How did Mexican food become so popular in the US?

Gustavo Arellano – the voice of "¡Ask a Mexican!" – considers the entry of Mexican food into the American mainstream.

'Taco USA' is by Gustavo Arellano.

You might assume the taco, like taxes, has always been with us. It's true that American tacos have been around much longer than combo plates, tortillas-in-a-can, and (heaven help us) Doritos Locos. But they only appeared in the US about a century ago.

So says a man who should know: Gustavo Arellano, a journalist in Orange County, in California, best known for his sly syndicated "¡Ask a Mexican!" column in alternative weekly newspapers. Arellano uncovers the taco's origin story and explores many other Mexican food mysteries in his 2012 book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the first mention of the taco in the US, I (chili-)peppered Arellano with questions about the debate over the authenticity of Mexican food, the cuisine's entry into the American mainstream, and the best way to try something new at your local taco shop.

Q: Why did it take so long for the taco to get to the US?

Mexicans have been wrapping a tortilla around meat and eating it going back to the days of the ancient Aztecs, but the meal didn't get into the United States [until] refugees brought it in during the Mexican Revolution. Before then, most of the migration from Mexico into the United States came from northern Mexico. The taco wasn't as popular there as it was in southern and central Mexico, and it wasn't even called a taco until around the 1880s at the earliest.

Once refugees started coming up, they wanted to eat the food of their homeland. They start eating tacos at home, and tacos started getting sold in Mexican restaurants. That's what started happening in southern California around the 1920s, where the first famous tacos were taquitos – rolled tacos.

Q: We hear a lot about Mexican food that's supposedly worthless because it isn't "authentic." What do you think about that whole debate?

I know a lot of Mexicans and people who love Mexican food who believe there's "real Mexican food" and "fake Mexican food." To me, if you think it's Mexican food, it's Mexican food!

But the idea of authenticity has driven the popularity of Mexican food among Americans for 100 years. Once they've eaten a dish enough that it's not longer "authentic," they go and try to find the next authentic food.

At one point, people thought Taco Bell was authentic Mexican food. It was exotic. Now it's the new synonym for McDonald's.

Q: I grew up in a suburb of San Diego about 10 miles from the Mexican border, but my family was about as white-bread as they come. We slathered our sandwiches with Miracle Whip and I didn't encounter a bagel or yogurt or Asian food until college. But we did eat Mexican and Italian food. What do you make of how Mexican food has become so mainstream?

That's the funny thing about Mexican food. Along with Italian and Chinese food, it's one of the three main cuisines that are simultaneously ethnic and mainstream for the American consumer.

Even my mother would make us spaghetti and fettuccine and orange chicken. If you're going to be an American, this is what we eat.

Q: Is there a larger meaning to the American love for Mexican food?

The very fact that Americans love Mexican food so much is really portends well for the future of the country.

When a new group arrives, there's always going to be tension. The first thing the majority group does is make fun of their food: Mexicans as beaners and greasers, the French as frog eaters, the English as limeys. But the fact that Americans love Mexican food is really a start because at least you've embraced the food.

It seems like a flippant analysis, but look at history. It's very easy to dismiss a bunch of college kids foraging at Chipotle, but that's progress, it absolutely is. They might not eat tortillas in a can, but to give credit to the American consumers, they're always accepting Mexican food in one way or other.

Q: Wait, what? Tortillas in a can?

It's impossible to believe for those of us in southern California. I can only tell you what I've heard, the horror stories of Mexicans going to college back East and only finding these tortillas in a can, just like a sardine can, separated by pieces of wax paper, and having to gulp them down in a desperate attempt to eat Mexican food. But now they're almost impossible to find.

Q: What about the negative stereotypes of Mexican food? Do they have an influence?

There have been concurrent streams of American thought regarding Mexican food with one thinking that it's bad, describing food trucks as "roach coaches" and referring to "Montezuma's revenge."

But the more dominant mentality is the American consumer saying, "I like Mexican food. Let me try something new like a California burrito. Let me start cooking it at home.'"

Q: What do you recommend for people who like Mexican food and would like to try something new?

When you go to Mexican restaurant and see Spanish on the menu you've never heard in your life, order it. That will be the regional cuisine and more likely than not, it's really good.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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