very well-heeled, and not a single one of them are anything but delighted (in most cases wildly enthusiastic) to entertain in their homes with a pasta dish.

          Granted, it probably wouldn’t be spaghetti-os, but still. They’re delighted to server pasta in a red sauce at formal and semi-formal events in a way they would never, ever serve, say, hot dogs.

          • SEK says:

            Spaghetti and meatballs is certainly a “poor” dish, and an American one to boot, created by the National Pasta Association in the ’20s to encourage people to eat more pasta. Spaghetti bolognese is, of course, a British invention having nothing to do with Bologna. The favored sauce in Italy is a ragù, and that’s typically meat and sauteed vegetables, only rarely with a red sauce. Point being, red sauce went overseas and came back to Italy different, but it didn’t start in Italy. The tomato itself didn’t even make it to Italy until the 1800s, long after regional styles of cooking had been established.

            I apologize, but I’m a food history dork.

            • SEK says:

              Where did all the other links go? Damn it, I don’t want to dig them all back up, but go to Google books and search for what I talk about and you can find them. Grumble grumble grumble…

            • Murc says:

              Spaghetti and meatballs is certainly a “poor” dish, and an American one to boot,

              I don’t dispute this, but “spaghetti and meatballs” is a much narrower definition than “pasta with red sauce.”

              You would not, for example, say “beef is a working-class food and signifier.” You would say “hamburgers are a working-class food and signifier.”

            • RobNYNY1957 says:

              Seriously, invented in Britain? There are so many variants in Italy that Italians don’t need to look to the UK for their food traditions. Of the 20 or so major variants in Italy, how many were invented in Britain, and when?

              • Murc says:

                Uh, the historical consensus is that spaghetti bolognese was indeed invented in Britain, dude, or at leats outside of Italy. The fact that there are a ton of major variants within Italy itself doesn’t change that.

            • Rhino says:

              Sauce bolognese, along with the far more ancient ragu, are both solidly Italian. To say that bolognese is somehow ‘fake’ because Italians have been making it for fewer centuries than some other dish is to beg the question.

              The question being ‘just how meaningless can we make the question of authenticity’.

              The truth is that every single migration, every single trading venture, probably every single contact of any kind between any culture has resulted in the exchange of culinary ideas and ingredients. Purity and authenticity are concepts almost invariably derided by chefs (except those few, Bayless being an excellent example, who are more like preservationists who happen to own whisks)… Chefs know that there is no purity. That the modern restaurant is a melange of French organization, Italian and Asian technique, the labour and expertise of the underclass, the finance of the aristocracy and the recipes and ingredients of the entire planet.

              The only question, really, is the level of impurity and bastardization. The question might be interesting in an academic sense but has nothing to do with the food.

              Or, maybe I’m just a cranky (ex) chef who is weary of hearing people proclaim the glories of some ‘authentic’ food that’s actually a (tasty) slop that mutated a dozen times before it left the village, and a good thing too.

      • Anonymous says:

        What ends up in high-end restaurants is not a good guide to whether or not something is (or was) poor people food. For example, most traditional French haute cuisine recipes started out as poor people food. As a cheesy example, coq au vin was a peasant recipe for making old tough rooster meat edible. People created good food out of the scraps because they had too, they didn’t have access to the good cuts of meat. And high end chefs have (to a greater and lesser degree depending on time and place) embraced those poor people recipes because they take more skill. Anybody can boil a lobster or grill a filet mignon. But a tripe cassoulet that people rave about, that takes skill.

        • Yeah, that’s the part that always trips me up when about talking about “peasant food,” because so much of what was once considered peasant food is considered rather posh nowadays. Coq Au Vin is the perfect example, and I was gonna mention cassoulets too til I saw you beat me to it.

          I think Chicken Cacciatore might be a good example, too.

          • Rhino says:

            A lot of ‘peasant’ food is simply extremely labour intensive, and was made possible only because the womenfolk were at home caring for children, which meant they could keep one eye on the rug monsters and one eye on the tripe simmering in the apple brandy. It’s tripe because the local count appropriated all the actual meat, and apple brandy because there is an apple tree out front.

            This, of course, is the origin of one of the greatest dishes in the history of fine dining.

