Mexico has had a profound effect on many cuisines around the world: their indigenous plants, chilies, tomatoes, potatoes and chocolate, among others, were introduced to a world that had never seen or tasted such things before. With the Spanish colonization of what would become Mexico, entirely new ingredients and customs similarly affected the native cuisine, although these were imposed upon them by their conquerors. The concessions that the native people and the Spanish made by integrating these various elements resulted in what can be seen as Mexican food today, though it is truly a mestizo cuisine “combining foods from the Old World and the New, just as intermarriage between Spaniards and Indians produced Mexico’s mestizo nation.”
As Mexico and its gold-seeking conquistadors spread from their central heartland into what is now California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, it began incorporating Native Americans into the cultural mix. These territories slowly formed their own food traditions and utilized new ingredients and practiced different ways of living, incorporating new meats and preservation techniques. Suddenly, when the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, this vast expanse of land and people and culture found itself under the rule of a new entity: the United States. Westward expansion brought millions to the coasts and new borders between the two countries, and the buffer zone that had separated Americans and Mexicans was now virtually eliminated. Food was a flash point for disagreements, stereotypes, and eventually, a cultural fusion. What many now know in America as Mexican food has roots in the compromises that were worked out in Texas as well as California between Mexicans and the Americans.
It is interesting to look at the interplay that occurs when two or more cultures are thrown together, and food is an amazing way to see some of the cultural changes, compromises, and communities that occur at these times. Since the border between Mexico and America is long and quite permeable, there are many examples of the myriad ways cultures can fuse and affect one another. These can be seen everyday in the food that is eaten throughout America and Mexico. However, as Americans begin to accept Mexican food as a legitimate fine dining option in restaurants such as Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo in Chicago, it becomes more likely that cultural differences will become less stigmatized and accepted as they are for other cultures of the world. With continued immigration and a growing middle class, Mexicans in America are beginning to reclaim their culture, and food is an easy and popular way to do that at the moment. With America’s current desire to search for authenticity and traditional cuisines, it is possible that Mexican food will be accepted on its own, with fewer American modifications, followed by recognition of the cultural and culinary contributions Mexicans have made.
Pre-Columbian Mexican Cuisine
Mexico was a land of great variety – in terrain, people and especially food. A Pre-Columbian market could offer any multitude of vegetables, chiles, fruit and seafood. Maize of all varieties and other dried grains and beans were common, and each region of Mexico had a particular resource to contribute. Mesoamerican people learned to live on a mostly vegetarian diet, focused around maize and the tortilla, after climatic changes in 7200 B.C that killed off almost all large mammals. The tortilla developed as maize was domesticated into the more hardy corn plant, and it quickly became the symbol of a frugal but nutritious cuisine. The tortilla could be cooked quickly after several hours of labor intensive grinding, and it provided a healthy base for a meal as well as a plate and possibly eating utensil. For more festive times, the tamale replaced the tortilla; the corn dough and meat or beans topped with chile sauce, wrapped in a corn husk and steamed was always served at festivals and in wealthy homes. Supplemented by beans, squash, chiles and whatever regional delicacies could be found, such as fish or tropical nuts and seeds, the people of Pre-Columbian Mexico enjoyed a rich and flavorful diet.
This was not a diet that would satisfy the needs and desires of the Spanish conquistadors and colonists who would soon disrupt Mexico. The lack of both meat and wheat flour were serious concerns for the Spaniards, and the introduction of pigs, horses, cattle and chickens soon followed their arrival. Whereas the animals flourished, wheat had a more difficult time—the lack of irrigation and plows made growing it a problem, and the required brick ovens and plentiful fuel made the baking of bread nearly impossible. Slowly, a cuisine of compromise emerged from the available food sources and cooking techniques: the Spaniards began drinking melted chocolate instead of wine, cooking with pork fat instead of olive oil, and the new spices added new and different flavors. However, the desire for wheat bread seemed to be a compelling force, and the drive for wheat production would become a major part of the Mexican cuisine and its struggle for identity and modernity.
