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Smith, Andrew F. 1999. Tacos, Enchiladas and Refried Beans: The Invention of Mexican-American Cookery. Presented at the Symposium at Oregon State University.

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Andrew F. Smith
135 Eastern Parkway #11A
Brooklyn, NY 11238

Select portions of this paper are image files [jpeg] due to the unique symbols.


Growing up in Southern California in the 1950s I ate Mexican food, although it was frequently identified as Spanish cookery due in part to negative images of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.[1] Stereotypes aside, I loved tacos, enchiladas, refried beans, burritos, tostadas, Spanish rice, tamales, guacamole, and chili con carne. Later, I sipped salt-encrusted glasses of Margaritas, dipped chips into spicy salsa, and devoured cheese-covered nachos.

I longed for my first culinary pilgrimage to Mexico City. When I finally arrived, the Mexicans who volunteered to show me the cookery delights of the city, preferred French and Italian food. They explained that traditional Mexican food was peasant food which they partook on ceremonial occasions when it was prepared by their cooks. However, they indulged me and took me to a fonda that served Mexican food, but it tasted nothing like what I had consumed in Southern California. Some Cal-Mex food simply did not exist in Mexico City. Other foods had similar names, but the ingredients differed to such an extent that commonalities were difficult to find. Alternately, hundreds of different taste sensations cascaded through my pallet. Maize-based tortillas were made by hand, not by machine; the cheeses varied; the beef, chicken and pork were prepared in different ways; the spices employed tasted different; and the lard used to cook the food was not to my liking. Intellectually, I understood and chalked up the experience to my own naivete. Psychologically, the cognitive dissonance between my expectations based on Cal-Mex food and the reality of Mexican cookery survived.


The Aztecs were a nomadic group who entered the Valley of Mexico about 1100 CE. They are believed to be members of the Chichimec group from the arid northern deserts. The Aztecs settled in the only area not otherwise occupied-- the marshlands surrounding a large lake upon which modern Mexico City is built. At that time, they ate anything and everything. Their diet consisted of edible animals and plants around the lake, including ducks, fish, snakes, frogs, flies, water bugs, bug eggs, lake shrimp, tadpoles, salamander larvae, worms, locust, and algae.[2] The Aztecs began a series of conquests creating a patchwork empire that eventually incorporated five to seven million people covering an area of about 125,000 square miles.[3]

As their empire expanded, the Aztecs absorbed the rich culinary heritages of the people they conquered. Mesoamerican civilizations were based on maize. Various forms of maize constituted an estimated 80 percent of Amerindian diets, and Mayas, and other Amerindians considered maize a "sacred thing."[4] From a culinary standpoint, maize was an especially versatile food. Amerindians roasted it over a fire, ate it on the cob, parched it, and pounded into flour. Coarse flour was employed to make porridge, variously called mush, atole, hominy, samp, or pinole. Stone metates were used to grind fine flour, which was combined with water, rolled flat, and steamed under a cloth or baked on stones to make bread or tortillas.

In addition to maize, the Aztecs ate beans, squash, and chilis supplemented with small quantities of game, turkey, fish, seafood, dogs, and guinea pigs. They also consumed sweet potatoes, manioc, avocados, tuna cactus, American cherries, American onions, American plums, tomatillos, tomatoes, amaranth, chia, mesquite beans, and numerous herbs. Upperclass Aztecs flavored their food with vanilla, chocolate, honey, and maguey syrup.[5] An average meal prepared for the Emperor consisted of "two thousand kinds of various foods; hot tortillas, white tamales with beans forming a sea shell on top; red tamales; the main meal of roll-shaped tortillas and many [foods]: sauce with turkeys, quail, venison, rabbit, hare, rat, lobster, small fish, large fish; then all [manner of] sweet fruits."[6]


Spain conquered Mexico in 1521. At the time, Spanish cookery was an amalgam derived from pre-Roman, Roman, Moorish, and Jewish sources filtered through regional styles, such as Basque and Catalonian. Diverse cookery techniques and ingredients thrived in Spain and were passed on by colonists to the New World. For instance, Arabic words, such as azucar (sugar) and arroz (rice), survive in the Mexican language. Olla podrida (rotten porridge), one of Spain's most important dishes consisting of meat stew from a cauldron, is thought to have had its origins as an Arab stew or perhaps from adafina, a Jewish dish composed of chicken or hard-boiled eggs Spain exported many foods to the New World, including wheat, sugar, rice, beef, pork, chicken, goat, lamb, vinegar, olives, and cheeses, as well as cooking techniques, such as marinating, pickling, and escabeche (cooking with acidic fruit).

An important cooking technique imported by the Spanish into the New World was frying, which had been unknown in the pre-Columbian times. Some observers have claimed that the reason for this was that the New World was devoid of fats and oils. While this is accurate for some locations, it is not for others. Buffalo and avocados, for instance, have fat content that could have been used for frying. A more likely explanation for the lack of frying in the New World is the absence of metal pots and pans required for the high-heat frying. For most Mexicans, however, frying became an extremely important means of cooking that dramatically influenced their food, making possible crisp tortillas, refried beans, and many other products.