      • RobNYNY1957 says:

        Thanks so much for explaining my family heritage to me. I spoke Sicilian dialect with my Italian grandmother while I was “helping,” and later helping, her in the kitchen. Your insights into my life will be a treasure forever. Parli Italiano? Parlavo il dialetto siciliano nella cucina mia nonna, ed adesso parlo fiorentino.

        Yes, there are celebrity chefs who have raised the tradition of poor South Italian food to celebrity status, but it was not that way when my grandmother was born in 1896. Tomato sauce was made by Italian housewives and cooks in corner cafes. I doubt if my celebrity chefs could make it better than mia nonna did and probably not while nursing two babies and changing diapers on three.

        And it’s still poor people food. Yeah, Mario Batali sells tomato sauce, but Chef Boy-Ar-Dee sells a lot more.

        • Murc says:

          I’m not sure how your family heritage is more legitimate than mine or vice-versa, and I’ve freely admitted that I’m just one data point, so I’m not sure what your problem is. You appear to actually still speak your mother tongue, which puts you up on both my father and myself, so good on you, but you have no more or less claim to a sicilian heritage than I do, I don’t think.

          Yes, there are celebrity chefs who have raised the tradition of poor South Italian food to celebrity status, but it was not that way when my grandmother was born in 1896.

          I am not sure what the cultural signifiers of poor South Italian food in 1896 have to do with what they are today.

          I doubt if my celebrity chefs could make it better than mia nonna did and probably not while nursing two babies and changing diapers on three.

          … so? What does the relative quality of the sauces in question here have to do with the price of tea in China? Your grandmothers sauce recipe is probably pretty amazing. Guess what, so is mine. I would wager a lot of money you’d have trouble finding any Sicilian who would publicly admit to the inferiority of his grandmothers pasta sauce recipe.

          And it’s still poor people food. Yeah, Mario Batali sells tomato sauce, but Chef Boy-Ar-Dee sells a lot more.

          Except that by definition, the fact that guys like Batali are pimping it makes it no longer JUST poor people food, nor does having a dish of pasta with red sauce on your table equate, any longer, to a working-class environment.

          In fact, I’d argue it’s just the opposite. You bring someone a bowl of spaghetti-os, they’re gonna think about the same thing as if you’d brought them a bowl of Kraft mac and cheese. But a bowl of high-quality rigatoni swimming in high-quality, hand-made red sauce is something that can be and is served at formal events for the well-heeled with no embarrassment whatsoever.

  4. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Most Ghanaian food today is a result of the Colombian exchange. Today I had kenkey for lunch which is fermented maize and except for the sour part is remarkably similar to a tamale with no stuffing. They serve it here with a source made from ground fresh red chilies and tomatoes. The corn, the peppers, and tomatoes are all indigenous to Mexico.

  5. John says:

    Must we accept the idea that the American Southwest, a lot of land which, in 1846, was largely (fairly sparsely) inhabited by Native Americans with no interest in or attachment to the Mexican state, was “Mexican”?

    Obviously, some parts of Texas and the Mexican Cession, particularly New Mexico, had a long-standing connection with Mexico. But most of it was really little more Mexican than it was American.

    I don’t want to say that Polk’s land grab was justified, but it seems really problematic to treat the area as “half of Mexico” which was stolen from it. It seems a bit like investigating the Russian heritage of Alaska, or the French heritage of Pittsburgh or St. Louis.

    Although of course there have always been Mexican communities in the region, the presence of large numbers of Mexicans in the Southwest is largely a result of later immigration from Mexico proper.

    I’d also add that we think of French food as high class food because the French were basically the first people (in the west at least) to figure out how to cook properly (in the 17th century, more or less). French food thus became the model for upper class eating everywhere, particularly in England, which had pretty much the worst national cuisine of any country in Europe.

    So, in the English-speaking world, French food became the exemplar of high quality food, in contrast to the shittiness of traditional English cooking. As a result, high class restaurants served French food, and France became the world center for people who wanted to be high class chefs.