The native food changed as well, adding more meat and Old World spices and cooking techniques to the cuisine. The standard icon of Mexican mestizo cuisine is the mole poblano, supposedly made by a nun as she prepared a turkey dinner for a priest. The combination of roasted and ground chiles with cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, coriander and sesame seeds mixed into a tomato and chocolate sauce was a melding of culture and cuisine; the use of whatever spices, ingredients and techniques were at hand and appropriate would create many of the dishes seen as Mexican today.
Through Mexico’s history, various other cuisines worked their way into the food culture, as when Maximilian introduced French and European techniques again to the elites. Mexican cooks apparently made sure that “continental dishes underwent a process of creolization,” the most obvious addition being heat from chile peppers. This “creolization” process would extend to the borders, when the Mexican states of the north faced an increasing number of American settlers. The initial shock of the chile pepper was a deterrent to Anglo Americans for not only Mexican food, but Mexican culture as well. It took time for the settlers to accept the food they found, but gradually in Texas, Arizona, and California specifically, the Mexican foods all achieved some degree of integration. The addition of different meats, such as beef, to the Mexican diet, and the creation of a powdered chile made the cuisine that was emerging more popular and more accessible to Anglo Americans across the states. Now Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex and Southwestern food are all widely acknowledged cuisines, each with their own restaurants, cookbooks, and celebrity chefs. There is a trend to seek the authentic food; the pre-fusion cuisine of Mexico, but in a sense that search is pointless. Mexican food has always been influenced by other cultures and cuisines, even if the products were coming from across a mountain range rather than across the ocean. The cuisines that have emerged in America are indicative of the border cultures that have formed on the thin line between Mexico and the United States; they show the stereotypes and close-mindedness that can come when two cultures collide, but these new cuisines also show the compromises that can be made to create something new.
Due to its climate and relative isolation Northern Mexico had established its own cuisine that differed from the rest of the country. There was a preference for sheep and goats, and cooking techniques generally involved preservation: cheese, sausages, beef jerky and pork preserved in vinegar and chiles were all fairly common. Wheat was widely grown but often made into tortillas rather than bread due to the expense of maintaining mills and ovens. Along the border between Mexico and America, there were three main unique cuisines that developed, each influenced in varying degrees by Native Americans, Anglo Americans, and Mexicans. Tex-Mex is one of the more common fusions known in America, and its history can be tied closely with the growth of San Antonio, Texas. Native Americans heavily influenced the New Mexico and Sonora regions, and with a slow influx of Anglo Americans, the native cuisine was less affected than other regions. California developed an entirely different style of Mexican cooking based on the Califonio ranches, but with less acknowledgment of these contributions due to a less integrated Mexican population. The comparisons of cuisines between these regions show the effects of different social and cultural integrations, and indicate the level of acceptance felt by both Anglo and Mexican Americans.
Texas and Tex-Mex
Started as a Mexican settlement in 1718, San Antonio expanded rapidly as an American city after Texas became a state in 1845. It continued to grow as the railroad provided direct connections to Mexico from both American coasts, the entire Southwest region, and even the Great Lakes and prairies of the Mid-West. This access to work and travel across the United States also ensured that the city would retain a predominantly Mexican population; people from various backgrounds found that San Antonio could provide work, entertainment, and even political refuge. Americans traveling or hoping to invest in the city found themselves face-to-face with a foreign culture, a culture that was explored most easily through its food. Chili stands became emblematic of Mexican food and culture to American tourists, where they were served intensely spicy food by exotic looking “chili queens.” The flavors of chili and other Mexican specialties were often lost on these tourists, who found the “‘fiery pepper, which biteth like a serpent’” to be simply too overwhelming. An American visiting Mexico in the late 1890’s found the cuisine to generally have “an appalling liberality in the matter of garlic, a recklessness in the use of the chile colorado or chile verde, and an indifference to the existence of dirt and grease,” though he expressed delight in many other aspects of native Mexican food.