Although the Aztec empire was extensive, it had not extended into what is today the American Southwest. The influence of Mesoamerica on North American, however, had been extensive.[7] Most domesticated foods consumed by pre-Columbian peoples in North America were Mesoamerican imports. Maize, the most important Mesoamerican food product, was cultivated in the American Southwest about 2,500 years ago. Maize did not rapidly spread into northern and eastern parts of the North American continent until day-neutral varieties became available and natural barriers were overcome.[8] When maize did arrive in northern and eastern America, it triggered the Mississippian emergence creating urbanized Native American civilizations a brief flowering probably destroyed by European-introduced germs.[9]

Indigenous groups in southwestern America developed an extensive culinary repertoire. Maize, beans, and squash were the most important components of their diet, but the Pueblo Indians also made extensive use of wild plants, berries, fruits, and seeds, such as pine nuts or pinons, the fruit of the pinyon pine. Seeds were eaten raw or roasted, ground and shaped into balls or cakes, or used to season dishes such as atole. According to culinary historian Keith J. Guenther, the Pueblo Indians "gathered wild onions, seeds of mesquite, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, the ground cherry acorns, wild grasses and weeds," and consumed turkeys, "rabbits, buffalo, deer, squirrels, field mice and prairie dogs."[10]

Within twenty years of their conquest of Mexico, Spanish explorers launched expeditions northward. Beginning in 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition that described the culinary styles of the Pueblo Indians, including maize, beans, deer, hares, and rabbits. The Pueblo Indians made "the best tortillas that I have ever seen anywhere, and this is what everybody ordinarily eats. They have the very best arrangement and method for grinding that was ever seen. One of these Indian women here will grind as much flour as four of the Mexicans do."[11] Other accounts mentioned cactus foods, mesquite bread, turkeys, and pine nuts.[12] When the Spanish first settled what is today New Mexico, the Pueblos had a stable cuisine which was only mildly modified by the Spanish conquest. Alternately, settlers borrowed from local Native Americans creating a fusion cookery.[13]

Along the Pacific coast, Spain established colonies in California beginning in 1769. Spanish missionaries and colonists were unimpressed with the food consumed by Native Americans in California: acorns supplemented with wild grains, berries, and fruits.[14] Hence, the foods consumed by the Californios were primarily imported from Mexico, including "peaches, apples, pears, plums, cherries, quinces, figs, dates, pomegranates, walnuts, olives, nectarines, apricots, paper-shelled walnuts, almonds, sugar-cane, coffee, Spanish grapes, oranges, lemons, and bananas as well as horses, donkeys, cows, sheep, chickens, and goats."[15] The Californios also introduced New World foods not previously grown in California, including maize, chocolate, tomatoes, and chili peppers.

To a large extent, Spanish settlements in Texas, California, and the Southwest were isolated, especially from each other. Communication and contact was with the administrative hub in Mexico City. No compelling economic reason motivated the Spanish to colonize these regions. Northern Mexico offered better and closer opportunities. Hence, the North American Spanish-Mexican communities remained small. Spanish settlements were intended mainly to thwart possible foreign encroachments. Particularly, the Spanish discouraged interconnections between these communities and the United States.


The Wars for Mexican Independence began in 1813. After independence in 1821, Mexico was racked with revolution and political instability. At this time, the culinary arts in Mexico flourished. The first Mexican cookbook was published in 1831. Mariano Galvan Rivera's Diccionario de Cocina, published in 1845, was a comprehensive compendium with more than a thousand pages of recipes, food commentary, illustrations, and diagrams. Early Mexican culinary works demonstrate a highly sophisticated cookery with traditional Mexican, Spanish, and international components. They also contained dishes that became common in the United States, such as tortillas, tamales, frijoles, quesadillas, chili peppers, enchiladas, and Spanish rice. Other items were conspicuous by their absence: tacos, chili con carne, burritos, corn chips, nachos, and Margaritas.[16]

The culinary achievements noted in works published in Mexico City were not part of the culinary repertoire of the cookery of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California. Life was harsh on Mexico's northern frontier. On a trip to Texas in 1828, Jose Maria S½nchez reported that "Food is extremely scarce; the little corn which is cultivated by the inhabitants is planted near the city in tracts which are over-flooded by the river in time of high water because the scarcity of rain does not permit planting in other places." Beef, the only meat S½nchez saw, was "secured with great difficulty, because the animals must be brought from long distances, often at the risk of life from attack by wild Indians." Provisions consisted "of a sort of corn cakes resembling corn bread; toasted and ground corn with brown sugar, anise seed, or cinnamon, called pinole, which is used to make mush or may be taken with water during the hot part of the day; and dry beef, salted to keep it from spoiling."[17]


