A Messy Business

Jeffrey Pilcher, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food

Oxford University Press, 336pp, £17.99, ISBN 9780199740062

reviewed by Sarah Emily Duff

In his collection of essays Recipes for Sad Women (Pushkin Press, 2012), the Colombian writer Héctor Abad warns his readers against ‘[t]hose who reproach you for your foreign dishes’:

if they believe their past is unique, that they’re not a miscellaneous mixture of American, European and Africa, then let them devote themselves to cultivating their limited horizons.

He suggests that those who insist upon eating only that which is absolutely ‘authentic’ should consume only pre-Columbian crops like ‘yucca, potatoes and tomatoes’.

Abad’s ridiculing of the cult of authenticity is particularly relevant to the various cuisines of Latin America. Foreigners’ relatively recent ‘discovery’ of ‘authentic’ Mexican food – the regionalised cuisines of the country’s provinces as opposed to the stuffed, cheese-laden taco shells of Tex-Mex – has led to a curiosity about the culinary traditions of other South American countries. Since the 1990s, there have been fashions for the ‘real’ cooking of Argentina, Brazil, and, most recently, Peru.

Why this enthusiasm for the cooking of central and South America? What is it about those cultures and cuisines – or foreign perceptions of those cultures and cuisines – which renders them so enticing not only to North Americans, but to Australians, Chinese, and Germans? Indeed, as Jeffrey Pilcher explains, ‘Norwegians think of tacos as a taste of home.’ In 1990, it was estimated that Norway had an annual national consumption of ten million tacos. ‘In fact, Fredagstacoen (Friday tacos) have become a domestic ritual, almost to the point boredom, and hosts risked derision if they served tacos to guests.’

Consisting of minced beef, iceberg lettuce, tomato, and shop-bought salsa, the tacos consumed with so much eagerness in Norway would usually be dismissed by culinary purists as inauthentic Cal-Mex. But, as Pilcher argues in Planet Taco, there is really no such thing as ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ or ‘true’ Mexican food. It is more accurate to refer to a range of Mexican cuisines which exist both within and without Mexico. These have been created in a dialogue – usually unequal – between Mexicans and foreigners, particularly North Americans, and have changed over time.

This study of the globalisation of Mexican food builds on Pilcher’s landmark Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (University of New Mexico Press, 1998), in which he traced how food was implicated in the construction of a series of national identities in Mexico between the 17th and 20th centuries. In this book, though, Pilcher is interested, firstly, in how Mesoamerican (or pre-Columbian) cuisines changed as the result of the introduction of foreign ingredients and culinary traditions, and then in how Mexican food spread to the United States and then to the rest of the world.

Pilcher’s argument is that Mexican cooking has been globalised since the arrival of Spanish colonisers during the 16th century. Not only did the inhabitants of New Spain and the borderlands between the colony and the United States produce a cuisine influenced by Mesoamerican, European, and other ingredients, methods, and recipes, but Central American plants spread westward, across the Atlantic to Africa, Europe, and Asia, where they too became incorporated into culinary traditions abroad. Who could imagine Italian cooking without tomatoes?

But this fashioning of Creole cuisines was no example of happy multiculturalism. Pilcher demonstrates convincingly the fraught relationship which both Mexicans and foreigners – particularly white, English-speaking Americans, or ‘Anglos’ – have and had with ‘Mexican’ food. I put ‘Mexican’ in quotes because Mexico itself only came into being in 1810, and its borders shifted frequently during the 19th century. To project a Mexican cuisine back onto pre-1810 New Spain is anachronistic. Also, Mexicans and foreigners have been involved in a complex negotiation of what actually constitutes Mexican food – and whether it’s worth eating.

Definitions of Mexican food in Mexico have shifted as Mexicans themselves constructed new national identities – and these have usually been done in relation to foreign cuisines and influences. For instance, during the Porfirian era (1876-1911), while most elites embraced French haute cuisine as a marker both of their sophistication and progressiveness, and disdained indigenous cooking as backwards and revolting, others ‘believed it was possible to redeem the indigenous culture and create a mestizo nation.’ This indigenista attitude, which rose to prominence after the 1910 Revolution, used plebeian food, like the taco, to claim a specifically ‘Mexican’ identity through an ‘indigenous’ food culture.

