Gustavo Arellano: Has the Tide Turned Against Tex-Mex Food?

Popular author Gustavo Arellano is coming to the University of Houston on November 15 for a free lecture.
Popular author Gustavo Arellano is coming to the University of Houston on November 15 for a free lecture.

Gustavo Arellano isn't just any Mexican. Over the years, the writer has turned himself into almost the "official" Mexican of America thanks in large part to his syndicated column, "Ask a Mexican!" and books like Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

This is his most recent book and one in which Arellano tackles the question of how the food of a country that many Americans despise -- thanks to issues such as drug cartel violence along the border and concerns over illegal immigration -- has become one of the most popular cuisines in the United States. Arellano, also the editor at OC Weekly (one of our sister papers) is headed to Houston on November 15 to discuss this very topic at the University of Houston.

The free talk -- which launches this year's Food for Thought Lecture Series at the university -- starts at 5 p.m. and will explore everything from how salsa overtook ketchup as the country's favorite condiment in the 1990s to what's considered "authentic" Mexican food (and why does authenticity even matter?).

"It's always good to have that discussion, if only to see the reaction people will have about it," said Arellano over the phone last week. "They feel extremely passionate about Tex-Mex, whether defending it or reviling it." He'd just finished a talk in San Marcos, where the university had prepared a spread of breakfast tacos and brisket for his appearance. Arellano was still coming down off the hospitality high.

"That's Texas for you," he laughed. And although Arellano is from Southern California -- home of Taco Bell, fish tacos and burritos -- it's Tex-Mex food that he enjoys talking about, particularly because of people's strong reaction to the cuisine.

"No one ever has those conversations about Cal-Mex," he noted. "A big part of it is Texas -- there's sometimes bad mojo associated with Texas -- but also what's interesting is when it comes to Texas barbecue all of America loves it." People talk about enjoying brisket or sausages, but not cheese enchiladas. Tex-Mex, as Arellano sees it, is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of deal outside the state.

"In some ways, people feel cheated," he explained. "They feel that Tex-Mex masqueraded as Mexican food for all these years." And now that more of mainstream America is discovering what they perceive to be "authentic" Mexican food, the more they're turned off by the lard-and-cheese-laced plates that most Texans adore. Outside of Texas, says Arellano, the tide has turned against Tex-Mex despite its deep roots in our country.

"It's unfortunate because it's almost an attitude like, 'What have you done for me lately?'" Arellano sighed. And what many Americans can forget is that "dishes that were fads and phenomenons become assimilated into the American diet."

"At one point, chile con carne was considered to be Mexican food," he laughed. "And now it's American food -- it's just chili from a can. Same thing with fajitas. They no longer have that cache value."

Arellano places much of the blame on people like Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy, chefs and cookbook authors who despise Tex-Mex as a bastard cuisine and who -- in some people's perceptions -- have raided Mexico's various states and towns to cobble together an American version of what "authentic" Mexican food should be.

"[T]his triangle [Bayless] speaks of in the South, the triangle of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Mexico City he has ceaselessly promoted for decades as the only regions of Mexico worthy of visiting for its food? Straight-up bullshit," wrote Bill Esparza in the OC Weekly this past June. "He has dismissed the North and had previously referred to Tijuana and Baja as a wasteland until LA bloggers...made folks in the US reconsider the region."

Arellano isn't a fan either.

"Bayless and Kennedy validate the suspicion that people have with regard to Mexican food," he said. The suspicion that it's an interloper, meant to confuse us and steer us away from the "real" thing.

On the other hand, says Arellano, Mexicans often aren't very fond of Tex-Mex either -- especially Mexicans in other parts of North America. Although other ethnicities' cuisines have been mainstreamed by Americans over the years (Italian and Chinese, most notably), Arellano notes that Mexicans -- by far -- hold the most contempt for the Americanized version of their food. Arellano calls it a "socio-psychological issue."

"With the Mexican elite, they have just hated the fact that Americans love Mexican food and despise the fact that when Americans cook Mexican food they cook Tex-Mex. It's a psychic wound," he explained. "Not only did the gabachos steal half of our territory, now they're stealing our food."

He told a story of finding an old cookbook in California from the 1920s with a recipe in it for tamale pie. "There's this cool restaurant in O.C. that's vegan," he said, so he asked them to make a vegan version of the cookbook's tamale pie. And his readers went apeshit. Although the comments have since been erased by a site-wide switch to a new comment system, they were ugly. And Arellano was maddened by it all.

"The people who responded were so petulant and so childish about the idea that white people can make Mexican food," he said, still exasperated even though the story ran two years ago. "And, yes, they can make it vegan as well." Any Houstonian who's eaten at Radical Eats certainly knows this to be true, but even here you'll run into angry foodies -- both Mexican, gabacho and everywhere in between -- who insist that Tex-Mex and Mexican food can't be made by white people. Especially white vegans.

I'm here to tell you it can be. And it should be -- Tex-Mex is as much a part of any white Texan's cultural make-up as it is any Tejano's, and every Texan has as much right to make a pot of queso as they do a brisket.

Arellano agrees, although he still notes that there are plenty of Tex-Mex (and Mexican) dishes that not everyone is on board with.

"Menudo's never gonna cross over," he states by example. "Modern-day Americans don't like organ meat; they're squeamish about it."

I'm all right with this, however. Just means more menudo for me.

Come back tomorrow for more with Gustavo Arellano and why he thinks that Houstonians are inherently insecure -- about our food scene and everything else. For more information on the November 15 talk, head to the University of Houston's website.

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