“Mexican food was taken by the United States just as the land had been.” — Arlene Voski Avakian and Barbara Haber, Feminist Food Studies: A Brief History
If there is one cuisine in the United States that is definitive of the “melting pot” this nation is known for, it is Mexican food. With the exception of Italian and Chinese cuisines (both of which have seen their own transformations since they settled into America’s cultural landscape), it could be argued that no other cuisine has had a greater impact on a country—or has morphed to fit the native palate—quite like Mexican food in America.
Yet the way we talk about Mexican food in America—as largely being created by people like Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless—is looking at only part of the comprehensive truth. After Kennedy published her first cookbook Cuisines of Mexico in 1972, the gourmet tex-mex fad was indeed born . In the book, Kennedy makes a clear distinction between “authentic” Mexican food (what is cooked and served in Mexico) and what is served north of the border, and thus presents a potent yet false idea that the only real Mexican food is that which is prepared by the poorest Mexicans in Mexico. It isn’t really a winning game to preach about authenticity in a country whose culinary reputation is largely built on the adaptations of other people’s food cultures. Not to mention how ironic it is to hear a white chef who has made a very successful career off another country’s food make statements about authenticity.
Alex Stupak had no previous experience cooking Mexican food, but that didn’t stop him from opening a taqueria and subsequently being named the ” Taco King ” in 2015. After studying under Wylie Dufresne as pastry chef at WD-50 in New York, Stupak decided to tackle his other obsession: Mexican food. Last year, Stupak released Tacos: Recipes and Provocations where he was unafraid to talk about things like cultural appropriation.
“Talking about tacos gives us a chance to talk about cultural exchange, about idea appropriation, and about the way we value — or undervalue — ethnic cuisines,” he says in the book . But during a SXSW talk earlier this year, Stupak went on record as saying “Some of the greatest lovers of Mexican cuisine are the people who are keeping it in the ghetto. You say authentic tacos cost 89 cents. Do you think the family of the guy who sells you tacos for 89 cents is leading a good life?”
There’s obviously a gulf between behind what one of New York’s most renowned white chefs writes and what he says, and I think that needs to be examined. This disparity in attitudes suggests that a true cultural exchange hasn’t happened in the way Stupak’s writing has idealized.
Rick Bayless, yet another white chef, is credited with bringing Mexican food to the Midwest, and has been lauded as the one American chef who has “done more than any other” to introduce Mexican cuisine in America. To place that credit at Bayless’ feet alone is to completely ignore the Mexican and Mexican-American cooks who came before him and before Diana Kennedy.
History has seemingly forgotten about Elena Zelayeta , for example, who was at one time the national authority on Mexican cuisine in America. Born in Mexico, Zelayeta relocated to San Francisco with her family during the Mexican Revolution. After her second son was born, Zelayeta lost her eyesight, and 18 months after that, her husband died in a car accident. Needing to support her sons, she re-taught herself to cook by judging the heat of cooking oil by smell, and measuring baking times by listening to programs on the radio.
Zelayeta went on to make a name for herself in the world of Mexican-American cuisine, especially in the Bay Area, California where she started the first cooking school at the Center for the Blind in San Francisco. Sadly after losing her eyesight and husband, Zelayeta had to close the Mexican restaurant she opened and operated in a luxury hotel in downtown San Francisco called Elena’s Mexican Village. After learning to live and thrive with her blindness and sudden widow status, initially Zelayeta published a book of her recipes to help her be able to afford a guide dog. After the release and success of 1944’s Elena’s Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes , however, Zelayeta went on to write three more cookbooks ( Elena’s Lessons for Living  , Elena’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking  , and Elena’s Favorite Foods California Style ) then began teaching cooking classes across the country. Zelayeta even had a cooking show called It’s Fun to Eat with Elena which aired in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the time of her death in 1967, she had cemented herself as a notable figure in Mexican-American cooking. James Beard wrote the introduction to her last book which was published the same year she passed away, and said of this fascinating woman, “She has greatness.”
