Monday, April 09, 2012

La Bloga interviews Gustavo Arellano regarding his new book, “Taco USA” (Scribner)

Gustavo Arellano’s ¡Ask a Mexican! column has a circulation of more than two million in thirty-eight markets (and counting). He has received the President’s Award from the Los Angeles Press Club, an Impact Award from the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and a 2008 Latino Spirit Award from the California State legislature. Gustavo has appeared on the Today show, Nightline, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and The Colbert Report. He is the editor-in-chief of the OC Weekly and the author of two previous books, Orange County: A Personal History (2010), and ¡Ask a Mexican! (2008), both published by Scribner.

Gustavo’s newest book is Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (Scribner) for which he is already garnering great reviews. For example, Publishers Weekly says: “In this entertaining nod to culinary and cultural histories, journalist Arellano traces the roots of Mexican food in the U.S. and explores the cuisine’s many offshoots, underscoring why salsa is now our #1 condiment… Arellano makes the point, one that’s particularly relevant in today’s heated immigration debate, that as much as some Americans may protest Mexican immigrants, they’re in love with Mexican food.”

And I’ll add my own two cents worth:

This book will make your mouth water with every page even as you get healthy doses of history, social commentary and that classic Arellano humor. A must read for anyone who loves Mexican food...which is just about anyone with a pulse!

Gustavo Arellano kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga for a little interview regarding Taco USA.

DANIEL OLIVAS: It would seem a daunting task to write a book on how Mexican food conquered America. Why did you decide to do it? How did you pitch it to your publisher?

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: I did it because, during a cursory glance in trying to figure out whether it was worth my time to do such a book, I discovered there was little-to-no history written about Mexican food in this country—and most of it was wildly inaccurate or not examined closely enough. The project appealed to me on three levels: as a food lover, as a Mexican wanting to unearth our history, and as a reporter knowing a story when they saw one. That was the pitch I gave Scribner, and they liked it from the start.

DO: As you observe throughout the book, so many of the most popular Mexican dishes, eateries and cook books have had non-Mexicans behind them. What gives?

GA: Easy-there is no bigger fan of Mexican food in the United States than Americans. From the moment the American public had a taste of Mexican, it's wanted more—always the next great thing, whether it was canned tamales, taco sauce, how to cook Mexican food at home, fajitas, or now luxe loncheras. When you have such a ravenous market, it makes sense than non-Mexicans will try to make a go at it.

But Mexican food's story in this country isn't all about neo-colonialism; many Mexicans have found success selling Mexican food here. Look at Larry Cano and El Torito, Mariano Martinez and the frozen margarita machine, the Lopez family of Guelaguetza, or the clan behind Tapatio. That gabachos get so into Mexican food should be taken as a compliment by nosotros, not some psychic wound.

DO: Your book is so heavily researched that you even include footnotes for each chapter. Which got me to thinking: people have been writing about Mexican food for a long, long time, even going back centuries to the 1500s. Why has Mexican food captured the imagination of so many different kinds of people?

GA: First off, it's a spectacular cuisine: many regional traditions, each varied and touching upon all sorts of flavors. The indigenous flavors of Mexican food encapsulates everything from chocolate to vanilla, chiles to masa—and once the Spaniards introduced their bit, the cuisine became even more universal. The taco is one of the world's great meals, endlessly customizable: it's the perfect food. What human WOULDN'T be entranced by Mexican food?

DO: Taco USA has fourteen chapters with such titles as "Whatever Happened to the Chili Queens and Tamale Kings?" and "Is Tex-Mex Food Doomed?" How did you approach the book's organization? Did you ever go a little crazy trying to wrap your mind around your subject matter?

GA: Oh, yeah! At one point, I felt like Francis Ford Coppola with the cut for Apocalypse Now: I had so much information I had unearthed, I didn't know what to do with it. I still have so much regional history that I'm writing for other publications-the history of Afghan tamale men in Seattle (true story!), for instance, or the history of Mexican food in New York City (to be written when I get a book signing there). Eventually, I realized that, while I could've written a straightforward, chronological history of Mexican food in this country, it wouldn't have been completely honest. The history of Mexican food in this country is about trends, some running concurrently. So the first half of the book is roughly chronological yet remaining thematic, while the second half is wholly thematic. It's very much in the tone of Orange County: A Personal History, and a reflection of my own historical biases—namely, that history isn't a neat timeline but a jumbled mess that needs to be examined in segments.

DO: You write about several Mexicans who helped bring Mexican food (and drink) to the non-Mexican populace. These include some amazing rags-to-riches stories. Do you have a favorite?

GA: Each of them is an amazing story. For instance: Tapatio is so ubiquitous now, so to hear the patriarch of the Saavedra clan behind the hot sauce talk about how he was screwing each individual bottle in a cramped Maywood warehouse in the early days is inspiring. Or the Lopez family of Guelaguetza having to convince Mexicans AND Americans alike that Oaxacan food was worthy of their palates. And my favorite interview remains Mariano Martinez, inventor of the frozen margarita machine. The Californian in me wanted to dismiss him as a Tex-Mex heretic, but Mariano is so damn likeable, and his story so inspirational (discriminated as a kid because he was Mexican, thought of as a creído by Mexicans because he came from a famous restaurateur family) that no one can deny his place in food history, nor begrudge him for all the slushy, bad margaritas that followed his invention.

DO: The only grandparent I knew was my mom's mom, the late Isabel Ruiz Velasco, who came from a small town in Jalisco. She used to make this succulent lengua in a light mole soup with little, sliced potatoes. Oh, my mouth waters just thinking of it! She passed away about thirty years ago. I can't find this dish anywhere, though my mother makes it sometimes. Anyway, what were some of your favorite Mexican dishes when you were growing up?

GA: There's a lot of restaurants that serve lengua in Southern California, namely because we have so many jaliscienses. As I point out in my book, Mexican food in Southern California was mainly a certain style until the Mexican Revolution, which brought forth carnitas, menudo, flautas, and the all-important taco. Similarly, the past 25 years have brought forth all types of regional Mexican treats to this country, from pambazos from Mexico City to the moles of Oaxaca, aguachile from Sinaloa, and the awesome taco acorazado from Cuernavaca.

All this said, my favorite Mexican dishes growing up were anything my mami maid, specifically her gorditas, quesadillas, enchiladas, chile rellenos (with accompanying potato soup)—really, all of it!

DO: In sum, how would you encapsulate the impact Mexican food has had on the United States?

GA: Just imagine life without tacos, chocolate and vanilla—end of story.

DO: Mil gracias, Gustavo, for spending time with La Bloga.

UPCOMING ARELLANO READING: Tomorrow, April 10, 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center library (144 Haines Hall), Gustavo Arellano will read from and sign Taco USA. A reception will follow. No tacos, but coffee and pan dulce will be served. For a complete list of coming Arellano events, visit here.

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