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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Speaking of crossing borders, this week on MORNING EDITION we've been looking at life on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican frontier. Today: food. If you define the borderlands as roughly 150 miles on each side, you have what one food historian calls the birthplace of many Mexican-American foods. The food traditions of the border states, of course, influenced each other long before the border existed. NPR's Ted Robbins has the latest example.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

TED ROBBINS: I've come to the always noisy and crowded Tucson restaurant El Guero Canelo to meet food historian and activist Gary Nabhan. He heads Sabores Sin Fronteras, or Flavors without Borders, a coalition dedicated to preserving the region's food traditions. And here are just some of the mainstream Mexican foods which originated in Arizona, Texas and California and their neighboring northern Mexican states.

Mr. GARY NABHAN (Flavors with Borders): Flour tortilla and the burrito, the chimichanga, the carne asada and fajita, the margarita — all come from the borderlands and then spread out not just to the rest of Mexico and the U.S., but to the world.

ROBBINS: When students and surfers in Southern California went to Baja, California, they're credited with bringing back the fish taco. When cowboys in South Texas and Northern Chihuahua began using the humble skirt steak, the fajita was born. That's classic Tex-Mex, a term coined in the 1940s, combining ingredients from both sides of the border. It's a common thread in food history, says Gary Nahban.

Mr. NAHBAN: Most cultures share their flavors and mix and match with foods from surrounding cultures or immigrant cultures.

ROBBINS: In the borderlands, it goes in both directions. For instance, the chips and salsa you find on every table, Mexican native and educator Jesus Garcia says that started in the U.S.

Mr. JESUS GARCIA: Whoever invented that, it's also spilling into Mexico, because now people demand that. And even Mexicans, because they've come here, they see you get chips and salsa before the meal. Well, we want it there too.

ROBBINS: The restaurant El Guero Canelo made its name on what may be the ultimate example of cross-border pollination — a Mexican take on the all-American food, the hot dog.

Unidentified Woman #1: Two hot dogs and drinks and fries.

ROBBINS: They call it the Sonoran-style or Estilo Sonora hot dog. It originated about 20 years ago in Sonora's capital of Hermosillo. Jesus Garcia was a college student there at the time. He remembers the hot dog being a novelty from the U.S., sold on the street.

Mr. GARCIA: It's a typical food that you go out dancing or to a party and you come out two or three in the morning and then you go and find a hot dog stand.

ROBBINS: It made its way north with the most recent wave of immigrants, still sold on street carts by vendors called dogueros. Over the last decade, it's become so popular, Gary Nabhan estimates there are more than 200 places to get it in Tucson and more in Phoenix.

Unidentified Woman #2: With everything?

ROBBINS: A Sonoran hot dog may take the phrase with everything to new heights. It starts with a hot dog wrapped in bacon. Then you begin piling it on.

Mr. NAHBAN: With beans, the grilled onions, fresh onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise, cream sauce, mustard and jalapeno salsa.

ROBBINS: Add radishes, cucumbers, whole chilies, even mushrooms, if you want.

Mr. NAHBAN: And a soft bun for 2.29 and you get all the salad fixings you can eat for free.

ROBBINS: I mean, find the hot dog in this. Who knows whether the Sonoran hot dog will spread from Arizona across the country, but things seem to be changing from the days when the borderlands were the test kitchen for Mexican-American food. In the last two decades, Mexican immigrants have dispersed across the U.S., in many cases, says Jesus Garcia, not even stopping in the borderlands.

Mr. GARCIA: For instance, look at Chicago. There are so many Mexican people in Chicago now that don't necessarily come from the border. Those are people that have connections farther deep into Mexico, so a lot of those food traditions have jumped the border.

ROBBINS: Restaurants featuring food from much farther south, from Michoacan, Vera Cruz, even Guatemala, have popped up in neighborhoods all over the country, and U.S. chefs have promoted regional Latin-American food in upscale restaurants. With mass media and the Latin diaspora, it may be that food-wise all of North America is becoming the borderlands.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tuscan.

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