Jeff Buddle's Reviews > Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America

Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano
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it was amazing

Tacos rule. But you know this. There's nothing as good as a good taco. There's nothing as good as a good tamale. Maybe it's just me, but that's how I feel. Mexican food, properly prepared (and sometimes even improperly prepared) is the best.

I'll tell you this. I am a little bit romantic when it comes to Mexican food. So much so, when I finished this book, I literally emailed its author the following:

Gustavo-

I just finished your book "Taco USA" and admire the work and dedication you put into it. Thank you for the book.

Though I now live in NYC, I too am from Southern California. I am one of those white people who love Mexican food. I grew up with the smells of Menudo, corn tortillas, burritos, enchiladas, tacos, and tamales. I wanted to share with you my story.

My Mom grew up in East L.A. in the 1950s. She was of Spanish descent, her abuela spoke only Spanish; her mother spoke both Spanish and heavily accented English. My mom's mother -my grandmother- was head of the household. Her husband had been killed in WWII and she did not remarry so the household was a Spanish speaking one. East L.A. even then was a neighborhood of Latinos. The way my mom explained it, there were all types of people: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, a vast array of people who spoke a common language. Though my grandmother's last name was Tucker, her maiden name was Balderama. They fit right in.

Grandma Tucker was the sole breadwinner. Every day she trekked by bus to downtown L.A. where she worked as a secretary for an accounting firm. She worked hard. The money she earned had to support not only three people: my mom, her brother, and their abuela. They were, in short, poor.

I imagine that it was the Spanish language that bonded them to the neighborhood. It was comfortable to speak one's native tongue, even if it was a different dialect. My mom's abeula didn't like the slang words, but she didn't mind the people that spoke them. They made friends with their neighbors. And like neighbors do, they shared food.

I'm not claiming to great complexity. When it came to taco's we liked fresh tortillas, not fried. We ate enchiladas in green salsa. If we wanted a snack, my mom made us a corn tortilla quesadilla (just jack cheese melted between two tortillas), or something my sister and I called a "butter" (butter slathered on a flour tortilla and heated in the microwave).

But the thing that I feel the most nostalgic about, the thing that chokes me up even as I type this, is probably the most Mexican. Tamales on Christmas Eve.

My mom didn't make tamales. We ordered them. I grew up in Buena Park. In the 70s of my youth, you could still find what we considered authentic Mexican food at small hole-in-the-wall restaurants. I'd go with my mom when she ordered, and she'd speak Spanish, ordering two dozen spicy tamales and a dozen sweet ones. The order would be ready on the Eve. I can remember the smell when they came into the house already warm; you could smell the spicy chicken, the steamed masa. Oh my god, it smelled like Christmas.

You'd take a tamale and first unwrap a wet piece of paper that was wrapped around the corn husk. You'd open the husk and slide the tamale onto your plate. We ate and ate, But there would always be leftovers. My Grandmother would bring empanadas that she made, stuffed with spiced beef. Great, but I don't regard them as romantically.

Christmas morning while my sister and I tore open our presents -food was the last thought for us- my mom heated up two tamales and ate them with a cup of coffee. That smells like Christmas too.

I live in Queens now. There's a tamale lady who sells chicken and cheese enchiladas on Saturdays. Her spot is right below the elevated train platform. My wife and I sometimes stop and buy tamales from her (my wife had never had tamales before meeting me, now she's addicted).

When the tamale lady opens her cooler, that smell wafts out and I'm hit by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. When we take them home and unwrap them, I sometimes feel like crying. Not out of sorrow, but out of pure joy. I wish my mom was around to try these tamales (she died 2 years ago...fuck cancer). Their aroma makes me think of my mom.

This happened again recently when I went out for a run and ran by the window of someone who must have been preparing menudo. When my mom got home from work, she would frequently heat up a can of menudo for a snack or lunch. I didn't really eat it -tripe seemed disgusting- but my mom loved it. So when I ran past that window and the scent of menudo hit me, I felt a surge of emotion in my chest and again was on the verge of tears.

Yep, my life is tied up with Mexican food. I just don't like the taste, I have all sorts of associations with it. It's more than chips and salsa to me.

So thank you for the book. I don't normally write to the authors of books I like, but your book made me feel like Holden Caulfield, only instead of picking up the phone, I could just send you an email.

Thanks again,
Jeff

I've never before written to a writer. So I must like this book. If you have any connection with Mexican food, even if you just like a frozen margarita, you should probably read this.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 8, 2017 – Shelved

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