These sentiments contributed to a stereotype of Mexicans as dirty and a little out of control with their peppers and the women who served these dishes. In order to make the food and the people a little more presentable to the American public food needed to be tamed to suit a more sensitive palate. William Gebhardt was a pioneer in this area: he was able to import the milder ancho peppers from Mexico and grind them into a fine powder, which he marketed as chile powder. Known as Tampico Dust, the powder was easily transported in airtight containers to all parts of America. Gebhardt soon began taking common Mexican foods found in San Antonio and canning them to follow the chile powder. Chili con carne and tamales suddenly became available outside of Mexico, and the spread of the dishes from their original roots helped perpetuate the Texan/American transformation of Mexican food.
Texas is also thought to be the original home of the combination plate; it was an opportunity to sample a few different items and they provided a larger, more Anglo-American formal meal. These “tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, and burritos, known collectively as antojitos (little whimsies)” would be snacks for Mexican workers, but soon became formal meals for Americans. The thick chili sauces on top could be used as they hadn’t before because of the use of plates and forks, adding a new dimension to Mexican food. American standards also helped create the now ubiquitous fajitas, a tortilla based dish that used the abundance and demand for beef in Texas to create a popular dish that spread on its own across the country.
The acceptance and embrace of Mexican cuisine with the compromise of Tex-Mex emerged and is still intact because of San Antonio’s strong association with Mexico. The city has been called the “Mexican cultural capital in the United States,” reflected not only by food, but also by its political and musical preponderance towards Mexican culture. Although Los Angeles technically has the numbers to dominate San Antonio’s claim, they have not integrated the Mexican community as well; the proximity to the border and the celebration of Mexican culture has continued to allow San Antonio to take this title. Yet cultural integration does not mean that there is not still discrimination and disproportionate poverty for Mexican Americans and immigrants.
New Mexico and Southwestern Cuisine
In contrast to Texas, Anglo Americans did not heavily settle New Mexico for some time; it could not muster enough of an Anglo American population to become a state until 1912. This length of time meant that the Native American tribes had time to integrate into the Mexican/Spanish settlers and develop a culturally distinct community, although it appeared Mexican at the surface. New Mexico’s cuisine based itself on the careful development and use of only one chile, rather than the multi-variety approach favored by most of Mexico. Chile verde and chile colorodo could be made as a sauce or broth, and appear green or red, respectively. Incorporating some food traditions from parts of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, New Mexico used blue corn and chicos, pork instead of beef, and desserts such as sopaipillas and sprouted-wheat pudding. This style of cooking is more commonly known as Southwestern, which differentiates between Mexican, but also saves the food from being merely another variety of Tex-Mex.
The Anglo-American settlers that did move in seemed more willing to accept the food than Texans, as evidenced by a continued debate involving the quality of the chili peppers between parts of New Mexico: the southern half celebrates their stuffed chile relenos while the northern part takes pride in their much smaller and spicier chiles. A geographical survey of food preferences across the Great Plains region in 2003 showed that of the surveyed New Mexicans, over 50% would serve or eat Mexican style beef and tortillas in a main meal for a special occasion, and the sides would be pinto or refried beans or corn 25-34% of the time. In total, 54% of New Mexican Plains counties selected Mexican American food for a special occasion, Colorado and Texas followed with 29% and 20% respectively, but only 8% of overall respondents from the entire sample did so. In New Mexico, the established community of Mexicans managed to preserve its integrity and thus strengthened its influence on the Anglo-American settlers. However, this preservation came at the cost of the middle class’s Mexican heritage: they tried to label themselves Spanish in hopes that they would be given European status. Yet, similarly to Texas, New Mexico still finds its Mexican population overrepresented in poverty statistics and with access to fewer social safeguards such as health care.California and Cal-Mex
In California, the gold rush of 1848 created a sudden demand for land, and Anglo-Americans descended upon the coast, displacing the Mexican ranchero families. The territory had struggled to maintain its independence from Mexico’s government, but the attempts backfired when Mexico agreed to transfer California to American sovereignty. Families with large land holdings found their land stripped away, a story shown in the misfortunes of the Berreyesa family. “From 1846 to 1856, Yankee miners, soldiers, and vigilantes lynched or shot a total of eight Berreyesa men. The family was also beset by crooked land lawyers and squatters who reduced one of the most land-rich Californio families…to humiliating landlessness.” The Californio society virtually disappeared, “distorted by the assimilation of a small elite into Anglo society and by more recent Mexican migrants,” yet their culture is remembered almost exclusively through cookbooks and tourist attractions.
