What you're reading and why you're reading it
The Mark Dery essay on this page is part of a new book, Hunger and Thirst, Food Literature , published by San Diego's nonprofit CityWorks press and edited by Nancy Cary, who, incidentally, has contributed to CityBeat in the past.
The pitch Cary sent out to potential contributors a year ago pretty much nails what the book's about: "Push boundaries-write on food as a metaphor, memory and culture. Explore thirst. Investigate hunger, poverty and addiction. Recipes, yes."
Rather than receiving "too many bad poems about chocolate and sex" (as she mildly feared), Cary got submissions from folks like novelist Barbara Kingsolver, poet Li-Young Lee and, of course, Dery, an NYU journalism professor, cultural excavator and former Chula Vistan who wrote about growing up a New England transplant in the border region for CityWorks' first publication, the 2005 anthology, Sunshine/Noir . In all, more than 80 writers, poets and artists contributed work to Hunger and Thirst (recipes included).
The book makes its debut at the third annual City Book Fair-happening Friday and Saturday, Oct. 3 and 4, at and around the Saville Theatre on the campus of San Diego City College-with a reading by Li-Young Lee, winner of the Pushcart Prize and recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. The book fair kicks off Friday at 7 p.m. with readings by Jimmie Santiago Baca and Marisela Norte and then continues Saturday morning with a keynote speech by NPR news analyst and author Juan Williams. A full schedule of events and related goings-on (all free and open to the public) is available at www.sdcitybookfair.com. For more information about Hunger and Thirst and CityWorks Press, check out www.cityworkspress.org.
I'm having a Señor Moment.
Dinner, tonight, is the unthinkable: a Taco Bell Original Taco and Burrito Supreme®, abominations that haven't profaned this chowhound's palate since I was a kid in Southern California, birthplace of fast food. I'm committing this foodie felony partly because I'm à la recherche du whatever: the goldenrod-and-avocado-colored memories of my '60s-'70s youth, when dinner out, more often than not, meant Taco Bell.
Growing up white and middle-class in San Diego in those days meant that "cultural hybridity," as the postmodernists like to call it, was my birthright: Mexicans were "wetbacks" and "beaners," yet our shared historical (and often literal) genes, romanticized in elementary-school textbooks and on school trips to the region's Spanish missions, meant that Mexican food was "our" food, just as piñatas were a fixture at our kiddy birthday parties and Spanglish (¿Qué pasa, dude?) was an inseparable part of our teen idiom. A curious cultural alchemy transmuted the taco and the burrito, in my white, middle-class mind, into the soul food of SoCal culture-the hybrid consciousness of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, wrapped up in a tortilla.
Unsurprising, then, that Taco Bell outlets felt like home, in an Alta California, Father Junipero Serra, wrought-iron-lantern kind of way. Their cute little mission-style facades, scaled down to Disneyland proportions and topped by a hole-in-the-wall-style belfry, complete with fiberglass bell, were cozily familiar to Southern Californians like me. The Old California vibe was enhanced by trashcans shaped like saguaro cactuses and gas-jet fire pits (an inexhaustible source of entertainment for junior pyromaniacs, in that Lost World before iPod and Gameboy). Sure, the theme-parked architecture put a friendly face on the mission system, built on the backs of enslaved Indians. And the original Taco Bell sign-the proverbial lazy Mexican dozing against a cactus, shaded by a cartoonishly huge sombrero just like the one my parents bought me in Tijuana-was to Mexicans what the golliwog lawn jockey was to American blacks. But we were clueless Anglos, and who knew?
The food, if not truly Mexican, was at least Mexican-ish. Not that my family scrupled at the difference: recently transplanted from Connecticut and resigned, in a Stockholm Syndrome sort of way, to my mom's unhappy homemaker cooking-the vaguely resentful, let-them-eat-Hamburger Helper cuisine of '70s mothers politicized by Ms. and Maude-we didn't know what distinguished a real taco from a Taco Bell taco, and didn't care to know.
