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Mexican Food in America

In our latest podcast “You Eat What You Are, Part 1,” Tyler Cowen talked about the relationship between immigration and food. Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, has written in Reason a more sentimental account (with historic nuggets) of how Mexican food went mainstream:

Food is a natural conduit of change, evolution, and innovation. Wishing for a foodstuff to remain static, uncorrupted by outside influence — especially in these United States — is as ludicrous an idea as barring new immigrants from entering the country. Yet for more than a century, both sides of the political spectrum have fought to keep Mexican food in a ghetto. From the right has come the canard that the cuisine is unhealthy and alien, a stereotype dating to the days of the Mexican-American War, when urban legend had it that animals wouldn’t eat the corpses of fallen Mexican soldiers due to the high chile content in the decaying flesh. Noah Smithwick, an observer of the aftermath of the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, claimed “the cattle got to chewing the bones [of Mexican soldiers], which so affected the milk that residents in the vicinity had to dig trenches and bury them.”

Arellano thinks that people who want to protect Mexican food’s authenticity are on the wrong track:

I’m not claiming equal worth for all American interpretations of Mexican food; Taco Bell has always made me retch, and Mexican food in central Kentucky tastes like … well, Mexican food in central Kentucky. But when culinary anthropologists like Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy make a big show out of protecting “authentic’ Mexican food from the onslaught of commercialized glop, they are being both paternalistic and ahistorical.