Yet it took time before Mexicans really claimed their cuisine. Renowned chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo Restaurant in Austin, Texas, told me that while growing up in Mexico City in the 1960s, “It was not fancy to receive people at home and serve Mexican food. That was everyday cooking. We would serve only foreign dishes, nothing Mexican at all.”
Meanwhile, north of the border, Americans were making a fortune off Mexican food. First, they mass-produced dishes like chili con carne (a stew of beans, meat and chillies) as canned goods; then they corporatised Mexican street food into behemoths like Taco Bell. Never mind that the US had been legislatively antagonising Mexico ever since annexing half its turf in 1848, from trade and immigration policies to the war on drugs. Salsa was raking in more revenue than ketchup by the early 1990s. Even Donald Trump, who pledged to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, once tweeted that Trump Tower Grill made the best taco bowls.
“That is the grand dichotomy of Mexican food, that so many people who cannot stand Mexicans, let alone Mexican migration, do love the cuisine,” said Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
Americans especially pine for “authentic” Mexican food – something Arellano contends does not exist, “except as a money-maker for anyone who uses it”. Restaurants have been touting authenticity since the 1940s, but it became a foodie obsession in 1972 when British ethno-gastronomer Diana Kennedy published The Cuisines of Mexico. Building off de León’s work, this cookbook turned Kennedy into the Julia Child of Mexico and garnered her accolades like Bravo’s Top Chef Master Rick Bayless. But while Arellano credits Kennedy with convincing Mexico’s elite to finally take pride in their regional cuisine, she was ruthless in her pronouncements, particularly concerning the Tex-Mex dishes of my childhood. (It plays “havoc with your stomach, with your breath, everything,” she once told Texas Monthly.)
Such disparagements pained Mexican Americans, who were already struggling over whether or not they were “sufficiently” Mexican. Journalist Lesley Téllez told me that while growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, “assimilation was what we had to do to survive generations of discrimination. Mexican food was one of the few tangible things that my family took joy in, that was an expression of love and pride that we were not able to share in the wider world.”