One Nation, Under Tacos: How Mexican food conquered America

Apr 5, 2012 at 4:00 am
One Nation, Under Tacos: How Mexican food conquered America
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About 213 miles up in space, the Earth below a cerulean blue, the universe around them infinite and awesome, Jose Hernandez and Danny Olivas wanted Mexican food.

The two had come prepared. They were astronauts on STS-128, a NASA mission that flew the space shuttle Discovery to rendezvous with the International Space Station on August 30, 2009. Discovery's seven-member crew spent ten days at the research station, primarily to resupply the people already up there and to rotate members. Olivas — raised in El Paso, Texas — went on a spacewalk to repair an ammonia tank, among other tasks; Hernandez — a native of Mexico who picked crops in California's Central Valley alongside family members as a child — sent his thoughts to our planet en español. "Espero la cosecha de mi sueño sirva como inspiracion a todos!" he enthused via Twitter. "I hope the harvest of my dream serves as inspiration to all!"

On September 8 the Discovery crew undocked from the space station. It was morning. It was time for breakfast burritos. The rest of the crew had asked Hernandez and Olivas if they might cook the meal, as Olivas was the NASA member who knew how to make them best. Of course. A video camera transmitted footage of the duo floating toward the galley of the mid-deck to open a shelf containing the ingredients they needed to construct the cylindrical god in zero gravity: flour tortillas sealed in a vacuum pack, clumps of ready-to-eat scrambled eggs and fat sausage patties.

Olivas pulled out a tortilla, letting it float in front of him while tearing open a thumb-size salsa packet. He smeared a smiley face on the tortilla and tried to roll it up; because it wasn't cooked, the flour flatbread bent into a U-shape but wobbled back into its outstretched natural state. Hernandez, meanwhile, opened a pouch that contained the patty. Olivas placed the tortilla near the meat, expecting the sausage to plop down on it, as it would on terra firma. Instead the brownish, glistening mass popped out of the bag, away from the tortilla below it; presumably, it would've continued on an endless trajectory in zero gravity if the fast-thinking Olivas didn't grab the sausage with the tortilla. The salsa acted as a binding agent and secured the incipient Icarus.

The eggs proved more manageable. Hernandez cut them out of a packet; Olivas used a spoon to guide each mini-mound onto the tortilla, then promptly chopped them into smaller pieces, the better to smush and smear — if the tortilla would only bend. The moment of truth arrived: Olivas folded the vessel in half, wrapping one flap over the other, and rolled it tight. Success! A breakfast burrito was born, and more were on the way.

This wasn't the first time burritos orbited Earth — Olivas made a batch on his previous visit to the space station two years earlier. In fact, NASA had used tortillas for astronaut sustenance as early as 1985, when Mexican scientist Rodolfo Neri Vela requested a pack as part of his food provisions to make tacos. At the time the media treated Neri's food choices with bemusement, but astronauts quickly took to flour tortillas — not only because of the flavor, redolent of flour and slightly sweet, but also because they were better than most of the sterilized slop they ate. Tortillas didn't spoil easily. Astronauts could wrap one around anything and make a quick meal. They also weren't as dangerous as bread, whose crumbs crippled air vents and sensitive equipment.

NASA took tortillas so seriously that it tinkered with the recipe — which hadn't substantially changed in millennia save for the introduction of flour — to keep stacks fresh for up to six months. Scientists created a nitrogen-filled packet that removed almost all the oxygen present in the pouch, so as to prevent mold from growing. One major problem arose: Astronauts discovered that six-month-old space tortillas became bitter — and no one deserves a bitter tortilla. Finally, NASA found a manufacturer that made an extended-shelf-life tortilla that lasted up to a year and retained its allure, a maker that also sold the product to fast-food Mexican chains. Hundreds of thousands of dollars well-spent.

"I cannot think of anything that cannot be put on a tortilla or has not been put on a tortilla," wrote Sandra Magnus, a veteran astronaut, in a blog post while up in the International Space Station in 2008. "When a shuttle shows up, you are in tortilla heaven because [astronauts] show up with tons of them and graciously donate all of the extras to the ISS crews. You really want to be swimming in tortillas your whole increment."