But that was then, this is now. Which is the other reason I'm eating Taco Bell tonight: I want to sink my teeth into the culture clash between past and present-the whiter, more monocultural society we were, versus the hyphenated nation we've become. Taco Bell harks back to the Wonder Bread America of 1962, when the chain was founded on the assumption that real Mexican food was too slow, too spicy, too unpronounceably foreign, even in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, where Glen Bell launched his chain. "Buh-ree-toh," I ordered, prompted by the painfully phonetic rendering on the early Taco Bell menu boards. "Toast-ah-duh." Ordering in Español when you can't even habla! How bitchen is that?!
Paradoxically, even as its architecture and barefoot, serape-clad mascot, the "Taco Bell Boy," insisted on the Mexican-ness of the brand, Taco Bell was taking the "Mexican" out of Mexican food-destigmatizing it by deracinating it. Since the 19th century, the racial unconscious of white Southern California had projected its fear and loathing of brown-skinned people onto the food they ate. The racist commonplace that Mexican food is dirty-a coded way of saying that our brown-skinned neighbors to the south are Third World cucarachas, peeing in the Great Race's gene pool-is a durable myth. In his essay "Tacos, Enchiladas and Refried Beans: The Invention of Mexican-American Cookery," the culinary historian Andrew F. Smith quotes John G. Bourke, a contemporary chronicler of frontier life.
Writing in 1895, Bourke observes that the "abominations of Mexican cookery have been for years a favorite theme with travelers"-at which point Bourke promptly joins in the fun, deploring Mexicans' "indifference to the existence of dirt and grease" (not to mention their "appalling liberality in the matter of garlic" and their "recklessness in the use of chili colorado or chili verde").
In the turbulent wake of the Mexican revolution, Mexican immigrants poured into Southern California. Take Los Angeles, for example: in 1910, the city was overwhelmingly white; only 800 of its 100,000 residents were Mexican immigrants. By 1920, L.A.'s Mexican population had swollen to 21,000, making Mexicans the biggest immigrant group in the city. Then, as now, the winds of demographic change fanned nativist fears and white supremacist sympathies, especially among the conservative Midwesterners clustered throughout greater L.A. and Orange County. In the early 1920s, as Eric Schlosser notes in Fast Food Nation, the Ku Klux Klan ran Anaheim's daily paper, posted signs at the city limits reading "KIGY" (short for "Klansmen I Greet You"), and, for a year, won control of the local government.
Little wonder, then, that Mexican restaurants in the area chose to pass as "Spanish," as the L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold told me in a telephone interview. The owners of El Cholo, who helped engineer that genetic hybrid known as Cal-Mex cuisine, promoted their restaurant as a "Spanish café" when they opened it in 1923. Crucial to their success was El Cholo's open kitchen; visible from the dining room, it put to rest what El Cholo: A Taste of History delicately refers to as the gabacho "misconception that Mexican kitchens were not well maintained."
The equation of foreigners with filth and their cookery with "abominations" assumes its most gothic form in the old canard that Mexicans eat dog, an urban myth Craig Claiborne alludes to in his foreword to Diana Kennedy's The Essential Cuisines of Mexico: "I have always had a passion for the Mexican table since, as an infant, I ate hot tamales sold by a street vendor in the small town where I lived in Mississippi. (There were dreadful rumors about what the meat filling consisted of but, poof, I couldn't have cared less.)"
Truth to tell, there was a time when man's best friend was the specialité de la maison, south of the border. The Aztecs ate mostly vegetables-corn and beans were the twin pillars of their cuisine, which also made liberal use of tomatoes, squash, avocadoes, and chili peppers-but the upper classes fleshed out their diet with fish, turkey, duck, and, be it said, canis familiaris. Fattened in cages, small, hairless dogs known as xoloitzcuintli were the main ingredient in a dainty dish often set before the king: dog stew. That the xolo bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Taco Bell Chihuahua (a talking Chihuahua with a Speedy Gonzalez accent whose 1998 TV commercials charmed white audiences and infuriated Chicano activists) is what is known, dear reader, as a delicious irony.