Since the California Gold Rush, the Anglo-American population dominated the Hispanics, in numbers, in politics, and culturally. The Californio families and the newly immigrated Mexicans had a hard time pulling a community together to preserve and reinforce their culture; “most Mexicans were miserable poor and socially invisible” by the turn of the century. Their food, with its “fiery condiments” and poor quality meat was seen as dangerous: articles with titles such as “She Eat a Tamale and Now Lies at the Point of Death” in the 1899 Los Angeles Record helped perpetuate that idea as well as the stereotype of dirty, untrustworthy Mexicans.
Although it was not well coordinated, the Mexican community began to draw together through food: restaurants serving Mexican food were opened with traditional music events, food stands catered to provide Mexican fast food, and cookbooks preserved traditional recipes and cultural standards. Encarnación Pinedo published one such cookbook that recorded not only traditional Mexican and Californio recipes such as moles, tamales, chiles relenos, and barbocoa de cabeza, but a social commentary as well. She entitled one Anglo American recipe for ham and eggs “Huevos hipócritos (con jamón)” which translates to “hypocritical eggs with ham,” and also lambasted the Englishmen for their “insipid and tasteless” food and seasoning. As Mexicans in New Mexico had done, Pinedo disguised her dishes as Spanish rather than Mexican.
This cookbook seems to have recorded and therefore provided a basis for a few elements that are seen as essential for Californian cuisine today. Ruth Reichl, who was a food writer in Los Angeles in the 1980’s, noted that “a love of fresh fruits, vegetables, edible flowers, and herbs, and aggressive spicing and grilling over native wood fires were elements of Mexican cuisine,” and could be traced back to Pinedo’s cookbook. Californian cuisine developed officially in the l970’s, later than New Mexico’s or Texas’s, and it was also less inclined to recognize the contributions of Mexican cuisine. Although using local ingredients and traditional methods, the “nouvelle chefs” of California and Los Angeles did not “worry too much about the cultural ramifications of how they had appropriated recipes or combined ingredients.” Recipes were created with only a hint of Mexican culinary history, and the cuisine itself was considered peasant food and portrayed as less important than European traditions. This process further marginalized Mexican Americans and their communities, allowing Mexican restaurant workers no upward mobility even in chic Mexican restaurants.Cultural Implications
Food is always an easy way to differentiate between cultures, and it can often be an important way to maintain a cultural identity. Food is a ritual, and “food preparation and consumption among family members is one such vital ritual because not only does it provide a communal setting for daily gathering, it also allows the sharing of cultural information.” Even if the foods of one’s ethnicity are not eaten everyday, cultural preferences, techniques, and manners are all passed down through the acts of cooking and sharing a meal. America has absorbed Mexico’s food slowly, with a process beginning with the initial shock, followed by gradual acceptance and modification to make the flavors more accessible, and now we are starting to want the food without American compromises. This pattern reflects the way that Mexican culture was brought in to America as well: after attempts to totally dilute ethnicity the country is on its way to be able to accept and celebrate differences. A desire to be multi-cultural can be reflected by the food a person is willing to eat, and many families now eat a variety of ethnic foods to promote a greater understanding of other cultures.
Mexico has a long culinary tradition that is still socially and culturally powerful, especially in establishing the place of women in society. Before mills and technology took much of the labor out of making tortillas, that was the woman’s primary job. A certain amount of self-worth was derived from a woman’s skill at grinding the maize and making perfect tortillas, and the process “acquired a corresponding significance in her personal and family identity.” The mills allowed women to relate to one another throughout the day: while they waited in line for the mill, when they were relaxing after cleaning the house, when they shared recipes and dinners. Women communicated to their families through the food they presented at the dinner table, perhaps showing more affection to one child by giving them a larger portion, or cooking a special meal for a returning child.
