The Kitchen Sisters interviewed Professor Donna Gabaccia, Professor Jeffrey Pilcher and Professor Julia Blackwelder for The Hidden Kitchens series. Below, we share some of their insights on culinary traditions and the globalization of food cultures.
Donna Gabaccia is the Charles H. Stone Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of We Are What We Eat, Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans and many books and articles about Italian migration around the world, immigrant women and immigrant life in the United States (including From Sicily to Elizabeth Street, Militants and Migrants and From the Other Side). Gabaccia's long-standing interest in material culture and in the everyday lives of immigrant women first focused her attention on food as a field of inquiry in ethnic studies.
Gabaccia on More Chili on the Move
"There's a very bizarre little story of immigration that's related to chili, and to San Antonio, as well. It involves a German immigrant, William Gephardt, who employed Mexicans in a bar restaurant he ran in a town just outside San Anton. He became familiar with their food and began serving it to his German beer-drinking clientele, and realized that chili was an attraction of San Antonio and an attraction to tourists. He decided that there must be a way to market a safer version of chili to these tourists, who might want to take home a little piece of San Antonio with them.
"He experimented over the course of 20 years with the drying and grinding of chilies into the form that we know now as chili powder. It's really a German immigrant, then, who takes a Mexican tradition, transforms it, mechanizes it — because this involves the invention of machinery right for the grinding of the pepper itself — packages it and mass produces it for sale to tourists and beyond, making possible the popularity of chili throughout the Midwest — and probably laying the grounds for that Cincinnati chili story."
Listen: Gabacci on Cincinnati Chili: How a Creative, Entrepreneurial Immigrant Created an American Tradition
Jeffrey M. Pilcher is Professor of History at The Citadel and author of !Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Pilcher specializes in Mexican cultural history. He is also author of Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, and the award-winning essay, "Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the Formation of Mexican National Identity, 1821-1911." His current research examines the globalization of Mexican cuisine. Pilcher uses food to provide a unique, insider's guide to Mexican history and politics.
Pilcher on Barbacoa and Mexican-American Civil Rights
"In the 1920s, in the southern valley of the Rio Grande, the Mexican population was expanding. They were starting to get educational skills and professional values, and yet there was still a great deal of segregation. In fact, in some ways the segregation in the lower valley was growing. Mexicans were trying to organize, to create a movement to gain civil rights, later known as LULAC, the Mexican-American civil rights movement.
"Some elite men within the Mexican-American community were gathering for barbacoa weekends. In the course of the evening, as they drank their beer and watched the meat roast, they talked about concerns within the Mexican-American community. Perhaps because the memories of the food blended with their ideas about the movement itself, they remembered these discussions, which ultimately led to these broader organizations. The women were preparing the condiments and sort of excluded from this discussion, and put into secondary roles within the civil rights movement. It's kind of an ironic parallel — that these women had this supporting role, but it often isn't acknowledged in memories or in the histories."
Listen: Pilcher on the Whole Hog Roast, a Southern Tradition
"The globalization of Mexican food really started in a big way in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was coming out of the part of the mainstream American population that knew Mexican food best — the counterculture, notably surfers. They ate tacos because they were cheap, and that really sort of helped to transport them around the world. The founder of one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in Europe was a gym teacher in southern California who wanted to move to Amsterdam, but needed to find some way of being employed there, so that he would be able to migrate legally. Being a restaurant owner was about the only way that he could get a visa. He was actually trying to take the Magic Bus down to Panama. He got halfway there, but when he was in Mexico the idea hit him that he should open up a Mexican restaurant in Amsterdam. And so he stopped on his way back in Mazatlan at the Pacifico Brewery and picked up some old advertising implements, signs and ashtrays and whatnot, and opened up the Pacifico Café in Amsterdam.
"The same sort of approach came with the opening of Mexican restaurants in Australia. The oldest Mexican chain of restaurants is called Taco Bill, which started opening up at beaches outside of Sydney and other locations — and helped create the stereotype that Mexican food is for the young and for partying. And so in resorts now around the world, Mexican restaurants have opened and, of course, bear very little resemblance to the sort of Mexican food you would eat in Mexico. We have these stereotypes about what Mexican foods are in the United States, and they've been spread around the world. The most distant location I've heard of with a Mexican restaurant was Olan Batar in Outer Mongolia, and I'm sure it will go even farther from there."
Julia Blackwelder is Dean and Professor of History at Texas A&M University. She is the author of several publications, including Now Hiring: The Feminization of Work in the United States, 1900-199 and Women of the Depression: Caste and Culture in San Antonio, 1929-1939. Blackwelder writes about Depression-era San Antonio, which — with a majority Mexican-American population, heavy dependence on tourism and light industry, and domination by an Anglo elite — suffered on the whole more than other American cities.
Blackwelder on the Legend of the Alamo
"The Alamo is a legend in terms of the way that the Battle of the Alamo is remembered, not only in Texas, but everywhere. It is a legend created by Anglo-Americans. In that sense, it is an unpleasant reminder to ordinary Mexican Americans of the injustices that they have suffered in Texas over many, many years. This is largely because, until recently, the Alamo was portrayed by the victory of principled and courageous Anglo-Americans over savage and unscrupulous Mexicans. So, if you happen to be Mexican American, that is not a particularly attractive legend.
"The legend of the Alamo meant Anglo-American hegemony until probably the end of the 1960s. Certainly that has been corrected to some extent in recent times, but it is nevertheless a mixed signal as far as the history of the city is concerned. I think it is a burden for San Antonio today to try to live in a pluralistic society with that kind of legend, although I think that it has changed, since Mexican Americans have a much stronger role in local politics."
Blackwelder on the Alamo and Segregation
"In the 1930s, San Antonio was much more strictly segregated residentially than it is now. So, if you are thinking of the Alamo as a part of physical symbol, there were probably many Mexican Americans who never saw the Alamo or rarely saw the Alamo, because they lived on the west side of the river, and the Alamo is on the east side. It isn't just that the Alamo is a legend — it is also physically a symbol of a part of the affluence of San Antonio that most Mexican Americans, as well as most African Americans, never really had a claim on until quite recently."
Listen: Blackwelder on Mexican Street-Food Traditions