Taco Bell made Mexican food safe for postwar white America by turning down the heat, translating alien ingredients into the gabacho idiom, and automating food prep: the queso fresco sprinkled onto Mexican tostadas was replaced by cheddar cheese; the fragrant, meltingly delicious tortillas frescas made by hand in Tijuana taco stands gave way to prefab taco shells mass-produced on assembly lines worthy of the region's aerospace industry, uniform as widgets.
Though the names of Taco Bell's allegedly "Mexican" foods might have been "new to many Americans, their contents were not," writes Andrew F. Smith, in his Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food. "Their components were similar to hamburgers-ground beef, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and sauce. The main difference was the tortilla, which most customers could easily understand as a substitute for the hamburger bun. As [the culinary historian] Harvey Levenstein wrote: It is questionable whether anyone but Mexicans should have considered it foreign food.'"
Most important, Glen Bell recontextualized the experience of eating Mexican food. In the gothic fantasies of white America, taquerias indifferent to the existence of dirt and grease served meat of uncertain origin and colon-scarring spiciness, calculated to exact Montezuma's Revenge from whimpering, backfiring gringos. Bell moved Mexican food to the right side of the tracks: brightly lit and spotless as operating rooms, early Taco Bells were staffed and patronized exclusively by Anglos, at least in my experience.
"At the time, Mexican restaurants were considered dirty," said Smith, in an e-mail interview. Raised in L.A. in the '60s, he recalled that "in racist Southern California, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, then popularly known as greasers, were also considered dirty. Few suburban Anglo kids ate Mexican food until Taco Bell arrived. It sanitized Mexican' food (and in many ways, it also cleaned up the image of Mexican-Americans)."
But what's Taco Bell's reason for living in an America where public schools are adding mariachi to the music curriculum and huitlacoche is the new porcini? In the United States of 2008, Hispanics are now the nation's largest minority. As of 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau reckoned their numbers at 44.3 million-about 15 percent of the population. And 64 percent of them were of Mexican origin. Who needs partial-birth cuisine like the Meximelt® or the Crunchwrap Supreme® when The Real Thing, in more and more American cities, is just a barrio away? Yet, defying all cultural logic, the chain "serves more than 2 billion [American] consumers each year in more than 5,800 restaurants," according to its website; in 2005, company-owned Taco Bells rang up $1.8 billion in sales, while franchisees tallied $4.4 billion.
Rather than replicate colonial logic by pontificating from on high, I decided to pass the mic to some Mexican-Americans who live in Southern California. Most of my e-mail interviewees agreed that Taco Bell's insanely cheap prices, made possible by economies of scale, were the primary reason for the chain's continued existence. Then, too, Taco Bell's late hours give it an edge with the young, male, beer-hose demographic. Gustavo Arellano, author of the syndicated column "¡Ask a Mexican!" calls the chain's food "hangover cuisine."
But opinions differed regarding the cultural politics of eating at Taco Bell. Luis Valderas, 40, a San Antonio-based Chicano artist, decries "the Americanization of Mexican culture based on corporate greed." He writes, "This fake Mexican food on steroids can never come close to the dishes my mother, tías [aunts], and welita [grandmother] used to cook for me and our family."
Francisco Bustos, 32, a "border-crossing writer" who lives in San Diego, remembers the words of a cousin who worked at Taco Bell: the beans "weren't real." Bustos wonders, "What did he mean by the beans not being real? I guess I simply thought, right, claro que si. If they're not cooked the way our parents and grandparents cook them it changes everything in a plate. No real beans means no real plate."
