Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Planet Taco

Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher
Oxford University Press, 10/1/2012
Hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780199740062

As late as the 1960s, tacos were virtually unknown outside Mexico and the American Southwest. Within fifty years the United States had shipped taco shells everywhere from Alaska to Australia, Morocco to Mongolia. But how did this tasty hand-held food--and Mexican food more broadly--become so ubiquitous?
In Planet Taco, Jeffrey Pilcher traces the historical origins and evolution of Mexico's national cuisine, explores its incarnation as a Mexican American fast-food, shows how surfers became global pioneers of Mexican food, and how Corona beer conquered the world. Pilcher is particularly enlightening on what the history of Mexican food reveals about the uneasy relationship between globalization and authenticity. The burritos and taco shells that many people think of as Mexican were actually created in the United States. But Pilcher argues that the contemporary struggle between globalization and national sovereignty to determine the authenticity of Mexican food goes back hundreds of years. During the nineteenth century, Mexicans searching for a national cuisine were torn between nostalgic "Creole" Hispanic dishes of the past and French haute cuisine, the global food of the day. Indigenous foods were scorned as unfit for civilized tables. Only when Mexican American dishes were appropriated by the fast food industry and carried around the world did Mexican elites rediscover the foods of the ancient Maya and Aztecs and embrace the indigenous roots of their national cuisine.
From a taco cart in Hermosillo, Mexico to the "Chili Queens" of San Antonio and tamale vendors in L.A., Jeffrey Pilcher follows this highly adaptable cuisine, paying special attention to the people too often overlooked in the battle to define authentic Mexican food: Indigenous Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

My Thoughts:
In Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food author Jeffrey M. Pilcher shows beyond a doubt that: "The history of tacos, like eating tacos, is a messy business."  (Location 373) He researches the question: what is authentic Mexican food? What is mainly viewed as Mexican fare globally is actually an Americanized version of the cuisine - and beyond that authentic food is difficult to precisely locate because there are a variety of  dishes that all vary by region.
Pilcher researches the globalization of Mexican food, as most of us know it today. Along the way he also shares many interesting stories and historical notes in this very interesting, accessible account. Much of what is viewed as Mexican food is really Tex-Mex. For example, Pilcher shows that:
"Following the movement of three basic ingredients from the Mesoamerican kitchen, corn, chilies, and chocolate, can help to reveal the emergence of material and cultural patterns that later contributed to the global reputation of Mexican food. Already in the early modern era, these foods acquired vastly different images among elite and popular sectors. The importance of social distinctions can readily be seen in the case of yet another New World plant, the tomato." (Location 635-638)
For those interested in the history of a cuisine and how trade influenced the spread of it, Pilcher is thorough. He exams the history of Mexican food and follows it to today. Along the way he discusses how the cuisine was changed and how it spread world wide.
For all the nonfiction fans out there who appreciate documentation and sources as much as I do, Pilcher includes 46 photos as well as a glossary, select bibliography, notes, and an index. (Yes!)
Warning: you will be craving Mexican/ Tex-Mex food while reading. (Thankfully the weather changed here and with a Fall chill in the air, I made a big pot of chili. I had been eyeing Taco Bell after work.)

Very Highly Recommended, especially for foodies who love history.
Jeffrey M. Pilcher is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity; The Sausage Rebellion: Public Health, Private Enterprise, and Meat in Mexico City; and Food in World History. He also edited the Oxford Handbook of Food History.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Oxford University Press and Netgalley for review purposes.

What is authentic Mexican food? Surveys show that Mexican is one of the top three ethnic foods in the United States, along with Chinese and Italian. But just as chop suey and pepperoni pizza are not typical of the foods of China and Italy, few people in Mexico actually eat the burritos (made with wheat flour tortillas) and taco shells (pre-fried corn tortillas) that often pass for Mexican in the United States. Of course, there are growing numbers of cookbooks and websites, celebrity chefs and migrant restaurants, all claiming to offer “authentic” Mexican, as opposed to Americanized food. Still, when traveling across the country—or around the world—burritos and taco shells predominate.
The global presence of Americanized tacos has provoked outrage from many Mexicans, who take patriotic pride in their national cuisine. But beyond a common distaste for “gloopy” North American versions, there is surprisingly little consensus about what is properly Mexican, even in Mexico. Every region and virtually every town has its own distinct specialties, which are regarded with deep affection by the local inhabitants. Preface,  Location 20
The search for authentic Mexican food—or rather, the struggle to define what that meant—has been going on for two hundred years, and some of the most important battles have been fought outside of Mexico. Notions of authenticity have been contested through interactions between insiders and outsiders, they have changed over time, and they have contributed to broader power relations. Location 41 
 With the U.S. rise to global power in the twentieth century, this Tex-Mex cooking was industrialized and carried around the world. Mexican elites, confronted with the potential loss of their culinary identity to this powerful neighbor, then sought to ground their national cuisine in the pre-Hispanic past. This book tells the story of how a particular idea of authentic Mexican food was invented in the global marketplace by promoters of culinary tourism in order to compete against industrial foods from the United States. Location 47

Planet Taco examines this conflict between globalization and the nation as a battle of images between how foreigners think about Mexican food and how Mexicans understand their own national cuisine. In particular, it seeks to show how Mexicans imagined a version of pre-Hispanic authenticity in order to heighten the contrast with globalized industrial dishes from the United States. Location 182-185
To understand how a Spanish word, newly used for a generic snack, became associated with a particular form of rolled tortilla, requires a shift to the silver mines that connected colonial Mexico with the global economy. Location 215-217
Meanwhile, a parallel history of early globalization, the travels of maize and other indigenous crops around the world, further muddled the image of Mexican food. Location 244-245
But is authenticity obligatory? Are ethnic entrepreneurs “selling out” if they change the recipe to market their food to a wider audience? And can ethnicity be acquired second-hand? After all, the postwar travels of Mexican food around the world offer a classic immigrant story. The cooks just happened not to be, for the most part, Mexican. To answer these questions, one must first remember that iconic recipes exist only on the pages of cookbooks; in practice, they are adapted constantly to suit available ingredients. What cultural groups share is a general idea of the appropriate flavors, proportions, and combinations that belong in any particular dish, say, the traditional spices in a recado negro (Yucatecan spice mixture), or the proper balance of meat to tortilla for tacos al pastor, or the right variety of cheese for marketplace enchiladas.25 These opinions vary between regions, social classes, families, and even with the particular saz√≥n or taste of the individual cook. One woman’s secret ingredient is another’s outrage. Working-class Mexican and Mexican American women are often uninterested in notions of authenticity. That concept is more useful for claiming social distinction or for marketing restaurants and cookbooks than for getting dinner on the table.26 Location 349-358
The Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously declared, “the melting pot is a social idea that, when applied to culinary art, produces abominations.”27 Location 358-360
In the days of the Aztecs, the Taco Bell dog would have been in the gorditas.13 Location 480
Literally meaning the “little donkey,” the burrito’s origins are as obscure as those of the taco. Location 792

1 comment:

Bob and Vonnie said...

Thanks for your insights.