    I don’t know that anyone, at this point, really thinks French food is “better” than Mexican food. The point is that the whole art of high-end cooking is deeply enmeshed with the French national cuisine. So when you try to bring those techniques into contact with non-French cuisines, you’re going to get some sort of fusion. Without the French content, you’ll mostly just end up with a faithful recreation of various local street or peasant foods, which can be great, but isn’t necessarily what high-end chefs are trained to do. Which isn’t to say that you have to have tacos with foie gras and truffles – that seems a bit over the top.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      It’s a fair question to ask whether what is today Utah or Nevada or most of Colorado was “Mexican” since it was entirely populated by indigenous people who had no interest in anything called Mexico.

      But there’s also no question that the U.S. taking that land was a very explicit attempt by the Polk Administration and Democratic Party to expand the U.S. slave lands with no respect granted for internationally accepted boundaries. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was theft at the point of a gun, pure and simple.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        Yes, but theft from who? The Conquistadors who first claimed it? The Mexican padrones who controlled the Mexican government in that era? The inhabitants who wanted some other form of government?

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Theft from Mexico. The Mexicans in New Mexico, California, and Texas would confirm this. They wanted to be part of Mexico. They did not want to be part of the United States. Indigenous people had no desire to be part of either country.

          • Ariel says:

            What’s your opinion on what to do with the land now? Do you think it should be given back to Mexico perhaps with some sort of referendum? Or is there no realistic scenario in which this takes place due to US strength?

            I guess this could also apply to most of the US and not just the land taken from Mexico?

          • John says:

            There were certainly Anglos in Texas and California who wanted to be part of the United States. And Anglos in Utah who wanted to be part of neither country.

            While the seizure was certainly morally dubious, I don’t see why we should assign any particular moral weight to Mexico’s claims to most of the region.

            • kalakaua says:

              So the desires of illegal immigrants should carry the same moral weight as that of the citizens of a sovereign nation. Funny how that only seems to apply when the illegals are Anglos.

          • Bruce Vail says:

            I shouldn’t be so literal.

            Mexico’s claim to the lands was by inheritance from the Spanish crown. US’ claim was by conquest. Neither seems very impressive from the perspective of 2013.

            • John says:

              Indeed. Worth noting the US also has a claim by purchase, in that it bought out Mexico’s claims in Guadalupe Hidalgo, and then paid a bunch more for the Gadsden Purchase.

              More broadly, I don’t see why the corrupt and incompetent Mexican government’s claim to a vast and sparsely inhabited territory in the Southwest has any real moral weight. The US claim has very little moral weight, either, but let’s not valorize the Mexican regime of 1846.

              • Grigori, Trained Octopus says:

                Right, the “corrupt and incompetent Mexican government” is to blame for US rapaciousness. It’s not like this just reproduces the same racist argument for uninhibited yankee expansion that the Polk administration used, or anything. Thanks for letting the United States’ entire existence off the hook, though. I

                • More broadly, I don’t see why the corrupt and incompetent Mexican government’s claim to a vast and sparsely inhabited territory in the Southwest has any real moral weight. The US claim has very little moral weight, either

                  Right, the “corrupt and incompetent Mexican government” is to blame for US rapaciousness.

                  ???

              • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

                This isn’t ‘Nam, Smokey, there are rules.

                • Grigori, Trained Octopus says:

                  Ok, since nation states have dubious moral claims to territory and people, conquest is always justified, correct? Also interesting to note that Mexico didn’t have “any real moral claim” to its northern reaches, and the United States had “very little” (which I read to mean more than none at all). As Erik noted, the moral weight here does lie with Mexico, because of the identities of the people who were scooped up by US expansionism, despoiled of their land, and made into second-class citizens.

      • John says:

        I wasn’t defending Guadalupe Hidalgo in any respect. But I don’t see how there’s much of a case for any inherent Mexican moral right to the Southwest, either.

      • timb says:

        So was the Treaty of Paris. Most war-ending treaties impose concessions on the losers of the war.

        Doesn’t mean the war was moral (it was not), but it wasn’t that much different from what Polk did to get Oregon and Washington, which was bluff combined with saber rattling.

        Should Oregon be considered part of England?

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Only if there were English people actually living there who did not want to be part of the United States, who were robbed off their land through a concerted effort of lawyers, political hacks, and corrupt appointees (talking Santa Fe Ring here), and then had the Supreme Court (same Court as the Plessy ruling) decide that it would not enforce the treaty that guaranteed them their rights. Then those English would have to be treated as second-class citizens for a century.