Daniel Olivas, 48, on the other hand, seems to savor the cognitive dissonance of Taco Bell's "wonderfully wrong" gloss of Mexican cookery. "I admit to being awestruck by the warped brilliance it took to invent something like the Mexican Pizza," writes Olivas, a lawyer and fiction writer living in the San Fernando Valley. Obviously, he concedes, "it's nothing like the food my mom makes, but I'm not expecting that . I'm not one of those Chicanos who believes that Mexican food is sacred. I'll leave such snootiness to the French."
In many ways, Perry Vasquez's wry, ambivalent take on Taco Bell captures the brand's polyvalent slipperiness, as well as the deeply personal, sometimes paradoxical ways in which we negotiate the Deeper Meanings of Things in consumer culture. To Vasquez, 48, a San Diego-based artist whose work explores border culture, Taco Bell's "corporate caretakers swallow up every exploitable image of the Spanish history and Mexicanismo and turn it into something like Hello Kitty."
Ironically, Vasquez "had very good feelings" associated with the brand when he was growing up in conservative, fundamentalist High Point, North Carolina. He and his mother and brother had moved there from Escondido, California, after his parents divorced, and when a Taco Bell opened "in the late '60s or early '70s, I actually took some pride in it," writes Vasquez. "For me, it was like having a small part of California in North Carolina. Much of my identity was built around being from California. It was fun for me to go there with friends and say, Yes, this is what a taco is like. We eat them all the time in California. Aren't they good?'"
They were good. Or, at least, I remember them that way, in defiance of my gastronomic superego's insistence that since Taco Bell food is a dismal simulacrum of The Real Thing, there could never have been a time when its tacos were not, as postmodern philosophers like to say, "always already" sucky. That's the perversity of memory: no matter how sophisticated my palette has grown or how politicized it has become, I still feel a nostalgic fondness for Taco Bell tacos, triggered by sense memories of that first bite, when the shell would disintegrate into a heap of tortilla shards and meat on the orange wrapping paper that doubled as a tray. The sublimity of that crunch, the sensuous contrast between brittle, ultra-thin shell (worlds away from the chewy, chamois softness of the griddle-warmed tortillas served by Tijuana taquerias) and moist, spicy-sweet meat: Taco Bell tacos combined the delights of Pringles chips and Sloppy Joes. For a kid in the late '60s and '70s, what could be better?
But why am I, a gabacho who barely speaks Jell-O-shooter Spanish, so devoted to the pursuit of the One True Taco? Lately, my jones for echt Mexican has gotten more extreme than ever. I find myself cruising the Web for foodie-porn photos of pre-Columbian holdovers such as tacos de chapulines (grasshoppers) and escamoles (ant larvae). What's that about? Is this one gabacho's ironic dream of Making a Run for the Border, as the Taco Bell tagline has it-leaving behind the Wonder Bread soullessness of white, middle-class culture for the mythic richness of Mexicanismo? Isn't that just the old Orientalist fantasy of going native, equal parts Mistah Kurtz and Cabo Wabo?
But if my never-ending search for the One True Taco is just another manifestation of the Anglo obsession with Mexico the exotic, the earthy, the primitive, the unimpeachably Authentic (think of the gabacha feminist sanctification of Frida Kahlo as Our Lady of the Unibrow), it may mask a gnawing anxiety: the pervasive fear that reality is morphing into virtual reality-that Authenticity is just a philosophical mirage in the Desert of the Real, to use the philosopher Jean Baudrillard's term for the media-warped, culturally remixed world we live in. It's a world where tortilla consumption is up in the States but down in Mexico, and where, as the gabacho popularizer of Mexican cuisine Rick Bayless told a reporter for the Associated Press, "they've started opening Taco Bells in Mexico now and people consider it American food." He added, "A friend of mine in a Mexican city said to me, You've got to taste this dish, this American dish. We've got it all over the place in Mexico now. It's nachos.'"