For the United States, Spain's loss of Mexico in 1821 meant the end of a potential European threat and the opening of potential new opportunities. Within a year of Mexican independence, the Santa Fe trail linked the Mexican state of Nuevo Mexico with St. Louis. Connections between the two countries expanded via overland trade as trappers and traders explored the Rocky Mountains. Simultaneously, Americans migrated to Texas and to California. By 1835, Mexican authorities became alarmed by the rapid increase in the Anglo-American population in Texas. Juan N. Almonte was sent to reconnoiter the Mexican province. On the food situation, he reported that the main diet of the Mexicans consisted of tortillas, beef, venison, chickens, eggs, cheese, and milk; and sometimes bread, chocolate, coffee, tea, and sugar. Among the Anglo-Americans, the most common was bacon, cornbread, coffee sweetened with bee's honey, butter, buttermilk, and sometimes crackers. According to Almonte, despite the cheapness of cattle, rarely did Anglo-Americans eat beef, except in Nacogdoches and San Antonio, where cattle were slaughtered regularly.[18]

When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, conquered California and the American Southwest in 1846, and bought the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, it acquired a multi-cultural empire with thousands of Spanish-speaking people. The culinary traditions of these peoples were diverse, but they differed significantly from those of mainstream Americans. Anglo-Americans reported extensively on the new and unusual foods eaten by Hispanics.

In San Antonio, Frederick Law Olmsted was served tortillas, tamales, and hashed meat in the 1850s.[19] While walking through Texas, Stephen Powers noted "long strips of beef, and large quantities of red and green peppers and garlic."[20] Pierre Fourier Parisot reported that tortillas and frijoles were the principal foods of the Mexican ranchero sometimes supplemented with chili, eggs, and chili con carne.[21] H. F. McDanield and N. A. Taylor reported that the Mexicans in San Antonio lived "principally on hash made of dried beef and rendered fiercely hot with red pepper. With this they eat pods of red pepper, raw onions, and cornbread made into crackers, which have a strong taste of lye. In summer they sometimes appear to live for days together on nothing but watermelons, for which their fondness is remarkable and really child-like and affecting."[22] Stephen Gould described San Antonio's Military Plaza as teaming with "Mexican lunch tables, where one can get a genuine Mexican breakfast with as good hot coffee as can be found in the city. Those who delight in the Mexican luxuries of tamales, chili con carne, and enchiladas, can find them here cooked in the open air in the rear of the tables and served by lineal descendants of the ancient Aztecs."[23] These stands sold "'chile con carne,' 'tamales,' 'tortillas,' 'chile rellenos,' 'huevos revultos,' 'lengua lampreada,' 'pucheros,' 'ollas,' with leathery cheese, burning peppers, stewed tomatoes, and many other items," according to John G. Bourke, a founder of the American folklore movement who carefully examined the lifestyle and foodways of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living along the Rio Grande river.[24]

The first clearly identified Mexican-American recipe was published in 1876 by women of the First Congregational Church in Marysville, Ohio. These women had set out to develop a cookbook celebrating the United States's centennial. In their quest to make their book truly national, they sent letters to the governor of every state and territory asking for culinary contributions. The households of twenty-six governors offered recipes. Anson Safford, the territorial governor of Arizona, presented one for enchiladas. At the end of the recipe, Safford proclaimed that "Any one who has ever been in a Spanish speaking country will recognize this as one of the national dishes, as much as the pumpkin pie is a New England speciality."[25]

By the 1880s, Mexican dishes were incorporated occasionally into regional cookbooks. An 1881 cookbook published in Los Angeles included recipes for Spanish Hash, Stuffed Chillies, Spanish Wafers, and Spanish Cream. It also featured a "Spanish Department" including recipes for estofado (stew), chili and the first known American recipe for "Zalza."[26] An 1888 cooking pamphlet published in Santa Barbara also included a "Spanish Recipes" section. The book proclaimed that "Spanish" cuisine was "an entirely new feature in an American cookbook." The recipes were obtained "with much difficulty, as the culinary arts of the Spaniards, like the legends of the Orient, are handed down in families from generation to generation." The four-page section featured a variety of dishes, including stuffed chilis, stuffed onions, Spanish rice, Spanish beefsteak, chili sauce, enchiladas, "Quail a la Spanish," albondigas, tamales, "Preserved Pumpkins," "Havana Soup" (shrimp and rice soup with tomatoes, onions, and celery), "Pastel de Pescada" (fish in pastry), "Quimbombo con Arroz" (Quimbombo with rice), "Tallarin a la Italienne" (macaroni with a tomato, pepper, garlic and onion sauce), and "Pipan" (pepper chicken).[ 27]

National cookbooks and cookery magazines featured Mexican recipes around the end of the nineteenth century. The 1896 Manual for Army Cooks Prepared under the Direction of the Commissary General of Subsistence included recipes for Spanish Stew, Spanish Steak, Hot Sauce, Dried Beef with Peppers, "Salza," Frijoles, Frijoles con Queso (beans with cheese), Stuffed Chiles, Brains (Spanish Style), Tamales, Tortillas, Chili con Carne, and fried Spanish Rice.[28] Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book, published in 1902, featured "A Group of Spanish Recipes," including ones for tamales, "Chile Con-Cana," [sic] "Encilades," [sic] and "Frijoles."[29] Despite this diversity, relatively few Mexican foods thrived in Anglo-America. Those foods which derived directly from Mexican traditions were chili sauce, enchiladas, tortillas, refried beans, Spanish rice, and tamales. An early Texas recipe for chili sauce or chili colorado was composed of chili, tomato, and lard. Similar dishes were served in Sonora, New Mexico, and California, but occasionally the meat ingredient differed. William Watts Hart Davis reported that chili colorado was "a compound of red peppers and dried buffalo meat stewed together, flaming like the crater of mount Vesuvius." John G. Bourke opined that "No Mexican dish of meat or vegetables is deemed complete without it, and its supremacy as a table adjunct is conceded by both garlic and tomato, which also bob up serenely in nearly every effort of the culinary art."[30]