When I asked Gustavo Arellano, author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America , why is it that white chefs are so often deemed the authority on Mexican food in America, he told me simply; “Because they’re gabachos!” a spanish slang word for Caucasians, much like “gringo”. He also told me that for every Kennedy and Bayless, you’ll get an Elena Zelayeta or Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, who wrote some of the earliest anthropologies of Mexican food. Cabeza de Baca Gilbert is credited with having introduced the U.S. to cooking with chile as a nutritionist, essentially placing New Mexico cuisine on the culinary map. After earning her Home Economics degree from New Mexico State University, she began a 30-year career as an extension agent—essentially someone who is employed by the government to assist people in rural areas with methods of farming and home economics. In her new role, Cabeza de Baca Gilbert would teach rural women to garden, cook, and sew; she made major advancements in food safety in the southwest by dedicating her time to helping people in New Mexico learn the basics of canning, and how to dry and preserve food in order to prevent food borne illnesses.
Crowned as “the woman who helped make chile hip”, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert’s work would eventually be recognized globally by the United Nations and the author would go on to develop Home Economics programs for the Peace Corps until her death in 1931.
Then, there’s Zarela Martinez: not exactly an unsung hero of Mexican-American cuisine (she was crowned the Queen of Mexican food at one time), but she is by no means as well-known as her American counterparts. After being discovered in a New Orleans cooking class by Creole chef Paul Prudhomme, she went on to open a catering business in El Paso, TX called El Paso . After leaving the border and El Paso, where she had a rocky marriage and two twin sons, she had big dreams of opening a restaurant in New York. In 1987 she realized that dream when she opened the Mexican restaurant , Zarela , which would later be deemed a pioneer of regional Mexican cuisine in New York City, where over the next two decades would cement itself as an institution. People may be more familiar with her son, chef and Food Network T.V. personality Aaron Sanchez (another wonderful example of Mexican-American chefs doing great things), but it was his mother who first taught him to cook.
Since then, Martinez has gone on to cook for U.S. presidents and write several cookbooks (one of which was nominated for a James Beard Award in 1993) including, Food from My Heart: Cuisines of Mexico Remembered and Reimagined (1995), The Food and Life of Oaxaca: Traditional Recipes from Mexico’s Heart (1997), Zarela’s Veracruz (2001), Zarela’s Veracruz: Mexico’s Simplest Cuisine (2004) and Food from my Heart: Cuisines of Mexico Remembered and Reimagined (2010). Martinez’s latest expression of approval came from Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders , which presented her with a Yoloxochitl Award “for her exceptional dedication to the promotion of Mexican culture in New York and beyond.”
“If gabachos seem to get more attention or credit,” Arellano told me, “it’s because of their connections.”
Specifically, their media connections: Kennedy’s husband was a New York Times correspondent, which lead to her meeting New York Times food writer, Craig Claiborne, who was instrumental in her early career. Rick Bayless has had connections at PBS since the 1970s, where Bayless hosted a 26-part television series called Cooking Mexican . While this does explain a lot, I know I am not alone in my frustration with people like Rick Bayless—who Arellano once called a ” thin-skinned diva who believes his own hype “—so often getting praised for introducing the country to Mexican food.
I can appreciate the role that people like Kennedy and Bayless have played in the larger story of Mexican-American food. But the history between America and Mexico is a complicated one, and the birth of Mexican-American food (Tex-Mex, as well as Cal-Mex, where the San Francisco Mission-style burrito was created) is not going to change or relieve that. Ultimately, that melting pot metaphor seems so appropriate here: a white chef respectfully adding his or her style to the cuisine; a native-Mexican man or woman coming to America to create a better life for their family and finding him or herself in a kitchen, whether it is professionally or at home—these different components make up the identity of Mexican food in America whether people like me like it or not. Food is an incredibly personal experience for me. There are so many Mexican-American cooks who are so often overlooked, and it is my hope as a second-generation Mexican-American, but also as an American, that a light is shined upon them too.