Who knows what Mexicans will make of the nacho? Consider the paste, a meat-filled pastry native to the Mexican state of Hidalgo-native because the Cornish miners who worked in the region's silver mines brought the meat pie known as the pasty with them. Of course, the Mexicans hot-rodded it with tinga (stewed pork) or mole sauce, chipotle or habanero chili peppers. Another example: according to the Mexican cultural critic Francisco Carballo, there's a sushi restaurant in Mexico City called Sushi-Itto where the chefs accessorize the raw fish with plantains and chilis.
In a globalized world, the Dream of the Pure is an embalmer's fantasy. I think of the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's essay "The Case for Contamination," in which he quotes Salman Rushdie, "who has insisted that the novel that occasioned his fatwa celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.'"
Then again, maybe my hopelessly overdetermined reading of Mexican food is simply the product of a Proustian preoccupation with lost time, an attempt to beam back to the Endless Summers of my San Diego youth.
Before I bite into my Original Taco, I perform a CSI-like necropsy on it, anxiously examining what the Taco Bell menu insists is "crisp, shredded lettuce" and what I insist is limp, dispirited lettuce. Dissecting it with my fork, I probe the "real cheddar cheese" (accept no substitutes!) and tiny mound-a tablespoonful or two, at most-of what my unreliable informant claims is "seasoned ground beef" but which looks suspiciously like earthworm castings.
I think of the Carolina highway patrolman who found a freshly hawked lunger, courtesy one disgruntled employee, dangling from one of his Taco Bell nachos. I think of the scores of people poisoned, in 2006, by the E. coli outbreak in Taco Bells throughout the nation. I think of the rats gamboling contentedly around a Greenwich Village Taco Bell. (NBC reporter Adam Shapiro described one showboating rodent climbing onto an upside-down stool, then dangling from it "like a gymnast." Cute, in a Willard meets Ratatouille sort of way.)
With these thoughts as an amuse-bouche, I take my first bite. I chomp through the millimeter-thin shell, flavorful as corn-fed cardboard and eerily crunchless in the soggy-armpit humidity of a New York summer. Chewing, I ruminate on the food writer Jonathan Gold's comment in an e-mail to me: "I don't think there's any such thing as authentic Mexican food." This from a Pulitzer prize-winning critic who also told me, with palpable excitement, about his lard connection, a guy who sells "manteca de carnitas the liquid lard rendered in the process of making carnitas [fried pork], liquid gold. I fried a few batches of chicken in it last night, accompanied by fiery red salsa and homemade tortillas, and I'm pretty sure I saw god herself."
So what is Gold, a guy who admits he "did plow through most of the Semiotext(e), Frankfurt school, poststructural stuff" when he was in his 20s, saying? That Derrida had it right when he Dropped the Chalupa on Western philosophy, arguing that meaning is not, in fact, anchored in some Transcendental Signified but is forever deferred? Ask a Gordita Supreme® what it means and it will simply point to a signified that points to other signifiers-or, in a pinch, try to distract you by asking if you want to upgrade to marinated and grilled all-white-meat chicken. Maybe I need to lose my bobo-intellectual illusions of an authentic Mexican-ness, somewhere over the border.
But not before I've mainlined some of Gold's liquid gold.
I reflect on all the psychobiographical and cross-cultural meanings I've tried to stuff into a folded, fried tortilla, symbolically speaking. Then I recall Perry Vasquez's mini-dissertation on the subject: "What is a taco? It's a fast food entrepreneur's task to ask that question, much the same way a modernist painter might ask: What is a painting? A taco' is an empty form, a genre, a shell that can be stretched, expanded, recombined, redefined, and recontextualized up to a point maybe, until it is no longer a taco and then apparently it becomes a wrap. And that's the ingenuity of it. But is it worth eating? In my opinion, no . Unless you're faced with starvation and even then maybe not . Orale!"
As I munch, one thing, at least, is instantly clear: You can't go home again.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He teaches creative nonfiction and media criticism at NYU and is the author, most recently, of The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. A Chula Vista homeboy, he is writing Don Henley Must Die, a book about the cultural psyche of the Southern California borderlands.