Enchiladas were identified as "corn fritters allowed to simmer for a moment in chili sauce, and then served hot with a sprinkling of grated cheese and onion."[31] In 1921 Louise Lloyd Lowber described the first process for making enchiladas: first a tortilla was placed in the center of a plate, "then a flood of rich, red chilee sauce from a near-by kettle, a layer of grated cheese, anothertortilla, more chile and more cheese, sprinkled between in layer-cake fashion, and the whole topped with a high crown of chopped onions in which nestles an egg, which has been broken a minute into the hot lard. An artistic and cooling garnish of lettuce and behold an enchilada."[32]

Tortillas were "corn cakes prepared by soaking maize in lime-water until the outer skin comes off, and then rubbing the softened kernels to a paste on a 'metate' or stone mill."[33] Some tortillas were large, thick, and white; others were small, delicate, and colored. They were served open or folded, and were filled with fish, fowl, meat, or vegetables. Pierre Fourier Parisot reported that Anglo-Americans learned how to use tortillas from "the poorer class of Mexicans." Hardened tortillas were used as plates to hold food and as spoons to convey it to the mouth. When the food was consumed, the plate and spoon were then consumed.[34]

Refried beans were "Mexico's commonest dish."[35] However, the earliest located American recipe was not published until 1888. Under the title of "Frijoles," Mrs. Joseph Warner Maddox of San Antonio boiled the beans first, then fried them in lard.[36] Restaurants and cantinas likely offered refried beans on their menus well before this time. Several observers reported that meals were seldom served without them. For the poor, frijoles were "the mainstay of their diet both winter and summer." Frijoles were served "in a large dish from which you help yourself, dashing a spoonful of the nutty pellets on the side of your enchilada. Occasionally you will find them fried dry, and always you must flavor them with chile."[37] Frijoles were, said John G. Bourke, prepared "in a half dozen different ways; stewed or boiled to a pulpy paste, it appears at almost every meal, and well deserves its title of 'El plato nacional,' the national dish."[38]

Tamales consisted of beef, pork or chicken encased in corn dough tied in corn-husks and boiled or steamed. Harris Newmark, an early resident of Southern California, claimed that tamales "took some time for the incoming epicure to appreciate all that was claimed for them and other masterpieces of Mexican cooking." Some Anglo-Americans never appreciated tamales. In 1893, Kate Sanborn advised visitors to San Diego, "whatever other folly you may be led into, let me implore you to wholly abstain from that deadly concoction, the Mexican tamale. Ugh! I can taste mine now." She reported that tamales were "a curious and dubious concoction of chicken hash, meat, olives, red pepper and I know not what, enclosed in a corn-husk, stewed until furiously hot, and then offered for sale by Mexicans in such a sweet, appealing way that few can resist the novelty." She warned without elaboration that the effects of eating tamales were "serious."[40]

Tamales were not the only Mexican food that was unappreciated. Bourke reported that"The abominations of Mexican cookery have been for years a favorite theme with travelers." Regarding Mexican cuisine, Bourke pronounced that "as a general rule, there is an appalling liberality in the matter of garlic, a recklessness in the use of chili colorado or chili verde, and an indifference to the existence of dirt and grease, which will find no apology." He attributed these problems "directly to the illiteracy of the poorer classes, from which cooks are drawn, and to some extent to depravity of taste due to long usage." Yet, Bourke conceded, there remained "not a few excellences in Mexican cookery which occupy pleasant niches in the memory, and are deserving of preservation and imitation."[41]


To better appeal to Anglo tastes, Mexican foods were adapted in America. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, tamale pie recipes dispensed with laborious procedures in making traditional recipes by eliminating the corn husks, tying, and steaming. Instead, chicken was placed on the bottom of a pot, a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and chili peppers were placed over the chicken, and finally a pie crust covered the concoction. Subsequent recipes placed layers of corn meal mush at the bottom of the dish and on top. This recipe was further modified into Tamale Loaf, Tamale Pudding and Tamale Casserole during the early twentieth century. Food historian Sylvia Lovegren reports that tamale pie was amazingly popular, proclaiming it "Slightly exotic, yet thoroughly American, easy to make, and amenable to sitting around in its baking dish for a good while, it was the perfect dish for luncheons, for covered-dish parties, for Sunday parties. So popular was it by the late Forties that one cookbook gave four very different recipes for it. Unfortunately, all of them were of the tricked-out variety, departing from the dish's simple beginnings."[42] The high point of tamale pie and tamale loaf cookery was achieved in 1956 with the publication of nineteen recipes in a single cookbook.[43]

