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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.


[ 51 ] March 23, 2013 |

I know you all, like myself, are celebrating Oregon’s dominating victory over St. Louis to advance to the Sweet 16 where they will no doubt crush Louisville.* So if you haven’t seen this NPR piece on Oregon forward and rebounding machine Arsalan Kazemi, I recommend it. The first Iranian born player in NCAA basketball, Kasemi played at Rice but transferred, along with several other players, due to some kind of racial discrimination that he won’t talk about. At Oregon for his senior season, he has led the Ducks to their best season since 2007 and is really just a great player to watch. Earlier this season, I saw Bill Walton call a game between Oregon and Arizona. When Kazemi stopped at the free throw line on a fast break and threw a perfect bounce pass to a teammate for a layup, I thought Walton was going to have a heart attack. Walton went on and on about Kazemi’s old-school fundamentals for like a full minute before going back to discussing Ken Kesey and the Dead shows he attended in Eugene.

* I am not putting money on this

This Day in Labor History: March 23, 1974

[ 5 ] March 23, 2013 |

On March 23, 1974, the Coalition of Labor Union Women formed. A nonprofit organization within the AFL-CIO, the CLUW seeks to improve the standing of women within the union movement, as well as to organize more women into unions and promote union and legislative policies that help working-class women.

The labor movement has made a lot of progress in terms of gender equality. Women make up a large portion of organizing staffs, a growing percentage of executive boards and international presidents like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. On the other hand, a male chauvnist culture still dominates unionism as a whole. Any unionist who pays attention to these things knows its true. I’ve overheard too many conversations where someone has started talking about the women in the room like it’s a high school locker room. Some of this is class culture. Feminist language is far more accepted within the academy than the industrial workplace; for someone like me, it’s really jarring to hear inappropriate remarks about women when they may or may not be out of earshot.

This was all way worse in the 1970s. Women throughout American society were struggling for recognition of their rights and issues, including at the workplace. The feminist movement was peaking, challenging sexist notions throughout society. In the labor movement, it was nearly impossible for women to get their concerns voiced. They had no positions within the highest reaches of the AFL-CIO or in nearly any international. Sexism was entrenched in many union workplaces and union representatives often ignored the anger of women against bad treatment, including sexual harassment, wage disparities, and lack of promotion opportunities at the workplace and within unions. The problem was even worse for women of color. Some unions were better than others thought; the United Auto Workers was the first union to come out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, in 1970.

The CLUW was created in June 1973 under the leadership of Olga Madar, Vice-President of the United Auto Workers and Addie Wyatt of the United Food and Commercial Workers. Madar had risen through the UAW from her start with the union in 1941. She was most famous for spearheading the fight to desegregate the nation’s largest bowling organizations in 1952. She also led the UAW’s Conservation Department in the 1960s, lining up union support for environmental legislation and land protection. Wyatt was the first African-American woman to hold an executive position within an American union, as VP of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union before moving to the UFCW. Wyatt was a major player in labor’s support for the Civil Rights Movement. She was also named, along with Barbara Jordan, Time’s Woman of the Year in 1975.

After a few smaller organizing conferences around the country, 3200 women met in Chicago on March 23 and March 24, 1974 for the CLUW’s foundational meeting. The meeting took a challenging tone to the chauvinistic attitudes of organized labor. Said Myra Wolfgang of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders Union, “You can call Mr. Meany and tell him there are 3000 women in Chicago and they didn’t come here to swap recipes!” The meeting set aside time for women to voice openly the problems they faced as trade union women. Like many moments in the feminist movement, the CLUW helped isolated women around the country realize there were many others who faced their predicament. It gave them a collective power not unlike the consciousness-raising meetings that marked the feminism of the early 70s. The CLUW announced its solidarity with Gloria Steinem and the National Organization of Women; in fact, Steinem was there as a representative of American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. In doing so, the CLUW leadership set the organization as a close ally of mainstream feminism, which alienated radical women to some extent, but probably made political sense in a climate where labor’s leadership was not particularly supportive of its existence.

Organized labor’s immediate response to all of this? The UAW sent a message of support. AFL-CIO President George Meany said nothing at all, as did most internationals.

The CLUW’s creation was an important moment and symbol. But we shouldn’t overestimate its ultimate importance. First, the organization never had a clear mission with tangible goals. Was it primarily a women’s organization or a labor organization? Second, there were a lot of generational tensions within the CLUW between the somewhat older women who led its founding and had pioneered roles for women within organized labor and younger women who demanded more radical positions, including signing up poor women who were not union members. It also tended to replicate the bureaucratic union structure it evolved from rather than embrace the worker democracy union reformers of the period called for. Madar and Wyatt had a strong committment to working within the established labor movement rather than challenging it from the outside. In fact, most of the highest ranking women union officials were extremely concerned about the CLUW saying anything or passing any resolutions that were openly critical of established union leadership. This same dynamic often hurts union reform efforts today. Women from the Teamsters threatened to walk out if the CLUW supported the United Farm Workers (the Teamsters were trying to beat out of the UFW–often literally–for jurisdiction to represent agricultural labor). So in many ways, the CLUW reflected the complexities of the labor movement as a whole in the mid-1970s.

