When you see it for the very first time, steaming up from the table in front of you, Mexican food doesn't look like something that was planned. A glop of brownishness sits by itself on this corner of the plate. Something doughy and tubular rests over here, covered with a lumpy, green, glue-like substance. A bowl of fiery red stuff waits off to the side, ready to blister your tonsils. The chips you recognize, but only because the Doritos people buy so much time on MTV. A cheeseburger it isn't. It ain't pizza, navy bean soup or a tuna sandwich, either. Is this something you eat? Or is it something you take a picture of to send to the National Enquirer? "Hideous Industrial Accident Causes Horrible Meltdown of Once-Edible Food Ingredients."
If you are lucky and in the company of an experienced guide, your first encounter with the mysteries of Mexican food will end happily. You'll take that first daunting bite and fall in love for the rest of your life. If, however, you are alone when you meet up with your first relleno, or--worse yet--accompanied by a table full of
jalapenophobes from Minnesota, there is a chance you'll be scared away. Someone at your table will say, "Oooh, Spanish food. Watch yourself, bub," and before you know it, you're asking if someone in the kitchen can do you a grilled-cheese sandwich.
Which, I guess, is where I come in. As a food professional (and, before that, as a regular slug who ate a lot), I've dined in about 175,000 (estimate) different Mexican food restaurants across the continent. It strikes me as terribly sad that there remains among us a considerable number of persons who are not yet enchilada-literate. My goal is to enlighten those sad few, to free them from their bonds of ignorance, to show them the true meaning of the phrase "dos more cervezas por favor, dude!" I will accomplish this goal by guiding the reader (that would be you), course-by-course, through a typical Mexican-restaurant experience. I plan to touch ever so cleverly on various important skills and techniques. I will tell you what--and what not--to order. I will prescribe the proper etiquette to use while gasping for air during a meal. I will fabricate lots of impressive historical information. Of course, my biggest challenge during this trek will be somehow to accomplish my goal without offending every single person of Mexican heritage on Earth, living or dead. Which, of course, is impossible. So, I apologize, in advance.
Sorry, los dudes y duditas. Now, let's get going. A BRIEF HISTORY OF MEXICAN FOOD
The large area that we now know as Mexico was originally inhabited by many various and wholly different tribes of peoples. Through the years, some very fine Mexico-based civilizations have risen and fallen, including the Aztecs and Mayans and some others, I'm pretty sure. Aside from the occasional mass human sacrifice, these civilizations were collectively pretty bright and somehow managed to form their own languages, governments and calendars. In fact, history tells us that the fall of the Mayan empire came about because of civil unrest caused by the release of the steamy "Girls of Cuernavaca Calendar" in the year 14. That or a big volcanic eruption wiped 'em out, I don't remember. Well, soon enough, along came the Spaniards and their conquering armies. A fellow named 'Nando Cortez was the leader of this invading gang of crusaders, and he really managed to mess things up. Cortez decided that Spanish would be the language of the region, and immediately boated over a couple of thousand Spanish teachers from the Old Country. Aside from the usual declension drills and mandatory language-lab sessions, these linguists brought with them their dreadful intellectual propensity to experiment with native cuisines. Before long, the visiting Spaniards were mixing and matching cooking elements from their homeland--port wine being the principal element imported from Spain--with some of the ingredients that were native to the Mexico region--principally (in order of nutritional importance) lard, beans and corn. And so was born Mexican food as we (some of us) know it.
THE EVOLUTION OF MEXICAN FOOD TO THE PRESENT Everything stayed about the same until roughly the mid-Sixties. A few Mexican food items had made their way into the American mainstream during the late Fifties and early Sixties, but the major influx of Mexi-related influence did not occur until the founding of the Taco Bell chain, in San Mateo, California, on March 23, 1967. The chain, using standardized recipes and clever marketing, grew steadily and introduced millions of Americans to approximately south-of-the-border-type cooking. Not long after the chain's founding, American food snobs (actually, descendants of the Cortez armada of Spanish teachers) began to sniff haughtily in the general direction of every Taco Bell outlet and demand more autentico Mexican cooking. And so the demand grew for small, family-run Mexican eateries, and a boom industry sprang up around the wholesale importation from Mexico of grubby shacks that could be transplanted into cities and become thriving businesses serving tacos. Finally, during the Seventies large multinational corporations such as General Motors, General Dynamics, and General Foods began to invest heavily in the Mexican food industry. Large chains of "upscale" Mexican restaurants were formed, bringing Mexican food to the most remote peoples of the world. Today, it is nothing to see a nacho vendor on Red Square in Moscow, or a margarita machine on the steps outside the Louvre in Paris, or, and this is really outrageous, a Taco Bell in Glendale, Arizona.