SAN FRANCISCO — Beware the burrito! Consider the cheese oozing from the chile relleno! Last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest warned Americans away from Mexican food. Devouring that chile relleno is “the equivalent of eating a full stick of butter.”
That peasant food can be fattening, that Mexican food is highly caloric, should not surprise us. But in America, where 68 million people are on diets, in a nation where the Puritan obsession with sex has been replaced with guilt about food, it is front-page news that tacos are fattening.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a consumer-advocacy group. The CSPI man, on the phone, said there was no intent to pick on Mexico. After all, this is the same organization that, earlier this summer, told us about the dangers of movie-theater popcorn. And, before that, the CSPI determined that Chinese and Italian food are fattening.
“Our problem is not with Mexican food,” the CSPI man says. “The problem is what Americans do with Mexican food.” The problem, in other words, is with Tex-Mex. Or, should I say, LAX-Mex?
Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet-essayist, wrote about the differing cultural assumptions represented by New England pot roast (cooked in its own clear juices) and Mexican mole (a topping with the consistency of peanut butter that Mexicans like to smear all over their food). Americans have a taste for the clean and pure. Mexicans are more easy with all that is messy in life. Mexican food is meant to be consumed by a whole table of people. Americans regard food as something to feed their individual bodies.
In the 19th Century, after the Mexican-American War, Texans concluded that the reason Mexico was so quickly defeated was that Mexicans were a “mongrel” race, mixed. The Mexican soldier had diluted the strength of his Indian and Spaniard ancestors.
Is there a more enduring slur against Mexico than “dirty”? In the recent debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, environmentalists were always reminding us about Mexican pollution. (Do you want to be married to that?) For a longer time, U.S. tourists have warned one another: Be careful of the salads in Mexican restaurants and stay away from the water! Do not sing in the shower!
Dirty Mexico, of course, is also Catholic, tolerant of human failure and, therefore, cynical. (“Ah, senor, every man needs his whore.”) On the U.S-Mexico border, there long ago developed a paradoxical marriage of cultures: Protestant hypocrisy met Catholic cynicism in dusty towns such as Tijuana. Whatever was illegal in San Diego (gambling, booze, sex) was available for dollars in Mexico. Both sides denied it in the morning.
To this day, on weekends, U.S. teen-agers drive into Mexico. From El Cajon and La Jolla they come. At a time when it’s possible to get cocaine in San Diego, get an abortion or a six-pack, Americans still flock south. As one teen-ager from San Diego said to me: “It’s cool to get drunk in Mexico!”
The CSPI report on Mexican food was not concerned with moral questions. It was only prompted by the fact that Americans are eating in more and more Chinese, Italian and Mexican restaurants.
The American appetite is moving down the great European continent, drifting south from Germany and France to Italy. And Americans are venturing toward non-European climes–learning chop sticks and Latin spices. In California, where our borders are not holding, there is an even more interesting development, mixed-race cuisine. Down the block is a restaurant that features Chinese-Italian.
A skinhead I know hates Mexicans–but loves tacos. While blue-rinsed grannies and inept politicians are marching under the SOS (Save Our State) banner, demanding firmer borders, Americans are switching from ketchup to salsa.
In the 1970s, all around Los Angeles, people started noticing that the famous blond city was becoming noticeably Asian and overwhelmingly Latino. Suddenly, Angelenos were collecting Santos . Everyone had a cactus in their front room and people in the chic canyons were painting their bedrooms in garish Mexican colors.
Americans are also becoming travelers. Like the ancient travelers along the spice routes, they are tasting new foods even before they know the words to exchange.
At the forefront of the craze for Mexican food in the last two decades have been yuppies. Trained to pursue individual success from birth, they are also the Americans who have taught the rest of us in this Puritan country about leisure. If yuppies are solitary and Calvinist in their work habits, they also seek out the crowded singles bar at night.
All over America, the college-educated–the buffed and the pretty–sit drinking the coffees of Italy. Oddly enough, Seattle, that gray-white city, gets credit for the new coffee houses and the dark Colombian blends. In fact, all that the bland Northwest did was to give Americans bright, clean rooms in which to savor the dark brew of the Cappucine monks.
“Cross Over the Border” urges the ad for Taco Bell. Before middle-class Americans ventured to the border, yuppies transformed gritty Tex-Mex and made it upper-middle-class LAX-Mex. All over the world, in “Mexican” restaurants from Tokyo to Calgary, the look of the place, the amiable noisiness, the chic of the place, is not Mexican but LAX-Mex.
But the new Puritans at the Center for Science in the Public Interest are concerned about none of this. Nutritionists, consumer advocates–they are obsessed with counting calories. They cannot describe the hunger in the American soul for foods that violate borders and lead us far from American loneliness.
SOURCE: Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at the Pacific News Service, is the author of “Days of Obligation” (Viking)