    • Rob says:

      And much of that land is still sparsely inhabited and yet its American?

      • John says:

        There were apparently about 300,000 inhabitants of the Mexican Cession in 1848, of whom 2/3 were Indians with no attachment to Mexico (or so a Wikipedia talk page informs me – it’s hard to find good numbers online). There are now about 52 million inhabitants of the states roughly making up the Mexican Cession (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada). I don’t think the case is really at all comparable.

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      Any Italian, or Italian-American, worth their fleur du sel will tell you that there was no ‘French’ cuisine until Catherine de Medici brought Tuscan food and Tuscan chefs with her to France upon her marriage to the future Henri II.

      • RobNYNY1957 says:

        Certainly, CdM’s cooks were a big influence, but I have electronic copies of some French cookbooks from the late midieval era that show a certain sophistication of cooking as well as the concept of the professional cook) existed earlier. It would be interesting to compare them to Norther Italian cookbooks of the same era, but I don’t know of any.

      • John says:

        Sure, Renaissance Italy preceded France as the center of European culture in most respects. But by the 17th century it was France that was the dominant model, and in respect to food that’s never really changed.

    • Jesse Milnes says:

      I’d also add that we think of French food as high class food because the French were basically the first people (in the west at least) to figure out how to cook properly

      Without the French content, you’ll mostly just end up with a faithful recreation of various local street or peasant foods, which can be great, but isn’t necessarily what high-end chefs are trained to do.

      You should take a step back and realize that there are “high quality” foods that have nothing to do with French-style cooking. Mexican food is a great example of this. And it would be a mistake to assume that authentic mexican food is always street food or peasant food.

      Fusing French techniques, ingredients and principles with Mexican cooking puts the food in a context that Europeans and Anglo-Americans (and probably lots of other people) recognize as high class, and thus high quality, but it does not make the cooking objectively better. (although it may be excellent food in it’s own right!)

      • Jesse Milnes says:

        by the way, I’m not sure if we have any actual disagreement here, or if I’m arguing with a misunderstanding of what you meant. It’s just that the phrase “the first people to learn how to cook properly” makes it sound like you think it is the way to cook properly.

  6. William Burns says:

    In America, I think the superior prestige of French food is also connected to the fact that there was never large-scale immigration from France to the US. Other European cusines, like German and Italian food, are associated with working-class districts and the cheap cafes found therein. French food came in at the top and stayed there.

    • Anonymous says:

      Of course, France has equivalents to pub grub and home cooking (grand-mere), but for the reasons you point out pretty much the only common example that has reached here is steak frites.

      And Irish food in the USA, for contrary reasons, has never made it far beyond the neighborhood pub.

      • John says:

        There’s never been fancy Irish cuisine, because the ruling classes of Ireland were, until the 20th century, basically English. Anything that’s identifiably “Irish” food would be peasant food.

        I’m also not completely sure there’s ever really been fancy English cuisine, for that matter – when upper class English people in the 18th-19th centuries wanted good food, they’d eat French food.

        • RobNYNY1957 says:

          I don’t know if there was ever the equivalent to haute cuisine in England (except when provided by imported French chefs), but I have several Victorian cookbooks that assume the presence in the house of a professional cook (or very accomplished housewife) has access to a broad array of fresh ingredients (including herbs and spices), and who expects most savory dishes to be served with a crust, sauce, or particularized garnish, and on an everyday basis. Definitely not my Irish grandmother’s cooking, which was basically chunks of boiled meats with potatoes and a seasonal vegetable (not because we were demanding sophisticates, but because it was the only kind of vegetable we had).

          • William Burns says:

            The idea of English food being lousy is mostly a product of the Industrial Revolution–Hogarth’s The Roast Beef of Old England reflects a common eighteenth-century attitude of English food being plain but good (not that most English people were eating roast beef, but most French people weren’t eating haute cusine either.)

            • stickler says:

              Wish I could remember the name of the author or the book title, but I read a history of cuisine in the 90s wherein the (British) author claimed that the slower pace of French industrialization permitted the connection to fresh meat and produce for the working classes to continue. Whereas in Britain, the rupture between the proletariat and the food of the countryside was nearly total and took only a couple generations, thus wiping out cultural memory of fresh ingredients.

