Cinco De Mayo: Excuse To Indulge In Tacos, Salsa?

As the Mexican holiday approaches this weekend, host Michel Martin and writer Gustavo Arellano look at America's layered relationship with Mexican culture and food.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, we look forward to the weekend. Saturday is Cinco de Mayo. That is the holiday that commemorates Mexico's victory against French invaders in the Battle of Puebla, which might cause you to wonder that has exactly what to do with the huge displays of taco shells, canned beans and Mexican beer that are going to crowd the grocery aisles this weekend. I don't know.

Would the Mexican food industry in America be a multibillion dollar industry without it? We'll ask our next guest, Gustavo Arellano. His "Ask a Mexican" column for the OC Weekly has been widely syndicated. He's a longtime food critic. He's also a scholar of Latin American studies and he's the author of the new book "Taco, USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America."

Gustavo, welcome back. Congratulations on the book.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Oh, gracias, Michel. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Now, Gustavo, let's get something out of the way first. When we last talked about Cinco de Mayo, which was last year, you were such a hater. Remind us again of why you hate Cinco de Mayo.

ARELLANO: Cinco de Mayo is an invented holiday that really ultimately means nothing. The assumption is that we're celebrating a David-versus-Goliath victory and that the Mexican forces in Puebla, in 1861, beat back the French army. However, not only did the French beat Mexico the following year and took over France for four years, but French culture has profoundly changed Mexico forever. Every time we eat our Mexican sweet bread or (foreign language spoken), it's all French pastry.

MARTIN: OK. Well, now that you've cleared that up, your book, however, does seem to vindicate Mexican fast food. Have you had a change of heart?

ARELLANO: No. It's not that I am an advocate of fast food now. You know, I used to be a zealot. I used to think - OK. There's, quote, unquote, "real Mexican food" and there's fake Mexican food. But, no. Mexican food is Mexican food is Mexican food. There's different types of Mexican food. Sure. And I'm going to prefer, say, a (foreign language spoken) mole or my mom's grilled cactus, but it's - you know, it's as differently Mexican as fast food is.

MARTIN: So give us the short course. How did Mexican food conquer America, as you put it?

ARELLANO: It's been wave after wave of a Mexican invasion of the American pallet going back to the 1880s where Tamale Man that started in San Francisco, but then spread all across the United States, took over American streets. And chili - what we now know as chili, but back then was known as chili con carne, canners in Chicago, during the 1890s, they started stuffing it into cans because it had a shelf life and it was cheap. But then, after that, it's just one wave after another wave.

What the American story with Mexican food is we've always wanted it because of its great diverse flavors. We eat it. We assimilate it into our diet and then we say, OK. What's next? I want the next great Mexican food.

MARTIN: Would it be fair to say that you have the same kind of love/hate relationship with Mexican or Tex-Mex food that a lot of, say, African-Americans have with Elvis, which is, you know, on the one hand, you know - yeah, yeah - it's its own thing and I can appreciate it, but I still feel like you're stealing my mojo?

ARELLANO: Well, I mean, Tex-Mex cuisine - it's so reviled by Americans now, which is funny because, up until the 1970s, it was just called Mexican food. Then you have the release of a book by Diana Kennedy where she argued that Tex-Mex food was somehow inauthentic because it was Anglos who was eating it.

That's the story, though, of all food. Mexicans were not immune to it, as well. In my book, I talked to Larry Cano, who is the founder of El Torito, one of the pioneers of actual Mexican restaurants where you could sit down and have a meal. He is Mexicano - as Mexicano as they come - and so he told me that, in the 1970s when he was growing his restaurant, he would have his workers go to Mexican restaurants across the country, work there for three weeks, steal all the recipes, get fired, then come back home and then they would replicate the dishes.

So the food industry is cutthroat. You can't just blame white folks on it. Mexicans, we're as bad as anyone else when it comes to stealing others' foods.

MARTIN: So, just to be clear, you're OK with us going out and eating some fritos and salsa and drinking frozen margaritas this weekend?

ARELLANO: Yeah. I would prefer that you go to a better Mexican restaurant than your local cantina, not get a frozen margarita, but you know, try some Corralejo. That's one of my favorite tequilas. It's a sweet, beautiful thing.

MARTIN: But, as kind of a gateway, you're saying that that massed produced stuff is kind of the gateway to the better stuff?

ARELLANO: Oh, absolutely. Again, there's always a dish. Americans always know that there's better Mexican food ahead. They know - hey, you know, eventually, more (unintelligible), eventually food trucks - they're going to come to my area and, when that happens, I'm going to drop this mass-produced slop and I'm going to go for the more, quote, unquote, "authentic dishes."

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Gustavo, as you point out, outside of Puebla, most Mexicans don't celebrate Cinco de Mayo, so why do you think Americans love it so much?

ARELLANO: Americans like to play ethnics, you know, one time a year or a couple times a year, so they want to get down with, say, Otis Redding. They want to - you know, they want to act like Irish people on St. Patrick's Day. They want to pretend to wise guys by quoting "Sopranos." But do they want to live that life? Of course not.

So, with Mexicans, the one festival day of the year where you could act like a Mexican is Cinco de Mayo. They're not going to do it on the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is basically a Mexican holiday. You're not going to do it with Mexican Independence Day because that actually involves you knowing your history. You're going to do it during Cinco de Mayo. It's when everyone else is doing it, you know? Americans like to play ethnics and, if that means, hey, let's drink and put on sombreros and say, arriba, arriba, then might as well do it, but then the rest of the year, we'll just get back to eating our Mexican food while hating the Mexicans who make it.

MARTIN: OK. So, Gustavo, where will you be dining this weekend, if you don't mind my asking?

ARELLANO: Well, I'm going to have a book signing out here in Orange County and so, after that, I'm going to take people to go get some tacos.

MARTIN: OK. That was Gustavo Arellano. He writes the syndicated column "Ask a Mexican." His latest book is "Taco, USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America" and he was kind enough to join us from Santa Ana, California.

Gustavo, thank you so much.

ARELLANO: Gracias.

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