And for short missions of five to seven days? Astronauts often bring flour tortillas fresh from a Houston tortillería, a tortilla factory. No modifications, no chemicals — just unadulterated rapture. The perfect food.

"Danny is an expert in zero-g burrito making," Hernandez radioed to Mission Control after the burrito party aboard Discovery. It was a mission of celebration: Never had two Mexican-Americans flown in space on the same mission, and never did burritos shine so bright. Sure, Hernandez and Olivas offered a service to their crewmates that hundreds of thousands of their fellow Mexican provided daily back on Earth — prepping Mexican food for Americans more than happy to gobble it up. The feast made the news; a video soon went viral across the Internet, the astronauts' beaming smiles as they hoisted their fast food available for humanity to see. So high up in the heavens, up above the world, the burrito not only had become universal — it was now, finally, truly cosmic as well.

Mexican food appears at our state dinners, in elegant presentations. Mexican food appears in our school cafeterias, packaged as chimichangas or in bags of Fritos; in convenience stores, heating on rolling racks, waiting for the hands of hurried customers. Mexican-food sponsors college bowl games such as the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and buys naming rights for sporting venues such as the Taco Bell Arena at Boise State in Idaho. Mexican food commercials blanket television airwaves, hawking salsa and hard-shelled taco packets and high-priced tequilas and imported beers, promising a day at the beach and endless fiestas. Mexican food fills our grocery aisles, feeds college dorm dwellers, sits in our freezers and pantries, is the focus of massive festivals, becomes tween trends or front-page news — and if you don't know what I'm talking about, ask your kid about spaghetti tacos.

That wonderful culinary metaphor, the melting pot, has absorbed Mexican in this country just as so many immigrant cuisines of the past — but in a demanding way unique from other traditions, one that has penetrated the American palate. While there are more Chinese restaurants than Mexican in this country, the latter is the easier sell; you don't see hundreds of different soy-sauce brands sold at supermarkets or General Tso's chicken cook-offs at your local community fair, but you do see it with hot sauces and chili contests. Pizza is the best-selling and farthest-reaching item of Italian-American cuisine in fast food, but its rise and that of pasta and Italian restaurants is relatively recent; the United States, on the other hand, has loved Mexican food for more than 125 years — bought it, sold it, made it, spread it, supplied it, cooked it, savored it, loved it.

Comida mexicana in the U.S. is similar to M.C. Escher's Relativity, each staircase helping the climber reach a particular plateau, only to whisper promises of higher, better planes in an endless hat dance of delights. Americans have defined Mexican food as combo platters and enchiladas, margaritas and guacamole, tortilla chips and actual tortillas, frozen burritos and burritos made to order. There are mom-and-pop shops and multinationals, taco carts and tamale men, taco trucks operating under cover of night and luxe loncheras that tweet their latest specials. Beans, rice, carne asada, soyrizo — all of it absorbed, enjoyed, demanded by Americans and all of it whetting appetites for more. And with this country's latest Great Migration stretching brown folks beyond the American Southwest to all 50 states, covering virtually all metropolitan areas, from the prairies and flatlands of the Midwest to Maine's rocky shores, Alaska's tundra to the Florida Keys, we're experiencing a renaissance of Mexican food anew — a perpetual foreigner perfectly at home.

We've had generations of Americans who scarf down tacos and burritos just as a previous generation forked through chicken potpies and ate pastrami on rye. And that's just the United States. As globalization sets in, so does Mexican food. Mexican restaurants operate across Europe, in Turkey, in Nepal and Addis Ababa. Down under, Taco Bill's has sold fish tacos to Australians for nearly 25 years. Sometimes it's Mexicans who run these restaurants; many times it's American expats. Sometimes the locals dine there, but it's more often American tourists seeking a taste of home. It's too easy to say Mexican food is an all-American food; to say as much is to ignore the tortured relationship between Mexicans and their adopted country. But Mexican food is as much of an ambassador for the U.S. as the hot dog, whether or not either nation wants to admit it.