              One effect of this was that the “disposable” bits of the animal remained high-class delicacies in France, whereas they decomposed too rapidly to make it to the British urban table. So Englishmen lost any taste they might have had for them, whereas the French remained attuned to the exotic, expensive, and perishable. I think the author had some numbers relating to what parts of the animal French and British children were willing to eat – not surprisingly, British kids would pretty much only eat steaks, while French kids thought sweetbreads were cool.

      • And Irish food in the USA, for contrary reasons, has never made it far beyond the neighborhood pub.

        Neither have the Irish. A-ooo!

    • Origami Isopod says:

      Not the same thing as immigration directly from France, but there are the Québecois who emigrated to New England. Poutine and tourtières aren’t considered haute cuisine, at least not yet.

  7. R. Porrofatto says:

    Sounds fascinating. It’s always interesting how one culture’s peasant food can sometimes evolve another’s special delicacy. In peasant cultures, even in France, offal dishes derived from economic need to avoid waste* but are now haute cuisine, and there are many French dishes, e.g. cassoulet, which are strictly peasant in origin. Economics can also explain why peasant food is almost invariably spicier than tonier cuisines — think Szechuan vs. Cantonese — a way to make cheap (or even spoiled) cuts of meat and fish palatable. In many ways that took much more ingenuity.

    *Sometimes the economics are reversed: My significant other’s relatives are from the French part of Nova Scotia, where lobsters were once so plentiful they were considered low class food mainly for workers and servants, and tuna was derided as “horse mackeral.”

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m not all that familiar with the French food of Canada (couple of experiences with poutine and street food in Quebec) but my general impression is that French food in Canada comes from the peasant/pub grub tradition, while French food in the USA comes from the banquet food tradition. A few centuries later, and the distinctions are still rather clear.

      • John says:

        Canada, I’d imagine has both peasant/pub grub French (or Quebecois) food and fancy/banquet French food. Because even in places where you have lower class French people, gourmet French food was still the upper class food of choice.

      • TBP says:

        In my experience, the restaurants in Quebec City are more peasant in their origins, with lots of game dishes (although game is now more luxurious in most cases than domesticated meat, this is a relatively recent thing), and many dishes that extend meat with starches like beans or pastry (meat pies of various sorts are very big there). The restaurants in Montreal are more haute cuisine oriented. Don’t take this as authoritative, but it’s certainly what I have observed.

    • I’m from PEI, and the attitudes towards lobster that you described were quite common on PEI, too, and definitely not only among Anglos.

    • TBP says:

      An old friend of mine grew up on Long Island in the 50s-60s and told me that he remembered saying things like “What, lobster again? Can’t we have pot roast?”

  8. Yes, a lot of Chinese home-style cooking can be summarized as meat, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, onions and rice wine(although a dry white wine works just as well).

    • RobNYNY1957 says:

      And there are lots and lots of things in Chinese grocery stores that I have never seen on a menu in a Chinese restaurant. I’m not just talking about malt sugar or palm sugar that would be buried deep in a sauce without a mention in the menu, but things that would presumably show up in the name of the dish, like dried seafood whose names I don’t know, unusual large vegetables, etc. Chinese friend tells me that a lot of those things are available in restaurants, and Chinese people order them, but the restaurant does not bother putting them on the English menu because they are barely translatable and no westerner would order them anyway.

      • One example that comes to mind of what you’re talking about is Lohan’s(Buddhist Monk, not Lindsay) Delight or Buddha’s Delight, they derive from a vegetarian dish that Chinese monks would eat, although the ginger and garlic, being aromatic, weren’t in the original recipe because they were though to stimulate the passions.

        http://punchfork.com/recipe/Buddhist-Vegetarian-Dish-iVillage

        Ingredients
        categorized
        original

        Produce
        Bamboo shoots, canned (4 ounces)
        Chinese mushrooms, medium dried (12)
        Ginkgo nuts, canned (3 ounces)
        Hair seaweed (1/2 ounce)

        Condiments
        Soy sauce, thin (3 tablespoons)

        Cooking & Baking
        Peanut or corn oil (3 2/3 tablespoons)
        Salt (1/2 teaspoon)
        Sesame oil (2 teaspoons)
        Sugar (1 teaspoons)

        Drinks
        Water (2 cups)

        Beer, Wine & Liquor
        Shaohsing wine or medium-dry sherry (2 teaspoons)

        Other
        1/3 ounce (8 grams) cloud ears, reconstituted
        20 pieces deep-fried gluten (Wheat Gluten)
        1/2 ounce golden needles, reconstituted
        2 thickish slices fresh ginger root, peeled, for curing hair seaweed

        You’re correct, ginko nuts rarely appears on a menu as an ingredient.