Chili con carne was another adapted dish. The first known publication of the term appeared in the title of an 1857 book written by an American observing food in Monterey, Mexico. The author, S. Compton Smith, defined it as "a popular Mexican dish literally red peppers and meat."[44] It is extremely likely that the dish Smith identified as chili con carne was consumed throughout Northern Mexico and Southwestern United States, but the term itself was an Americanization. Several subsequent sources reported that the proper Mexican term was carne con chili, emphasizing the meat and not the chili.[45] Whatever its actual name, descriptions of chili con carne abundantly appeared in nineteenth century travel accounts. John G. Bourke reported that chili con carne was "meat prepared in a savory stew with chili colorado, tomato, grease, and generally, although not always, with garlic."[46] Anglo-Texans adopted the term and hijacked the dish to such an extent that Francisco J. Santamaria, author of the Diccionario General de Americanismos, proclaimed that chili con carne was "a detestable dish identified under the false title of Mexican" sold in the United States from Texas to New York.[47]

Despite Santamaria's comments, American food writers insisted that chili con carne was one of "the best known of Mexican national dishes," although some concluded that "the manner of its preparation in Mexico varies with the district, the mood of the cook and the means of the household, the basis always being chilis and several other kinds of peppers represented in the chili powder used in this recipe." Some cookbooks offered two recipes for chili con carne, one representing a Mexican version, and one representing a "border recipe for a richer, spicier chili with both Mexican and North American features, since we have adopted this dish for all time."[48] Chili con carne became closely associated with Mex-Tex cookery in 1939.[49] This term was later reversed to become Tex-Mex..

In addition to Tex-Mex, several other regional Mexican-American cooking styles existed. The first compilation of New Mexican cookery was Erna Fergusson's Mexican Cookbook first published in 1934. Ferguson included mainly Americanized versions of Mexican cookery with some New Mexican influence.[50] Fifteen years later, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert's The Good Life: New Mexico Traditions and Food focused specifically on the traditional foods of New Mexicans. Gilbert had been raised by her maternal grandmother on a New Mexican ranch and became a home economist. The recipes she presented were an amalgamation of different influences which have been evident in the state since and before the Spanish conquest." Within her collection, Gilbert included traditional recipes for "Carne con Chile Colorado," salsa, tamales, chili rellenos, quesadillas, frijoles, tacos, and "Cocktail de Aguacate," but she also presented recipes not found elsewhere in the Mexican-American culinary scene.[51]

The taco was the staple of Cal-Mex food.[52] The word taco meant a "wad" or "plug" purportedly "taken from the cotton used in ramming old-fashioned firearms."[53] Colloquially, taco referred to a light meal or snack. or antojitos little whimsies or small dishes. In Mexico, the word taco was a generic term like the English word sandwich. Mexican tacos are basically any food rolled, folded or fried into tortillas that are consumed by hand. The various fillings for tacos include chili sauce, beef (shredded or ground), chicken, pork, chorizo or sausage, egg, tomato, cheese, lettuce, guacamole, onions, and refried beans. Mexican tacos are usually soft-shelled, unlike the U-shaped crisp fried tortillas served in many American Mexican restaurants and fast food outlets. The first-known English-language taco recipes appeared in California cookbooks beginning in 1914. The author, Bertha Haffner-Ginger, reported that tacos were "made by putting chopped cooked beef and chili sauce in a tortilla made of meal and flour; folded, edges sealed together with egg; fried in deep fat, chile sauce served over it."[54] Another Californian, Pauline Wiley-Kleemann, featured six taco and tacquito recipes in her Ramona's Spanish-Mexican Cookery. These included recipes for Gorditos that came from Santa Nita or Xochimilco, Pork Tacos composed of snout, ears, jowls, kidneys, and liver, Cream Cheese Tacos, Egg Tacos, Mexican Tacos, and Tacquitos.[55]

Not everyone was familiar with tacos by the 1930s. One author felt obligated to tell the reader that tacos were "the Mexican's Sandwich," and that they were composed "of roast meat or chicken, either sliced or minced but cheese and sweet fillings are rapidly gaining in popularity. The Mexican enjoys his Tacos and Hot Chocolate as does the American his Doughnuts and Coffee."[56] The following year Blanche and Edna McNeill defined a taco as a "tidbit, or Mexican sandwich," which was a "much decorated, highly spiced tortilla with any filling." They offered recipes for making tacos filled with pork sausage and shrimp. Their recipe for Tacos de San Luis was based on a recipe developed by "old Carmen" from the Alameda in San Luis, Mexico. For thirty-five years Carmen made tacos by filling them with goat cheese, onion and sausage. Just before the tacos were consumed, she poured hot lard over them.[57] Taco recipes often appeared under the names for Mexican locations from which they purportedly derived: Puebla-Style Tacos consisted of sausages, eggs, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cream cheese; San Cristobal Tacos were filled with eggs, flour sugar and butter. Other taco recipes were named solely after their filling: Taco de Rajas were filled with sweet peppers.58 Perhaps unique in the Mexican-American cookery traditions was the seafood tacos served in California.[59]

