Sunday, June 3, 2012

Recent Reads: Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano

If you're looking for a great summer read that will make you hungry to boot, look no further than Gustavo Arellano's Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Through a series of narratives, Arellano traces the history of Mexican food, in some cases going back to the Aztecs, and how its popularity spread through the United States. You'll learn about the mass popularity of tamales a century ago, a fad that survives in the tamales available in Chicago and Mississippi, the once famous chili queens of San Antonio, numerous regional delicacies and the evolution of the US love affair with chips, salsa, tequila, burritos, and of course, tacos, from taco trucks to Taco Bell. More than just the story of a cuisine, these culinary trends reflect the multi-cultural nature of the US, its relationship with Mexico, and most strongly, the Mexican-American experience.

Based in Orange County, Arellano is the OC Weekly's food editor and author of the popular "Ask a Mexican" column. He clearly owes some of his writing style to Jonathan Gold, the food critic who formerly wrote for the LA Weekly, which has common ownership with Arellano's paper. That style, casual, witty and metaphor-heavy, is entertaining, but in reading Taco USA, I couldn't help but wonder if sometimes it's better suited for a short review than an entire book. Arellano sometimes goes overboard with the metaphors, which are often mixed. In a two sentence description of the making of a San Francisco Mission-style burrito, he writes of a "tundra of rice," a "rain of cheese", a "jungle of shredded lettuce," being made "as fast as in a game of Whac-a-Mole." Sometimes this goes on for paragraphs at a time. But that tendency is a minor annoyance which is more then made up for by the stories Arellano tells and the history he uncovers.

The one word of caution I would give is that this book will make you hungry. I finished reading it on a flight to LAX and upon reaching the airport found myself heading immediately for the closest great Mexican food I could think of (La Huasteca in Lynwood - review to come). So if you read the book, and you should, I'd recommend doing it in close proximity to some good Mexican grub.

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