By OC Weekly Staff
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Kiera Wright-Ruiz
By Cleo Tobbi
Tancredo and I sat down near the middle of the restaurant; Patty Calhoun, editor of Westword (the city's alternative weekly, which carries my ¡Ask a Mexican! column, and one of the Weekly's sister publications), 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 of 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.
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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 and have always pushed this paper to 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.