Also associated with Cal-Mex food was guacamole. Avocados or alligator pears are thought to have originated in Mexico, and their seeds have been found in archaeological sites dating to 6,000 BCE. The Aztecs made a sauce based on avocados called ahuaca-mulli or guacamole. According to culinary historian Sophie Coe, this consisted of "mashed avocados, with or without a few chopped tomatoes and onions." The Spanish probably introduced avocado- growing into what is today the United States. However, among Anglo-Americans, avocados did not become fashionable until the late nineteenth century. In 1895 John G. Bourke proclaimed that so much has been written about the avocado "that only a word seems to be necessary here. When the custard-like pulp is beaten up with egg, oil, vinegar, and spices, it makes a most delicious salad." Avocado salad or alligator pear salad recipes appeared in cookbooks by 1899. Standard recipes included tomato, green pepper, onion juice, salt, and lemon or vinegar. Avocados became so popular that Floridians began to compete with producers in the West Indies for the lucrative East Coast market.[60]

While avocados were grown in both Florida and California during the early twentieth century, it was in California that avocado cookery took off. A recipe from Los Angeles dated 1905 consisted of chunky avocados, olive oil, and minced onions. It was placed on a bed of lettuce and eaten with a fork. The first known English-language cookbook recipe designated in an approximation of the Spanish word guacamole appeared in Fashions in Foods[91] in Beverly Hills under the name "Wakimoli" in 1930." The recipe was associated with Helen Twelvetrees (Helen Jurgens) who starred in several movies in the late 1920s. The second located recipe was published two years later under the title of "Avocado Hucamole," consisting of avocados, chopped tomatoes, and cayenne pepper. This mixture was spread over toasted tortillas or just plain toast. In 1936 Blanche and Edna McNeill recommended cutting tortillas into "2-inch squares, toast to light brown" to eat the Huacamole salad. According to the McNeills, Mexicans used "the toasted tortillas to carry the salad to his mouth" and then ate the tortilla. The 1933 Sunset All-Western Cook Book featured twenty-eight avocado recipes. It recommended eating them with a spoon or spread on buttered toast or crackers. After World War II, fritos and potato chips were recommended as guacamole dippers, mainly because corn chips had not yet proliferated across America.[61]

Sonoran cookery developed in Arizona. Carlotta Flores maintains that the Mexican cookery in Tucson was "a unique cuisine not found in any other border town. Although you may recognize the names of some dishes tacos, tamales, enchiladas, burros, chimichangas, chile colorado our way of preparing them is different from anywhere else in the world."62 This cookery is exemplified by food served in restaurants, such as the food served at Tucson's El Charro CafÚ, which opened in 1922. In Mesa, Arizona, the El Charro Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge opened in 1919. Their Western Mexican Cook Book, published forty years later, featured many Sonoran foods.[63]

The burrito, meaning literally little burro or donkey, became irreversibly linked to the tortilla-rolled packages. Burrito lovers David Thomsen and Derek Wilson believe that the modern burrito originated "in the dusty borderlands between Tucson and Los Angeles." The word burrito first saw print in America in 1934. It was sold at Los Angeles's famed El Cholo Spanish CafÚ during the 1930s. Burritos entered Mexican-American cuisine in other parts of the Southwest around the 1950s and went nationwide a decade later.[64]

Migrant Mexican farm laborers transported their food traditions with them. Some farm laborers remained in the communities and established or worked in eating establishments. Before World War II, Mexican food was commonly served in Oklahoma and Missouri, where, Crosby Gaige reported, tamales were "sold on the streets in cooler weather, hot from the charcoal carriers. Mexican labor in the fields of these states was responsible for this culinary invasion, which has been so long established that Mexican food is now an accepted part of the gustatory achievement in these states."[65]

Mexican foods introduced away from traditional Hispanic communities often went through unusual transformations. In Cincinnati, chili served on spaghetti became the accepted form. As has been previously noted, the connection of pasta and chili was a regular combination throughout Mexico and the Southwest from Los Angeles to Texas, but the combination became famous in Ohio. Cincinnati Red is credited to two local food chains, the Empress, owned by the Bulgarian Kiradjieffs family; and Skyline, owned by the Greek Lambrinides family. The Empress served chili shortly after it opened in 1922. The Skyline chain opened in the 1940s. Cincinnati Red comes five ways with various combinations of pasta, chili, grated Cheddar cheese, chopped onions, beans, and cinnamon.[66]

Many "Mexican" dishes were concocted to please the American palate. Leftover tortillas could easily be cut up and used to scoop up sauces, beans and other foods. Salsa recipes were frequently published, but they were diverse and were usually intended "to bring out the best flavors for each particular dish" and they were usually a part of the recipe. As the salsa craze swept America, salsas based on tomatoes became the standard. Likewise, tortilla chips became a staple at Mexican restaurants in the United States, but never caught on in Mexico except in restaurants targeting American tourists. When Mexican-food doyen Diana Kennedy asked a restaurateur why tortilla chips were served at the beginning of the meal, he humbly reminded Kennedy of the market pressures: "I have to do it that way. Our customers expect it."[67]

Another favorite "Mexican" food that burst on the American culinary scene was the nacho for which several points of origin have been suggested. Igancio (Nacho) Ahaya claimed to have created them and named them after himself. As the story goes, Ahaya was asked to prepare a snack for Anglo officers' wives while the cook was out. He "grabbed a whole bunch of fried tortillas, put some yellow cheese on top, let it heat a little bit, then put some sliced jalapenos on it."[68] Wherever they originated, nachos quickly spread throughout Texas, where they were served at a concession at Dallas's State Fair in 1964.[69] Within two decades were served throughout stadiums, airports, fast-food establishments.