Let me give ustedes an example. Coloradan Tom Tancredo doesn't like Mexicans — no way, no how, no duh. The former Republican congressman and onetime presidential candidate spent most of his political career railing against a supposed invasion of the United States by Mexico — and while intelligent minds can disagree about unchecked migration to this country, Tancredo flat-out feels Mexicans are downright deficient.

"Sadly, corruption is deeply ingrained in Mexican society from the local police to the government-owned utilities," Tancredo wrote for the conservative website WorldNetDaily. "It's a way of doing everyday business."

This statement was a direct dig at me. In November 2010, Tancredo and I debated in Denver about whether Mexicans ever assimilate. I maintained that we do; Tancredo didn't accept the possibility, yet he never explained how someone such as myself — the child of two Mexican immigrants (one of whom came into this country in the trunk of a Chevy), who spoke only Spanish when I entered kindergarten and who now favors English and Chuck Taylor All Stars — did it. The squabble happened at Su Teatro, an old movie house now home to one of the most vibrant Chicano theaters in the United States. There is no need to go into the details of our discussion, except for one pertinent point: Before lambasting Mexicans and our supposed refusal to join American society, Tancredo joined me for a Mexican dinner.

The restaurant was across the street from Su Teatro — El Noa Noa, a large eatery that advertises itself as the Mile High City's "best and most authentic Mexican restaurant." At night art deco-style neon lights flash the restaurant's name, a reference to a legendary nightclub in Ciudad Juarez that was the subject of a famous Mexican song. A party on your plate. The atmosphere isn't aggressively ethnic: no strolling mariachis or women fluttering fans and eyelids. Eaters sit; waiters bring out a plate of chips and salsa and fetch drinks. People of all ethnicities come in to eat, though the clientele leans more American than Mexican.

Tancredo and I sat down near the middle of the restaurant; Patty Calhoun, editor of Westword (which carries my ¡Ask a Mexican! column), and others joined us. We traded small talk, saving our salvos for the discussion to come — but around us tables whispered, fingers pointed. Some people came up to our table to greet Tancredo and wish him luck for the evening. Another woman approached me and offered her appreciation for my upcoming public confrontation with someone she considered a living embodiment of Satan. She wanted to make a scene, but her chile relleno was getting cold.

Our plates came. I drank tequila, of course; Tancredo, a dry red wine. He ordered the tamale dinner, hold the rice. Two of them, slathered (or, as more accurately stated in the Denver lexicon, "smothered") in green chiles, each as long as a palm, as thick as a book, sat before him. They glistened with the dabs of lard needed to make a tamale moist and more than mere cornmeal and shredded pork. I stole bites of the same plate from Calhoun. Soft, spicy and filling, the pork's sweet essence melted on my palate; the green chile piqued toward the end. These weren't the tamales of my youth; they were smaller, but that was okay. The chile — borne from the fertile soil of southern Colorado, which Hispanics had tilled for centuries before there was a Mexico or a United States — seared differently from the Mexican chiles I grew up on and were so flavorful they needed no extra salsa.

Tancredo thought so as well: He polished off the plate, laughing and talking between each bite, getting fueled for a night to decry the very lifestyle that had just fed him. More than a year later, I can only recall some of the points of our philosophical fisticuffs, but the scene I can't get out of my head is Tancredo's massive, tamale-induced smile. Tom Tancredo may not like Mexicans, but he sure loves his Mexican food. Of course he does.

It's not just Tom who holds this contradictory position. From the early days of Mexico's birth in 1811, when our young country longingly looked west toward its newly christened southern neighbor's vast provinces, lonely and so full of potential, Mexican food has entranced Americans while Mexicans themselves have perplexed Americans. In the history of Mexican food in this country, you'll find the tortured, fascinating history of two people fighting, arguing, but ultimately accepting each other, if only in the comfort of breakfast, lunch and dinner.

