Tag Archives: American Food

Tequila Sunrise

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano (Scribner, $25.00, 320 pages)

“Americans: unite under Mexican food, just like your ancestors, just like your descendants!   It doesn’t matter your dish choice: it’ll sometimes be derided, sometimes mysterious, oftentimes scorching, and not always good, but always, always eaten.   A lot.”

I can guarantee you one thing about this Mexican food survey book by the finely-named Gustavo Arellano.   Read it and you will feel…  hungry!   Of course, it’s probably politically and factually correct to say that this account is about Mexican-American food, although Arellano does often clarify which foods had their creation in Mexico – before being adopted north of the border – versus those foods that are known as Mexican but are purely American/Mexican-American creations.

A trip through the table of contents shows the order in which the food topics are discussed.   They are: the burrito, tacos, enchiladas, Mexican cookbooks written by Anglos, the late Southwestern cuisine, the virtually doomed and much-attacked world of Tex-Mex food, Mexicans cooking food for other Mexicans (really?), the arrival of Mexican food in our supermarkets, the tortilla, salsa and tequila.   There’s also a bonus chapter on the five greatest Mexican meals served in the U.S.; at least it’s one man’s humble listing of the meals that are “just bueno.

“Mexican food had arrived to wow customers, to save them from a bland life, as it did for their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.   Again.   Like last time – and the time before that.”

The author has great fun in praising the heroes of the Mexican-American food movement (or revolution, if you prefer), such as Larry Cano who developed the El Torito chain of restaurants.   He even praises Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill (the second-largest Mexican food chain in the U.S.), and Glenn Bell, the founder of the ubiquitous Taco Bell food stops.   If you’ve ever wondered where Bell got the recipes for his tacos, the answer is found in Taco USA – and it happens to be a hole-in-the-wall taco shop in San Bernardino, California.

On the flip side, Gustavo names names when it comes to finding villains.   Two of them are Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy who have repeatedly called out for “authentic” Mexican food while allegedly – by Gustavo’s account and others – being somewhat less than authentic themselves.   And then there’s Tex-Mex:

“Tex-Mex.   Tex-Mex.   A hyphen separates two cultures that faced off in blood but are forever linked around the world.   Each exists on its own, each is fine separate from the other, but together the phrase now conjures up something almost universal:  culinary disgust.”

On this, we shall leave the details up to the reader – and an opinion on this much-appreciated or highly-despised cuisine.

What Arellano does quite well is to present us with the scope of the popularity of Mexican food in this country.   For example, you may have heard that more salsa is sold than ketchup, but were you aware that the sale of tortillas is now an $8 billion a year industry?   It’s mind-boggling, and thanks to Taco USA the facts are now literally on the dining table.

“Is the (Sonora) hot dog truly Mexican?   Who cares?   In Tucson, the birthplace of Linda Ronstadt, Americans became Mexicans long ago; it’s now the rest of the country that’s finally catching up.”

Yes, Gustavo’s listing of the five best Mexican meals in the U.S. includes the bean-wrapped Sonora hot dog that’s served only at El Guerro Canelo in Tucson, Arizona.   And while it’s not a bad list (which includes stops in Oklahoma, Arizona, Southern California, Texas, and Colorado), I think he missed one place that I’ll gladly take him to the next time he’s in the Capitol City of California – which is Emma’s Taco House in West Sacramento.   It’s been in business at the same location since 1953, and there’s a reason why this is true.   It is one of the most muy bueno taco houses in all of Taco USA!   And as the fans of Emma’s like to say, if you don’t like “real” Mexican food, there’s a Taco Bell right down the street!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Taco USA is available as a Nook Book or Kindle Edition download.   Gustavo Arellano is also the author of Ask a Mexican! and Orange County: A Personal History.

Note:   Gustavo would and does argue in Taco USA that ALL Mexican/Mexican-American food is “real” and “authentic”; probably as real as “Chicken Nuggets” from McDonald’s. (Which part of the chicken does the nugget come from?)