      • slightly_peeved says:

        some of those ingredients might be for use in Vietnamese or other south Asian cooking. Palm sugar’s a pretty common ingredient in some of those countries.

        • Yes, even though Filipino food isn’t considered South Asian cuisine, the recipe I noted above for Chinese home cooking could have peppercorns added and palm sap vinegar used instead of wine, and it would just as applicable.

  9. TBP says:

    I lived in Mexico City for a couple of years in the early 80s. One of my favorite places was a little taco joint, owned by a Japanese man married to Mexican woman. They were doing fusion long before it was trendy. I still remember fondly the “tacos de yakitori.” They also had a gingery teriyaki burger with avocado and a touch of salsa cruda. Very nice with a Negra Modelo or Negra León.

  10. kerFuFFler says:

    Another cross cultural influence on traditional Mexican food was the influx of spices like coriander and cumin from India. After getting over the disappointment opon not finding an efficient trading route to India for spices by crossing the Atlantic, the Spaniards realized that because of the climate and soil, many of the plants that grew so well in India would flourish in central America as well. The mango is another Mexican staple that came from India. India in return added peppers to their cuisine, and the world is a better place for these wonderful exchanges!

  11. QB says:

    “Middle Eastern immigrants took pork cooked shwarma style and put it on a corn tortilla…”

    Who were these pork-eating middle eastern immigrants exactly?

    • Murc says:

      The Middle East still has a non-trivial number of non-muslims living there, dude. In the past the proportion was, I believe, higher than it is now. There are christian communities in Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon with roots in the area that go back over 1500 years. And that’s just off the top of my head.

    • Grigori, Trained Octopus says:

      Al Pastor in its immigrant form was probably made with beef, though the Lebanese Christian connection may also be very real. The “Arabic” memory of this dish is also still preserved by “tacos arabes” joints all over Mexico City, which are still often pork, but made without the characteristic achiote marinade and served on “pan arabe” (pita) instead of corn tortillas.

      • Jo says:

        Let’s not forget Yucatecan food, which has Mexican versions of other classic Lebanese dishes, such as Kibi. If you can’t make it to Merida on short notice you can get it at Chichen Itza in Los Angeles. The number of Arab restaurants, which by now are no longer Arab but something which hath suffered a sea change into something rich and strange, is astounding.

        • Jo says:

          Of course I mean the number of Arab restaurants in the Yucatan, duh.

        • TBP says:

          Love Yucatán food. Another great cross-cultural dish is the queso relleno: wheels or balls of Gouda or Edam hollowed out and stuffed with spicy mincemeat, then baked until the cheese softens. Up until fairly recently, European cheeses were pretty rare in most of Mexico, but because of Dutch traders could often be found in Yucatán (although they were still a luxury). A wonderful party dish, although time consuming to make properly.

  12. wjts says:

    A related but key point is that as Mexican food has slowly spread to other parts of the world, it is seen globally as American food.

    Sometimes in ways that seem very weird to Americans. In Paris, there’s a chain of restaurants called “Indiana Cafe” that primarily serves a mix of American (burgers, ribs, wings) and Mexican food. Most of the Mexican offerings are listed on the menu as “Spécialités Indiana,” which seems very strange to anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with either Indiana or Mexican food. They also sell something called “Nachos Indiana,” which is nothing more objectionable than chips, melted cheese, peppers, chicken, guacamole, and crème fraîche but sounds like a bad joke. (“Indiana Nachos”? You mean potato chips served with microwaved Velveeta and mayonnaise?) The decor has an inexplicable Great Plains Native American theme. All in all, it’s a bit like seeing a French restaurant called Chateau Normandy that sells chicken-fried Provencal food and has pictures of Venetian gondoliers all over the walls.

    • timb says:

      As a native Hoosier and with a nod to our burgeoning Mexican community, let me just pass along a hearty “fuck you” for your opinion of our state.

