Thursday, February 14

Kitchen to Classroom: Planet Taco and the Global South

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
A weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley. Follow her on twitter at @foodandrace.

The National Museum of American History is hosting “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000,” an exhibit that explores how post-war social, political, technological, cultural, and economic forces altered the way Americans accessed and thought about food. Last Saturday, as part of this exhibition, the museum featured a live webcast entitled “Taco Nation/Planet Taco: How Mexican-American Food Conquered the World!”

Gustavo Arellano with his book, TACO USA.
The panel featured OC Weekly columnist Gustavo Arellano (who also spoke at last year’s SFA Symposium) discussing his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. According to Arellano, the first Mexican foods to find favor in the States were tamales and chili con carne served primarily by ethnic street vendors and chili parlors. He says that as American food industrialized in the twentieth century, entrepreneurs canned these specialties, which enabled greater public access to Mexican fare.
Fish Tacos from Oxbow in Clarksdale, MS.
The panel also included Jeffrey Pilcher, author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, who identifies American soldiers and surfers as the agents primarily responsible for propagating the Mexican culinary diaspora. But no cuisine remains static. When asked about the new practice of fusing Korean and Mexican fare, Pilcher astutely observed that stuffing Korean standards into taco shells now represents a way to “Americanize” food.
Mas Tacos restaurant, Nashville, Tennessee.
Although Pilcher’s thesis views Mexican-American food as a global phenomenon, this panel connects directly with Southern food traditions. As SFA Oral Historian Amy C. Evans finds on the Tamale Trail, Mexican migrant workers brought tamales to the Mississippi Delta in the early twentieth century. There, they shared food customs with African-American farmers and Lebanese immigrants. Today, Delta tamales represent these diverse ethnic food traditions of the region–truly the global South.

Gustavo Arellano, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (Scribner, 2012)

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Note: Pilcher is also the editor of the recently published volume,
The Oxford Handbook of Food History (Oxford University Press, 2012), a comprehensive compendium of various perspectives of food history discussing, among other issues, politics, culture, economics, gender, nationalism, geography, pedagogy, and public history.