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

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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.

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