      We have grocery stores where people who don’t even like potato chips can find food

      • wjts says:

        …with a nod to our burgeoning Mexican community…

        Fair enough. Believe it or not, I like Indiana. But when I think of “Midwestern cuisine,” the first things to spring to mind are tuna noodle casseroles, jello salads, and baloney sandwiches on Wonderbread, though as someone who’s spent more time in the Midwest than anywhere else, I should probably know better.

        • timb says:

          yeah, I was mostly posturing….although Hoosiers are a little more “global” than they were in the past, we still like tuna casserole! And, why mom still calls nachos tortilla chips with microwaved Velveeta “nachos.”

          Still, in most Indiana communities over 5000 people, businesses catering to the local Latin America community have popped up, usually a restaurant and a Tienda. Those factory farm raised chickens and pigs don’t raise themselves, ya know. It’s different enough that my working (and sometimes, not working) class sister-in-law dates exclusively Latinos.

          • wjts says:

            Somewhere on I-90 in Northwest Indiana there was (maybe still is) a billboard for a Valparaiso restaurant called Don Quixote, which advertised itself as Indiana’s only Spanish restaurant. I strongly suspect it inspired this Onion article.

    • Stag Party Palin says:

      (“Indiana Nachos”? You mean potato chips served with microwaved Velveeta and mayonnaise?) The decor has an inexplicable Great Plains Native American theme.

      Right there you can see that “Indiana” to the restauranteurs means “What Indians Eat.” IOW, no mayo.

  13. Crap, this is interesting. Really, really interesting.

    I’ve always been puzzled as to why Mexican cuisine was considered sort of lesser cuisine, when I’ve always found its more authentic* offerings to be incredibly sophisticated and complex. (Thanks to Rick Bayless for really bringing this to everyone’s attention.)

    *I find the arguments about challenging the notion of authenticity really really compelling and interesting and actually have a lot of love for so-called “Tex-Mex” food.

    • TBP says:

      Much as I admire Rick Bayless, Diana Kennedy has also done a lot to spread the word about Mexican food, and she started at least a couple of decades earlier than he did. Many of her books have lots of food history/sociology/ethnography as well as recipes. I recommend them highly.

      I grew up in the Texas Panhandle and later lived in Mexico. Although my family is as WASP as they come, we ate Tex-Mex all the time. I think Tex-Mex is a distinct cuisine in its own right, related to Mexican food, obviously, but not the same thing. For that matter, regional differences in cooking within Mexico are often greater than we realize.

  14. Bought a book recently, thinking it would finally get me excited about French food. But it didn’t work. It turns out I was just in love with her story, her look, her clothes, and her tiny little Paris kitchen.

    I find that the food that excites me this days often comes from two places: Asia (which, I know, encompasses a lot of territory and several cuisines) and Mexico. I also want to learn more about the food of Latin America (outside of Mexico).

  15. ruviana says:

    I’ll give a shout out to regional variety IN Mexico. In Chiapas, in the main highland city of San Cristobal de las Casas the regional signature dish is sopa de pan, or bread soup, obviously devised to use up stale bread. The rural parts of Chiapas are strongly influenced by the Maya communities who eat tortillas and beans with garnishes and additions of things like chiles, lime juice fish or eggs. I miss all that good stuff and try to replicate it at home with degrees of success.

    Also too, sun-dried tomatoes, so beloved of trendy recipes, are another peasant invention, to preserve the tomato crop for use throughout the year.

  16. MikeJake says:

    Give us the finest food ya got, stuffed with the second finest.

    Excellent, sir. Lobster, stuffed with tacos.

  17. JCC says:

    No discussion of mexican food would be complete without San Diego style taco shops. I’ve never eaten at a “taco truck” (whatever those are) in my life, but in this county you’re literally never more than 1/2 mile away from a good *berto’s-ish taco shop.

    I honestly don’t think I could live anywhere where I didn’t have easy access to veggie, california, and carne asada burritos at 2 in the morning.

    Fusion food for the win.

    (And yes, I still eat at Taco Bell… Taco Bell, *berto’s, Rubio’s/Baja, and “sit-down” mexican food restaurants are all distinct flavors for us San Diegans.)