This was, though, a heavily constructed cuisine. They adapted the taco – a popular street food in Mexico City created originally by miners – by using ingredients and techniques found more commonly in French cooking. These were tacos shorn of their lower-class origins, and held up as a sophisticated and ‘authentic’ Mexican dish. For Mexicans living in the United States during the same period – particularly California, New Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico – cookbooks became both a means of maintaining links with the motherland, as well as asserting the value of Mexican cuisine. One of the most important recipe books of the period, El cocinero español (The Spanish Chef), published in 1898 by Encarnación Pinado, a member of an elite Mexican family in California, described a Mexican cuisine made using modern technology, and incorporating dishes from Mexico, European, and the Mexican-American borderlands. Although she signalled her ambivalence around her own identity by dubbing her cuisine ‘Spanish’ and not ‘Mexican,’ her recipe book implied that a Mexican national cuisine was largely Creole.

But Mexicans – particularly those living in the United States – had increasingly little control over how Americans interpreted their cuisine. The ‘discovery’ of Mexican food in the borderlands between the two countries during the late 19th century was driven partly by an Anglo search for culinary adventure. Chilli con carne and tamales – as well as the Mexicans who sold them – were characterised as exotic, even dangerous, and not entirely respectable. When American businesses began to mass-produce salsa, tortillas, and chilli con carne from the 1870s onwards, they advertised these products as ‘wholesome’ and ‘sanitary’ ingredients and dishes to be consumed by American families. Although Mexicans imported canned ingredients from Mexico, they did not control American food processors, who began to shape what Americans considered to be Mexican food by adapting Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, and New Mex dishes for popular consumption.

Indeed, immigrants all over the United States developed new dishes based on Mexican cooking: Cincinnati chilli was invented in the 1920s by a Macedonian chef who added cinnamon to his recipe, and served it on top of spaghetti with cheese, onion, and beans. Above all, the American taco exemplified the creation of a Mexican-American cuisine. Taco shells were unknown in Mexico but developed in America during the 1930s and 1940s as an easily portable and mass-produced fast food. Fast food chains, most notably Taco Bell, took this unthreatening, mild version of Mexican food to middle-class American suburbia.

In contrast, the Mexican middle classes of the 1960s and 1970s drove a ‘rediscovery’ of regional Mexican cooking in an attempt partly to counteract the influence of big food companies in Mexico. The Mexican food which was being sold abroad – entirely by foreigners, most of them American – did not reflect this change. Originally following US marine bases abroad – demonstrating the extent to which Mexican-American cooking had become integrated into American diets – Mexican restaurants served up Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex cuisines to Europeans from the 1970s.

It was also foreigners, though, that helped to lead the response to the globalised taco: the nueva cocina Mexicana (new Mexican cuisine) in the 1980s and 1990s. Influenced by nouvelle cuisine, Mexican chefs in Mexico and the US experimented with Mesoamerican ingredients – like armadillo – and Creole recipes to reinvent a modern, but apparently ‘authentic’, Mexican cuisine. Tourists explored the country’s provinces – particularly Oaxaca which advertised itself to bohemian travellers as the ‘real’ Mexico – in search of ‘authentic’ peasant cooking. The rash of ‘authentic’ restaurants based on this ‘real’ cuisine outside of Europe points to the emergence of yet another version of Mexican food invented by both foreigners and Mexicans.

It is difficult to do justice to this rich, exceptionally well written, and thoroughly researched history of the globalised taco. The study’s particular strength is the way Pilcher grounds a cultural history of Mexican cuisine in a detailed understanding of shifting immigration policy, changes in industrial technology, Cold War foreign policy and the Green Revolution, and social change in twentieth-century Mexico and the United States. He shows that the – occasionally well-meaning – foodie belief that ‘authentic’ food is produced only in poor kitchens, and that eating this food represents some kind of solidarity with ‘real’ people, is actually a distraction from the ways in which the food and agricultural industries exploit labourers, and put small farmers and producers out of business. Food is implicated in webs of power.

There is, though, one absence in the study, and that is the reception of Mexican cuisine south of the border: in South America itself. In many ways, Mexico has come to stand in for the whole continent, and it would be interesting to examine Argentinian, Brazilian, or Peruvian responses to this.

In 1992, Taco Bell opened a branch in Mexico City, and locals were disappointed to discover that it did not sell the ‘authentic’ gloopy, cheese-covered tacos sold by the chain in the US. As Pilcher notes, ‘The history of tacos, like eating tacos, is a messy business.’