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The Southwesternization of the American Palate

PUBLISHED: June 17, 2015

Barrow, Alaska, is about as far from anywhere in North America as it’s possible to get: hard by the Beaufort Sea, 720 miles from Anchorage, 3,500 miles from Washington, DC, 1,100 miles from the North Pole. Yet, until very recently, it was possible to stumble across taiga and tundra and find, there in the heart of the town, a Mexican restaurant.

Until very recently, I say, because in 2013 Pepe’s North of the Border, which billed itself as the northernmost Mexican restaurant in the world, burned to the ground. The owners plan to rebuild, they say, but for now the superlative belongs to some other establishment—perhaps in Nome, perhaps in Svalbard, perhaps somewhere that has yet to be known to anyone but a few hardy denizens of the Arctic.

Pepe’s wasn’t much, by all accounts; one review kindly remarked that it was “better than whale blubber.” But then, when I was a kid, growing up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, the closest thing there was to Mexican food was a restaurant tucked away in a strip mall behind an ABC store and a grocery, one whose idea of authenticity might have satisfied a cheese-loving Wisconsinite but would never have passed muster closer to the nation’s southern border. It was better than whale blubber, too, but not by much.

Fast-forward forty years, and all that has changed. Today Washington is full of Mexican restaurants—and supremely authentic ones at that, representing many of the regions of Mexico. In their commercial vanguard were establishments in the Southwestern style: Tex-Mex and Sonoran, that is, heavy on the beef that is produced in abundance in the border states of Chihuahua and Sonora, heavy on the flour tortillas that speak to the Sonoran breadbasket, vast wheat fields flanking the Gulf of California and the western flank of the Sierra Madre.

These restaurants were once largely confined to the gates of military posts, favored by soldiers and airmen who had been stationed in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California, who found themselves missing fire and spice; in time, helped along by cartoonish Chihuahua dogs and mustachioed bandidos, they became commonplace, so much so that you can scarcely find a town in America where it is not possible to get some approximation of Mexican food—taco Tuesdays in Camden, Maine, enchiladas in Fargo, North Dakota, even pretty decent tamales in Montpelier, Idaho.

The ubiquity of Mexican food today, albeit mostly Mexican food of the Southwestern borderlands, speaks to both demographic and cultural shifts that were first made manifest in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus and crew in the Caribbean. In that year, perhaps fittingly, salsa outsold ketchup in the United States for the very first time. Nearly a quarter-century later, the gap in sales has widened by tens of millions of dollars.

The cause is not hard to see. In the 1930s, when good records of food sales were first kept, Mexican food was as exotic in most parts of the country as actual Mexican people—who, outside the borderlands and Chicago, were rarely encountered. The first Anglo cookbooks to admit Mexican food did so gingerly and, well, inauthentically: One from the early 1950s offered a recipe for tortillas that called for ordinary bread flour to be mixed with water, which would yield something like a gluey pancake. Not that anyone really knew, for even in Texas, soon to become a hotbed of borderland cuisine, chili powder was marketed as something that might be used to perk up a glass of tomato juice or liven up scrambled eggs, not the foundation on which to build a spicy meal. In his memoir, Prime Green, the late novelist Robert Stone recalls that in his boot-camp class, half the enlistees asked for a scoop of ice cream to accompany the strange thing called “pizza pie,” but the innocence was not confined to Italian food alone. Not until the 1970s was the taco known north and east of Denver, allowing for a few immigrant pockets in places like Oklahoma City and Detroit.

A decades-long influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, numbering many millions of arrivals widely distributed across the country, helped set the stage for a broadening of American taste, and if the mainstream attitude toward those people has often bordered on xenophobic hysteria, their food has been much more readily accepted. At last count, there were more than 50,000 Mexican restaurants across the country, including the outlets of numerous chains, and Mexican food represents the fastest-growing and largest segment of the ethnic foods market as reflected in what can be bought in an ordinary grocery store anywhere in the land.

Our xenophobia is not lessening, but the American palate is now thoroughly Southwesternized. We are just beginning to explore Mexican food, of course, for Mexican food goes far beyond the taco and the tamale, the toasted corn chip with the dollop of salsa. Consider, for example, birria, a kind of chili-infused stewed goat, beef, or pork usually served with lemon slices, radishes, and shredded cabbage with corn tortillas. A delicacy favored in Jalisco and other parts of central Mexico, it was late in coming to many parts of the border; I first became aware of it when a former student of mine, a native of Guadalajara, opened a birrieria in Tucson in 1980. Now there are several such restaurants in Tucson. In Los Angeles, where many Jaliscienses have migrated, there are dozens of birrierias, regularly contending for and winning critics’-choice awards from food writers for the Los Angeles Times and the LA Weekly. The best of them are on the east side, while the best of them are on the west side in Chicago. But you can snag a bowl of birria in Boston—and Seattle, and even my old hometown of Annandale, Virginia, which, though better known for its dozens of world-class Korean restaurants, doesn’t lack for good food from the borderlands, either.

Our national taste hasn’t yet opened much to the great variety of foods from farther south in Mexico, to head meat and spitted goat to chili-encrusted jicama and roast chicken covered in bitter chocolate. That may come in time, given the rapid spread of borderland food and the continuing growth of foodie culture: A decade from now, we may well be eating maguey-harvested ant larvae and corn smut, chayote and hojas de mora and huauzontle.

On a menu in Los Angeles the other day, after all, I saw an entry for a taco with a filling of asparagus and cream cheese. If we’re ready for that, it seems to me, then anything can happen.


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