In America, these methods of creating community and communicating with the family are still maintained by many women. Methods of cooking are passed down even as they evolve to include technologies such as the microwave and setbacks such as the lack of special ingredients. To provide for a wider community, many Mexican women and men have opted to sell food, either on the street in various stands around the U.S., or in restaurants. Not only does this bring affordable, familiar food to fellow immigrants, it preserves cooking traditions relatively uninfluenced by American desires.“Authentic” Cookbooks and Restaurants: New Social Acceptance
Cookbooks have also played a role in pulling together Mexico as a nation; in fact nationalistic tendencies can be seen in Porfirian-era collections of recipes. Vicenta Torres put together recipes sent in to her from all over Mexico, providing the “first genuine forum for uniting region cuisines into a national repertoire” from which women all over the country could try other regional dishes. Even old Indian recipes were included, and women could start to imagine a national community in which they could relate and participate in. This use of food to unite the country continued into the Revolution, although the nationalist implications were more obvious and geared to the population as a whole. Reaching back to the Aztec’s, authors praised native ingenuity and cuisine, celebrated the mole poblano and related the story of the first national dish created for independence in 1821: called chiles en nogada, it used green chile peppers, white walnut sauce, and red pomegranate seeds to symbolize the tri-color Mexican flag.
The Los Angeles Mexican community used cookbooks to solidify their culture. Although many were compiled and written by Anglo churches for fundraisers and romantic histories, the example of Encarnación Pinedo’s inspired a few authentic cookbooks that could hold the community together. A new trend in America is for chefs, like Rick Bayless, to compile authentic recipes from Mexico proper, and bring them to the public’s attention so that they can see the traditional recipes. No longer nationalistic, this sort of cookbook instead works to create a new understanding of Mexico, to promote the culture and its importance in America. Anglo-Americans can use these cookbooks, then go to a taco truck or tamale stand nearby and try the food as cooked by a native to the country.
The increasing number of restaurants and informal dining spots such as trucks or stands indicates not only a growing immigrant population that wants food from home, but also an increasing interest of Americans in authentic food. A recent article in The Washington Post expresses joy and satisfaction that an outdoor market has started in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, where several food vendors from Mexico and South American countries peddle their ethnic dishes to Anglos, Latin American laborers, and children of immigrants who wish to “connect to the culture of [their] parents’ homeland.” Stands such as these offer delicious food and a lesson in culture, and they also have the potential to provide upward mobility to the cooks creating those dishes. In D.C., the vendors are required to take classes in business management, food safety, and accounting, which can translate into essential skills for a future restaurateur. In Los Angeles, a reoccurring problem in the Mexican community is the lack of professional mobility in restaurants where they constitute the majority of the restaurant’s workforce in Southern California.
The “Blue Corn Bonanza,” as author Jeffery Pilcher calls it, embraced ethnically Mexican food wholeheartedly, and the search for an authentic Mexican cuisine began in America. The chefs of restaurants that could appeal to this search were celebrated, and even if their food was a new sort of fusion involving foie gras and pineapple mole, the idea was there that tamales and tacos could be fine-dining. Ethnic foods in stores are still mainly produced by Anglo-Americans, but small companies such as Joe Sanchez’s New El Rey Chorizo Company are growing. They have faith that “since Anglos like real Mexican food, they’ll go over to the Mexican section and buy real ingredients,” not those intended for a tourist market. The trends of the present indicate that after a long period of suspicious attitudes and taste buds, a new form of Mexican cuisine and culture will emerge in the United States. Tex-Mex and Southwestern and Cal-Mex can all be celebrated for their fusion of taste and ingredients, but the Mexican impact can be enjoyed on its own as well. Mexican families will continue to support themselves and create communities through their distinctive cuisine, and their integration into American culture will continue to follow.
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