How Mexican Food Conquered America

Gustavo Arellano's "Taco USA" (Scribner) is rich in history, humor and social commentary

By Daniel A. Olivas
Published on LatinoLA: May 13, 2012

How Mexican Food Conquered America

Gustavo Arellano, the literary king of all things Mexican, is at it again with a new book with an audacious title: "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America" (Scribner, hardcover $24.00). It is a rich read, like a humongous taco stuffed with tasty morsels of humor, history and social commentary.

The reason it works is because Arellano is allowed to wax eloquently about two things he loves most in life: Mexicans and food. Throughout his delicious descriptions of every type of Mexican food imaginable, he maintains his usual mordant wit and attention to accuracy to which readers were treated in his previous two books, "?íAsk a Mexican!" (based on his controversial but wildly popular column of the same name), and a memoir, "Orange County: A Personal History (I've Been Taking Notes)," both also published by Scribner.

I recently interviewed Arellano about his new book. I first wanted to know why he decided to take on such a huge subject, and how he pitched it to Scribner.

"I did it because, during a cursory glance in trying to figure out whether it was worth my time to do such a book, I discovered there was little-to-no history written about Mexican food in this country -- and most of it was wildly inaccurate or not examined closely enough," he says. "The project appealed to me on three levels: as a food lover, as a Mexican wanting to unearth our history, and as a reporter knowing a story when they saw one. That was the pitch I gave Scribner, and they liked it from the start."

Thus, the journalist in him wanted to set the record straight. Not to scare readers away, Arellano's book is so heavily researched that he even includes footnotes for each chapter, thus establishing that people have been writing about Mexican food for a long, long time, even going back centuries to the 1500s. I wondered why Mexican food has captured the imagination of so many different kinds of people?

"First off, it's a spectacular cuisine: many regional traditions, each varied and touching upon all sorts of flavors," offers Arellano. "The indigenous flavors of Mexican food encapsulates everything from chocolate to vanilla, chiles to masa -- and once the Spaniards introduced their bit, the cuisine became even more universal." He adds: "The taco is one of the world's great meals, endlessly customizable: it's the perfect food. What human WOULDN'T be entranced by Mexican food?"

How would Arellano summarize the impact Mexican food has had on the United States?

He offers this frightening alternative world as his answer: "Just imagine life without tacos, chocolate and vanilla -- end of story."

Actually, judging by Arellano's desire to eat Mexican food and write about it, the story is just beginning.

About Daniel A. Olivas:
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of six books including the award-winning novel, "The Book of Want" (University of Arizona Press, 2011). He shares blogging duties on La Bloga and makes his home in the San Fernando Valley.
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