On the other hand, the CLUW has been important in making sexual harassment an issue organized labor had to take seriously while pressing unions to fight for wage equality. Pay disparities actually grew during the 1960s. In 1960, women made 63.9 cents for every dollar earned by men. In 1970, it was 59.4 cents. By the end of 1974, there were 24 local CLUW chapters with 2500 dues-paying members. But this number was disappointing for CLUW activists; even worse was a decline in 1975. The CLUW eventually turned into a relatively small but still useful organization of labor union women pressing labor issues within the AFL-CIO. If it failed to revolutionize women’s roles within organized labor, well, that was hardly its goal in the first place.

Possibly the biggest victory for the CLUW was the election of Linda Chavez-Thompson to be Vice-President of the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney in 1995. However, the VP job is more symbolic than anything. What really matters in the power structure is the Secretary-Treasurer, who happened to be one Richard Trumka of the United Mine Workers, the heir apparent from the moment Sweeney took the job. Today, Elizabeth Shuler has that position. Trumka is young enough though that there’s little talk of his eventual replacement so it’s hard to know what her potential to be the first female president of the AFL-CIO really is.

The Coalition of Labor Union Women continues today, pushing for such recent victories as the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, with the expanded protections Republicans fought to exclude from the bill. The organization also continues to hold meetings across the country to rally unionist women to push for both labor and gender equality.

This is the 55th post in this series. Other posts are archived here.

Our Sexclusionary Immigration Debate

[ 8 ] March 22, 2013 |

Pramila Jayapal makes a compelling case for the inherent sexism of the debate on immigration with very real consequences for immigrant women. There are a lot of undocumented women working as well and their concerns are just as important. She calls for crafting immigration legislation that explicitly centers the needs of women, something with which I hope we can all agree.

Keep on Watching

[ 55 ] March 22, 2013 |

One of the only ways American workers still take time back from their employers in a workplace where more and more is demanded of fewer and fewer employees is to watch the NCAA tournament. So consider slacking today and watching some hoops work to rule.

I am more or less indifferent as to today’s action. But tomorrow, there are two clear games. First, Oregon over St. Louis. I need a reason to hate St. Louis University by tomorrow afternoon. Second, Arizona over Harvard. I was sickened last night to see my Lobos lose to the 1%. Harvard grads start wars. New Mexico grads die in them. I was hoping to take one back. Instead, Henry Kissinger is happy. Bah. So go Arizona! Which is something I really couldn’t have said if Lute “I’m going to kill this Pac-10 TV deal because I’m scared to be around USC at night” Olson was still coaching the Wildcats.

Rand Paul’s Isolationist Paranoia

[ 144 ] March 22, 2013 |

I wonder how the defenders of Rand Paul’s paranoia about drone strikes attacking U.S. citizens feel about his bill to withdraw the United States from the United Nations?

Paul appears to be following in the footsteps of his father — former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) — in advancing the call to have the U.S. completely pull out of the United Nations. The elder Paul was the primary sponsor of the “American Sovereignty Restoration Act,” a bill introduced periodically from 1999 to 2009 that would ban the U.S. from membership in the U.N. Despite this antipathy towards the United Nations, Ron Paul recently turned to the U.N. system to help him gain control of a website bearing his name.

But the Republican senator from Kentucky is no stranger to using U.N. paranoia to burnish his right-wing credentials. In 2011, he sent a conspiratorial email to his supporters, warning of a supposed U.N. plot to confiscate and destroy U.S. citizens’ guns via a “Small Arms Treaty.” In reality, the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty is only just now being developed and in no way will effect civilian ownership of firearms.

Of course, the two issues are connected in Paul’s black helicopter addled mind. Those defending his ridiculous filibuster need to be cognizant of this, not to mention the fact that Paul is in fact clearly to the right of Obama on drones and civil liberties.

The American Caste System

[ 56 ] March 22, 2013 |

Despite growing income inequality, American national mythology tells us we can get rich if we just work hard enough. The problem with this myth is that the empirical evidence does not support it. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. These are permanent changes.

National Recording Registry

[ 70 ] March 21, 2013 |

The Library of Congress added its yearly 25 choices to the National Recording Registry. Interesting choices throughout, including the greatest song ever used in a political campaign (not to mention actually made famous by the candidate).