An early nacho disseminator was Victor J. Bergeron. Bergeron had founded Hinky Dinks restaurant in 1933 in Oakland, California. Four years later, he changed the name of his restaurant to Trader Vic's. In 1951 Bergeron opened his San Francisco restaurant that became the launching pad for a string of Polynesian-like restaurants employing Chinese cooks throughout the world. When this chain was developed, Bergeron looked around for other possibilities. He had always been charmed by the taste sensation of Mexican food, particularly the manner in which it was "fabricated and put together," but Bergeron believed that Mexican food was "primitive." It did not taste good to mainstream Americans because it "was greasy, hot, and not well prepared." Bergeron thought he could do better. To learn how to make good Mexican food, he spent a week in Texas, where he ran into nachos. Bergeron compiled recipes from Mexico and Texas and others he just made up based on a "Mexican slant." Based on these recipes, he taught his Chinese cooks how to make this food and opened his first Seöor Pico restaurant in San Francisco in 1964 and another one in Los Angeles three years later.[70]


Among all the Mexican foods, Anglo-Americans were particularly fascinated with chili peppers. The first chili recipes appeared as sauces in mainstream cookbooks prior to the Civil War. In addition to recipes in cookbooks, chili sauce was the first Mexican product commercially distributed. Tabasco Pepper Sauce, Railton's Chili Colorow Sauce, and Durkee's Essence of Chili were manufactured after the Civil War, although most were not specifically identified as "Mexican" in origin.[73]

The first known explicit commercial exploitation of Mexican food occurred in the 1870s when an Anglo-Texan canned "Montezuma Sauce" filled with chili and goat meat. It was not an overwhelming success, and vanished after a short time in production. The second attempt to commercialize chili was that of William Tobin who purportedly patented recipes for chili sauce and chili. He launched the Tobin Canning Company of San Antonio in 1884. This effort also floundered. Then D.C. Pendry manufactured chili powder in 1890. At the time, Pendery operated a Mexican grocery supply company in Ft. Worth, Texas. His recipe ground the dry, hot, dark red chilis and blended them with garlic, oregano and cumin. Chili powder eliminated the need to acquire and handle raw chilis and simplified the preparation of chili con carne for any housewife or restauranteur in any part of the country. Pendery launched a sales campaign outside promoting his chili powder throughout the Midwest. To encourage its use by those unfamiliar with it, Pendry supplied recipes to cafes and restaurants.[74]

Another commercial chili powder was developed by William Gebhardt, a German, who migrated about 1885 to New Braunfels, Texas. Gebhardt opened a cafÚ, which served chili imported from Mexico. To preserve them, he dried and crushed them into powder. Around 1894, he began bottling his powder which he marketed under the name of "Gebhardt's Eagle Brand Chili Powder." He moved his factory to San Antonio in 1898. For several years, Gebhardt marketed his chili powder regionally; it became an important ingredient to such an extent that recipes in Texas cookbooks specifically recommended its use. Shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century, Gebhardt began marketing his chili powder to a wider audience.[75]

By 1908 Gebhardt commenced canning chili in San Antonio. Gebhardt sold his company to his brothers-in-law in 1911, who expanded their product line to include beans and tamales. During the 1920s, they introduced to the tourist trade Gebhardt's Original Mexican Dinner Package, consisting of cans of chili con carne, Mexican Style Beans, shuck-wrapped Tamales, Deviled Chili Meat, and a bottle of Chili Powder all for one dollar. Gebhardt combined this with cooking pamphlets distributed in several editions beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century. One of the Gebhardt Chile Powder Company's products was "Spaghetti and Chili with Cheese." By the 1930s, Gebhardt products were sold throughout the United States and Mexico.[76]

Other companies produced chili powder and chili con carne. For instance, Walker Properties Association of Austin, Texas, manufactured 45,000 cans of "Walker's Red Hot Chile Con Carne" and 15,000 cans of "Mexene Chile Powder" daily by 1918. Supported by aggressive consumer advertising, these products were sold in every region of the United States. As part of its marketing campaign, Walker produced a Recipe Booklet with recipes for barbecue sauce, chili con carne, enchiladas, tamales, beans, and spaghetti with chili.[77]

Emile C. Ortega began canning chilis in Ventura County, California. According to promotional brochures, the Ortega family was from Castile. JosÚ Ortega was a member of the Jean Bautista de Anza expedition which founded the presidio and mission on San Francisco Bay. Emile Ortega, purportedly a direct descendant of JosÚ Ortega, began the commercial preparation and canning of green chilis in 1898. Emile Ortega invented a method which allowed the whole chilis to be roasted while passing through a red-hot oven. He moved operations to Los Angeles in 1906. As a promotional gimmick, the company issued a cookbook in 1933 which featured their "California Chiles," but not all of the recipes were Mexican. By 1934, Ortega sold several million cans of chilis.[78]