See, the greatest apostles of Mexican food in this country haven't been Mexicans, but rather Americans, the unknowing masses who, having tasted from the Bread of Life that is a steaming taco, a bowl of chili, a foil-wrapped burrito, sought to proclaim its gospel. While we've long quarreled with Mexico over seemingly everything, we've always embraced the food, wanting to experience the "authenticity" of the Other Half: enjoying the meals Aztec emperors might have feasted on before meeting their fate; dining before handsome, bronze-skinned waiters and beautiful señoritas; eating as a Mexican might, on the street, in poverty back in Mexico, in the cantina, through cookbooks, with canned products, classes, trips to the motherland or the local taquería — but always within the prism of America. That consumption hasn't always been pretty: caricatures of hot tamales, Montezuma's revenge, questionable ingredients, Frito Banditos, talking Chihuahuas and sleeping peons litter the landscape and continue to influence American perceptions of Mexican food, as well as Mexicans themselves — but even negative stereotypes and digestive concerns never stopped our collective yen for the stuff.

Mexican food's American journey is obviously personal to me. I consider tortillas and hot sauce as essential to life as oxygen, walk about with a bag of serrano peppers in my pocket, have served as a food editor for a newspaper for nearly a decade, during which I have always insisted that we treat Mexican food seriously. I'm someone whose fondest childhood memories usually involved smuggled cheese wheels from my parents' ancestral villages, whose mom was a tomato canner and got up early in the morning to make us a Mexican breakfast of eggs and beans, went to work and returned in the evening with the wherewithal to make us a full dinner. Mexican food is a way of life, which isn't a surprise, of course. But that so many Americans, with no blood ties to Mexico and who might not even like the country, revere my cuisine? The reporter in me is piqued; the Mexican in me, flabbergasted.

My book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America isn't about me, though. It's about a food that deserves documentation, examination, celebration, to be hailed as the epic it is. While Mexican culinary culture is an unquestioned part of America's gastronomic essence, the stories of how we got to this point are largely unknown. The evolution of food in the United States has, until recently, been dismissed as a frivolous subject, but we're now in an age of culinary reminiscing, when scholars and journalists alike examine cuisine as they do customs. The history of Mexican food in the United States has bubbled up in articles and chapters in books over the years, but never has there been a full volume that tracks each foodstuff, each craze, each pioneer, each controversy.

What's so cosmic about a burrito? Everything. It says something about us that Taco Bell makes billions of dollars in sales each year, that Koreans in this country are making millions of dollars by stuffing barbecue in tortillas and selling them from fancy food trucks — and it's a good thing. Anyone who dismisses this reality as not indicative of something seismic in the American story is more deluded that someone who thinks refried beans are actually fried twice. It has been conquest by a thousand tacos, a million tamales and a hell of a lot of salsa, which surpassed ketchup as America's top-selling condiment back in the 1990s and only continues to grow. Through interviews and archival material, via chronological and thematic chapters, and never ever losing focus that we are, after all, talking about food, behold the story of the best cuisine on Earth, one now set on taking over the world. The U.S. is on the losing side of this Mexican-American War — and boy, are we grateful.

One final point: My book is not about the history of Mexican food in Mexico. Mexican cookery is as multifaceted, if not more so, than its American cousin, with each state offering unique culinary practices slowly trickling into our country, as I mentioned earlier. But those who dismiss Taco Bell, the taco pizza, even a church enchilada booth as somehow not Mexican because Mexicans aren't the main consumers or creators miss a huge point. We must consider the infinite varieties of Mexican food in the United States as part of the Mexican family — not a fraud, not a lesser sibling, but an equal.

As I've driven and flown around the country and come across a mild salsa, a mutated muchaco (a ground-beef taco served in a pita bread by the Midwestern Taco Bueno chain) and other items I immediately wanted to decry, I remembered the concept of what the legendary Chicano scholar Américo Paredes deemed Greater Mexico: that the influence of Mexico doesn't cease at the Rio Grande. Wherever there is something even minutely Mexican, whether it's people, food, language or rituals, even centuries removed from the original mestizo source, it remains Mexican.

Even in outer space.

Gustavo Arellano is editor-in-chief of OC Weekly, Riverfront Times' sister paper in Orange County, California. The preceding excerpt is adapted from his forthcoming book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (Scribner; hardcover; 320 pages; $24.95). Available April 10 at your finer bookstores, online retailers and swap meets selling pirated goods everywhere.