Gustavo Arellano used to write a column called Ask A Mexican for an LA alt-weekly that went under a couple years ago, as alt-weeklies have done. I think he’s at the LA Times now. Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America is a history of Mexican food in America, but it was also my first real exposure to someone articulating why people talking about authenticity can make your skin crawl.
I grew up in Texas, with Tex-Mex, and people are always like, “Tex-Mex is a bastardization!” To me, it tastes good. Mexican people are making it. If the food is bad the food is bad, but if the food is good then I don’t know what you’re talking about. It came out in 2012, on the earlier side of the decade, so I was still in my 20s, I might have been 30.
There is a good side, a genuine-ness that can happen in America, a genuine cultural exchange. It’s not divorced from hierarchies of power. White people still sell 80% of the Mexican cookbooks in America. There also is a layer, a very genuine cultural exchange that’s rooted in joy happening, and this book traces that.
There’s a place in LA, one of the first places I ever ate in LA, called Oki-Dog. It was a punk hangout in the ‘70s. I always thought it was like Okies from Oklahoma in the ‘30s, but I leaned it’s short for Okinawa Dog. An immigrant from Okinawa started it. The Oki-Dog is two hot dogs with chili and pastrami wrapped in a flour tortilla. Which is great! If it’s good, it’s good! The birth of Oki-Dog is rooted in a joyful cultural exchange. Again, not divorced from hierarchies of power, not divorced from race in America, but there’s something genuine happening there that also happens in music. Music is not divorced from the powers of the world, but musician to musician there can be really beautiful exchanges across all sorts of barriers. Barriers of race and class. There are moments when you’re not even conscious of those barriers. You’re like, “I am a human with other humans, and there’s something joyful about this.”
That can be present in food. I grew up in Texas. My mom grew up in California, my parents went to school in Tucson and they talk about the green corn tamales they got in the ‘70s in Arizona versus the food they would get in California, or when they’d drive to Tijuana. Where I’m from is Mexican-America. I’m not Mexican, and it’s not my history in that sense, but I’m from that geography. The food that I grew up with is from Mexican-America. It opened my eyes to my experience. Arellano talks about where tortilla chips come from, just the basics of all this stuff. It has all the sorts of pleasure of a really meaty Wikipedia article, but written with a philosophical argument. It was a good time in my life to encounter that philosophical angle.