Sink Hole

[ 38 ] March 21, 2013 |

When you let a mining company do whatever it wants with limited regulations, it turns out that horrible things can happen, like gigantic sinkholes that destroy people’s homes and make large amounts of land unlivable.

What’s hilarious is Bobby Jindal’s fake outrage and demands that the companies pay up. A less hypocritical politician of the New Gilded Age would celebrate the sink hole as progress.

Also, it’s really an obligation to embed this:

Are Corporations Amoral?

[ 139 ] March 21, 2013 |

It’s rare that I disagree with Rob Neyer. But I have to push back on his column about Major League Baseball owners deciding to eliminate the pensions of their non-player employees, despite being quadzillionaires who could obviously afford it. One thing I like about covering labor issues in professional sports is that it’s the only field that grabs the attention of enough people that the little things like this get into the spotlight. Employers around the country are destroying pensions, but when NFL owners lockout referees over it or MLB owners try it, it opens space to talk about it.

Anyway, Neyer argues that corporations are amoral rather than immoral:

But with just a few exceptions, big companies aren’t in the business of respecting people; they’re in the business of sucking as money from their customers and as much labor from their employees as possible, while exacting the maximum amount of profits. They are not generally immoral; they are intrinsically amoral. Eliminating pensions isn’t evil, and perhaps not even shameful.

Corporations have made such inroads into our consciousness that this kind of formulation is common, even among people generally politically progressive like Neyer. Corporations are not some disembodied beast. They are made up of human beings with human values. We as a society allow these wealthy humans who make up a corporation to exercise power up to a given limit, depending on our own values. In times like today, or in the first Gilded Age, when corporations exercise relatively maximum power over society, to create philosophical justifications for their existence that free them of responsibility to larger society. Profit taking becomes naturalized, rather than a socio-economic-political choice. Whether this is the Social Darwinism or Gospel of Wealth of the late 19th century or the weird corporation-as-human creation of the modern Supreme Court, these ideas give corporations room to make very human choices without suffering consequences or even criticism.

It doesn’t matter what big companies are in the business of doing. They are controlled by people who are seeking to maximize wealth at the top of society. It matters to what extent we allow those rich people to do this. Today, we allow them to do about whatever we want, a consequence of a sixty-year pushback against the New Deal that has convinced lots of Americans that business knows all. This attitude allows Bill Gates to shape education policy for no other reason than he is rich. It allows for immoral fallbacks on “fiduciary responsibility” to shareholders to justify any policy, no matter how antisocial. It allows for a Supreme Court to declare that corporations can openly buy elections.

Corporate dumping of toxic chemicals into rivers is in fact evil and shameful. That’s because doing so is a decision made by human beings to maximize profit at the cost of hurting nature and people. The same goes for union-busting, for pension-slashing, and for race to the bottom politics. So long as we apologize away the behavior of corporate leaders by naturalizing their behavior, the things that upset us about corporate control over society will continue to occur. Only by pushing back against corporate ideology do we make society more equal. And that includes for the employees of Major League Baseball.

NRA Logic

[ 32 ] March 21, 2013 |

This is a weird story, but it totally makes sense that a doctor handing out illegal prescriptions would use this argument:

Dr. Gracia Mayard, 61, is accused of distributing oxycodone between Jan. 1, 2012 and March 15, 2013. In exchange for cash, Mayard sold 2,953 prescriptions for nearly 400,000 pills to people without doing a medical exam during the first 10 months of 2012. He didn’t even meet some of his customers before writing prescriptions.

According to an arrest affidavit, when narcotics agents went to his Cambria Heights home on Feb. 7, his son first told police that Mayard wasn’t home. Then, later that day, a blue van arrived at the house and two men tried to slip Mayard out of the home by covering him with a tarp. He took them into his office to show them his “exam room,” which was a table covered with dust and papers. “No other diagnostic items commonly present in a medical doctor’s office were observed,” the affidavit said.

In an attempt to justify his work, Mayard told investigators, “I know that it’s a big problem but what happens to the oxycodone after I write the prescription is not my concern. It’s just like a person that sells guns, he cannot control what happens after he sells a gun.”

I mean, if gun makers and gun dealers have no responsibility for what people do with a gun, why should doctors have responsibility for what their customers do with drugs? Maybe the patients are making art out of the pills. Why not apply NRA logic about responsibility to the rest of society? Why punish bartenders if they serve obviously inebriated customers who then get behind the wheel? Why go after cigarette companies for marketing to children? It’s strictly the responsibility of the user!

To be clear, I certainly don’t agree with this doctor. He deserves punishment. But it’s also hardly surprising that other distributors of dangerous materials would abdicate responsibility based upon NRA arguments about gun use.

The Weight

[ 25 ] March 20, 2013 |

An outstanding article about the greatness of “The Weight” and The Band more generally.

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