  18. Dr. M says:

    I don’t have much to add, but I want to compliment all of the commenters on a thorough enjoyable discussion. The lack of snark and disrespect for other people’s comments is welcome (and rare).

  19. Yosemite Semite says:

    I have several thoughts on the topics that came up in the thread. Instead of replying to a bunch of posts, I’ll just make one big fusion post.
    My wife grew up in Mexico City, with the incredibly rich and savory foods of Mexico. After leaving high school, she went to the university in Canada at Waterloo. That university and the surrounding countryside is about as Anglophile as it gets (the Mennonites excepted). She was invited to dinner at one point by one of her professors, and was dismayed to find herself facing a traditional boiled dinner: boiled mutton, boiled potatoes, boiled vegetables. Possibly the blandest food imaginable. That is my impression of English food as well, based on the time I spent in London working for an English company. At the time I went to England, my work permit was not ready, so when it came, the approved procedure was to leave the country and reenter, going through Immigration. Since I didn’t have time to make a vacation out of it, I decided that I would take the hovercraft from Dover to Boulogne, have lunch and come back in the afternoon. In Dover, in my recollection – possibly tainted by my low regard for English culinary prowess – there was a lone fish-and-chips shop by the hovercraft embarkation. In Boulogne, by contrast, from the port to the top of the hill overlooking the town, there were boulangeries, patisseries, boucheries, and restaurants, all with their sandwich boards on the sidewalk, advertising two-course lunches, three-course lunches, four-course lunches, five-course lunches. The difference in gastronomic outlook could not have been more marked. Robert Surtees, in one of his satirical novels with his Cockney grocer Jorrocks, Jorrocks’ [sic] Jaunts and Jollities, has Jorrocks in Paris, at the Café de Paris for lunch. Jorrocks is put off by the French cuisine on offer, and says, “I likes the old joint—the cut-and-come-again system, such as we used to have at Sugden’s in Cornhill—joint, wegitables, and cheese all for two shillings.” It’s a very long and funny paragraph.
    My wife’s grandfather came to Mexico from Spain, a peasant from Asturias in the north, who left when things were unsettled in the 1930s. He prospered in Mexico, and came to own a hotel in Mexico City and some restaurants. He was firm in his prejudices, however: The restaurants served only Spanish food, principally from the north of Spain. He didn’t eat Mexican food, and thought – as do most Spaniards – that corn was food for animals. Like Spy vs. Spy, the old Mad magazine series, except Peasant vs. Peasant. Corn didn’t take in Spain, and neither did the peppers, except for bell peppers. The exception was the tomato, especially in Catalonia, so much so that for a restaurant in Catalonia to get a five-star rating from the tourist board, it must have on its menu the Catalan specialty pa amb tomàquet, bread rubbed with garlic and tomato, drizzled in olive oil, and baked or broiled. You’d hardly think it possible, but there’s a 287-page cookbook dedicated to pa amb tomàquet.

  20. joel hanes says:

    I am amazed that no one in the entire thread has mentioned food journalist emeritus Raymond Sokolov, so I will.

    For twenty years, he wrote Natural History Magazine columns about food traditions and the histories of foodstuffs, including many of the topics addressed above.

    obBooks (as we used to say on r.a.b), all by Sokolov:

    Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food

    The Saucier’s Apprentice: A Modern Guide to Classic French Sauces for the Home

    Why We Eat What We Eat: How Columbus Changed the Way the World Eats

    The Jewish-American Kitchen

    How to Cook: An Easy and Imaginative Guide for the Beginner

    Fading Feast: A Compendium of Disappearing American Regional Foods

    The Cook’s Canon: 101 Classic Recipes

    A Canon of Vegetables: 101 Classic Recipes

    With the Grain

    Great Recipes from the New York Times

  21. Recently bought this book for my dad. He tells me it’s terrific, and he already made a recipe from it…for carrot margaritas. Apparently the sweetness of the carrots tempers the tartness of the limes, which is quite pleasant. I’d love to try them!

  22. [...] Guns and Money’s Erik Loomis starts an interesting discussion of ethnonational identity, history, and social class in culture from a [...]

  23. [...] Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money writes a thought-provoking review of Jeffrey Pilcher’s new book, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. I wish Loomis would have commented on the quality [...]

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