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Gin and Juice

The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee (Free Press, $27.00, 339 pages)

This is the biography of Craig Claiborne, a food writer and premier restaurant reviewer for the New York Times, who was to attack the bland, boring, heavy American diet of the 1960s and substitute, in its place, “a refined, if painstaking, cuisine.”   The food championed by Claiborne was international, primarily French, but with the understanding that each and every culture in the American melting pot offers outstanding dishes.   It may be that Claiborne’s prime mission was to de-anglicize the starchy, meat and potatoes diet that was once the province of the American cafeteria; a diet that – ironically – has returned to rule the roost via fast food outlets (with all the related health problems attached to such a non-diverse menu).

Claiborne might have said that variety  is the spice of diet, and he was nothing if not courageous in popularizing Chilean, Mexican, Greek, Turkish, Indian and other foods during his career.   Thomas McNamee earlier wrote the highly acclaimed bio of California’s Alice Waters,  Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, and while he praises Claiborne, this account is much less laudatory.   It seems that Claiborne had a number of issues as a human being, and they’re all put on the table in this telling.   (Unfortunately, the account is harmed by some odd typos and errors.   For example, on page 97 of the finished book, the year 1961 is referred to as “Ninety-sixty-one”.)

Claiborne grew up rather poor, but he came to identify with what we would now call the “one percenters.”   He was always to fly first class on his frequent trips to Europe, even when he had very little money to his name.   Later, the Times would take care of his expense accounts but Claiborne became controversial for his outlandish spending habits.   In 1978, he wrote a front page story about a $4,000 dinner he arranged in Paris.   The paper received 1,000 letters of complaint – there was a recession on after all.   At least two-thirds of the letters were very negative about Claiborne’s “in your face” ostentatiousness.   As McNamee notes, three years later interviewers were still asking Claiborne – the once poor boy from Sunflower, Missouri – to justify his behavior.

While Claiborne’s mother ran a bed-and-breakfast and taught him much about food preparation, he was to literally disown her and refused to attend the funerals of his mother and his brother.   Claiborne was in the closet during his lifetime, and he attached himself to two different married men, neither of whom went on to leave his spouse.   And while Claiborne lived to the age of 79, his days included no exercise and no less than 14 alcoholic drinks per day.   Claiborne was to openly admit to People magazine that he drank six margaritas before dinner, six glasses of wine during dinner, and as many stingers “as he needed…” until he got the “click in (his) head that makes me feel peaceful.”   In 1979, his blood pressure rate was found to be 186/112 – compared to an upper normal rate of 140/80 for a man in his late 50s.

You might wonder how Claiborne, as a public figure, got away with all of this…?   Well, he had his tricks.   After suffering a brain hemorrhage, he was to enlist his physician in his drinking activities.   Yes, his own doctor, who had ordered Claiborne to significantly reduce his alcohol intake, was charmed enough by the then-celebrity to sit and drink with him in restaurants.   Sometimes the doctor even included his wife in these drinking parties.

McNamee is just as honest – despite the book’s title – about Claiborne’s role in changing American eating habits.   Although Claiborne wrote the national bestseller, The New York Times Cook Book, McNamee admits that, “it is impossible to say whether the book had caught the wave of an entirely new American enthusiasm for food and cooking or had set it in motion.”   But the man is given full credit, as is his due, for popularizing the foods of all cultures and changing the once-dull face of food in The Big Apple:

“The clear result of his critical rigor was a continuous increase in the quality of New York’s restaurants and in others across the country…  By the time Craig left the Times, New York was teeming with restaurants as varied as the city’s clans, cults, allegiances, and heritages.   From the Bronx to the Battery were Chinese restaurants galore – including the fiery (regional dishes) that Craig had done so much to popularize.   Virtually every corner of Italy was represented.   Japanese cuisine of high refinement was easily had.   There were Brazilian, Vietnamese, Cuban-Chinese, Swiss, Swedish, and Syrian restaurants.   No longer were Greek, Indian and Mexican food served only in cheap joints.

Craig Claiborne may have been a man flawed in his personal habits, but he was also a visionary who proved the truth of the words that in diversity there is strength.   This is an engaging read for foodies and non-foodies alike.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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