One Nation, Under Tacos

An excerpt from 'Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America'

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.

Mariano Martinez invented the frozen margarita machine at his Dallas restaurant during the early 1970s. The machine pictured is now part of the Smithsonian's collection
Mariano Martinez invented the frozen margarita machine at his Dallas restaurant during the early 1970s. The machine pictured is now part of the Smithsonian's collection

Location Info


Fullerton Public Library

353 W. Commonwealth Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92832

Category: Libraries

Region: Fullerton


Gustavo Arellano will sign copies of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America at the Fullerton Public Library. April 12, 7 p.m. Lecture, free; books, BARATO!


Check out a bunch of pictures of Mexican food here. Sabroso!

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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.

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dubyadawg topcommenter

My dad was the shuttle pilot on two missions, STS-39, STS-64.  I will have to ask him about tortillas. 


flour tortillas?!! q comida pocha!! Fijese!! Tortillas=mais!!


Americans, as oppose to others, are not the greatest cooks in the world (sorry... I love Americans for other qualities..) . So naturally they adopted the Mexican food that is easy to make for the most part

Good articles on

Nationwide Strip
Nationwide Strip

Okay, I love Breakfast Burritos, that one was kinda weak. No peppers,potato's, NASA huck them guys and girls up with some real food.


If I was on a space station, I would request tacos, gumbo, kimchee and Indian curried rice!! This was a very entertaining story! Could you possibly do a running story on foods in space and innovations concerning them. It would be an "out of this world" installment! :)


Still flogging this? Put some chichis on the cover and maybe it'll sell. Otherwise, a day late and a quetzal short. saludos


As usual, very interesting article Gustavo.

For Rob, I was stationed at Camp Zama, Japan near Tokyo and the Pancho Villa Mexican place in the suburb of Sagamihara was good.

Mike's Mexican restaurant, also in Sagamihara, has good reviews on Trip Advisor, though I haven't been there.

So, while Mexican food hasn't conquered Japan there are a couple of good options.

Helliemae's Caramels
Helliemae's Caramels

Houston girl says: if you're gonna be taking fresh flour tortillas into space, Houston is a great town to be buying them in.


A couple of stories for you, Gustavo:

One of my Japanese friends, when she makes a trip to SoCal, always asks me to take her to a good Mexican food place because, as much as I love Japan and the cuisine there, you can't get good Mexican food there. The only hispanics I ran into when I was living there, in fact, were Peruvians (thought there is a big population of Brazilians in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture). I don't remember any Peruvian restaurants there, though that may have changed by now.

Also, in addition to Japan, I've lived in South Korea. The food there is kick ass, but still, I was jonesing pretty hard for Mexican when I was there. I lived in a city of a million people there and not one Mexican eatery. Koreans make a damn good pizza, though, which they often liberally sprinkle tabasco sauce on.


ooops! tortillas=masa!!


but the shuttles launch from Florida.... or they used to.


Usually referred to as "mild."