Chili's realm expanded slowly throughout the United States. Chili with or without beans won followers in New Orleans and St. Louis. By the 1890s, Mexican cookery had penetrated as far north as Chicago and New York City. In Chicago, a "San Antonio Chili Stand" was set up on the grounds of the Columbian Exposition in 1893. About the same time, "Tamaleros" plied Chicago's streets selling "Fresh Hot Chicken Tamales."[79] In New York, white-clad tamale sellers fanned throughout the streets at the behest of The Mexican Food Corporation. These tamale sellers eventually lost out to cheaper restaurants who sold tamales and chili con carne.[80] This impressed Mexican newspapers which proudly announced that New York restaurants served Mexican dishes. Not everyone positively evaluated them, however. San Antonio historian Frank H. Bushick proclaimed them "pseudo-Mexican restaurants serving nondescript imitations of dishes which have made the restaurants of San Antonio famous."[81]

By the early twentieth century, chicken tamales and chili con carne were canned in Chicago by both Armour and Libby, McNeill & Libby.[82] By the 1920s, grocer Artemas Ward incorporated a description of tamales in his Encyclopedia of Food. Ward defined tamales as "a Mexican dish of cornmeal (previously cooked or scalded) or rice or other cereal or pumpkin-flour, meat of any kind, chilis (or sweet red peppers), garlic, etc., preferably steam-cooked together in an oil-dipped corn-husk, but also made into balls and cooked in hot fat. When cooked in the husk, the best method is to line the husk with a stiff dough of the scalded cornmeal and then fill with the mixture of the other ingredients."[83]

Refried beans are believed to have been first canned by the Mountain Pass Canning Company. The company originated in 1918 in Deming, New Mexico, but records are unclear concerning the date when they first canned refried beans. Their products were aggressively marketed under the brand name "Old El Paso."[84]

In addition to canning, commercialization occurred through corn chips. It is likely that cut-up, hardened tortillas were the original chips. The first-known commercial corn chip was the friotes, which were made from fried masa (corn flour) in San Antonio. Elmer Doolin purportedly bought a bag of friotes and then bought the recipe for one hundred dollars. In 1932 Doolin began manufacturing them under the name Fritos. His renamed product was a success, and his sales expanded as far as St. Louis. In 1945 Doolin met Herman W. Lay, the potato chip manufacturer. Lay agreed to distribute Fritos. From 1953 to 1967 the main target for Fritos were children, and Frito-Lay advertised the corn chips with the "Frito Kid." In 1963, with growing awareness of niche markets, the Frito-Lay Company switched to the "Frito Bandito," which appalled the Mexican-American community. The Frito Bandito soon disappeared. In 1965, Frito-Lay introduced Doritos, a chip they claimed tasted like authentic tostadas. They became popular nationwide as the era of the Anglo corn chip dawned.[85]

The success of corn chips can be attributed in part to the related popularity of salsas, which are generally composed of various combinations of chili peppers, tomatoes, herbs and spices As previously noted, salsa has been around since Aztec days. Salsa recipes were published by the end of the nineteenth century in cookbooks. The first known manufacturer of salsa was Pace Foods of San Antonio. Dave Pace experimented with bottling salsa in 1947, and finally succeeded in getting the formula right the following year. Pace's initial market was regional. Other salsa products were produced by other manufacturers, including Old El Paso and Ortega. Only during the 1970s did sales skyrocket. Pace became the largest producer of Mexican sauces.[86] The fresh salsa market exploded during the 1980s and continued to increase during the following decade. By the 1990s salsa outsold ketchup.

Another significant type of commercialization was the establishment of Mexican fast food. During the 1950s, several small fast-food operators established multi-unit, drive-in outlets near Los Angeles. Small Mexican-American roadside restaurants were often called "taco stands." The first fast-food Mexican franchise was launched in Downey, California, in 1962 by Glen Bell. Ten years previously, Bell began with a one-man hamburger and hot dog stand at San Bernardino, California. At the time, the McDonald brothers who also lived in San Bernardino were franchising their McDonald's hamburger outlets. Bell decided to experiment with the fast-food preparation of tacos. By 1956, he had three Taco Tia restaurants in San Bernardino, Barstow and Redlands, California. These establishments generated $50,000 per year, and Bell decided to franchise his operation. The resulting Taco Bell chain used the symbol of a sleeping Mexican sitting under a sombrero. Taco Bell quickly expanded around Los Angeles. In 1978 with 868 restaurants, Taco Bell sold out to Pepsi, who immediately replaced the company's symbol with a mission bell. By 1980, Taco Bell had 1,333 outlets in forty-five states and Guam. John Martin, who had already worked for several fast-food companies made Taco Bell's Mexican-origin dishes popular nationally through value meals and heavy discounting beginning in 1983. Today, Taco Bell has 6,700 outlets generating about five billion dollars in sales.[87]

In addition to fast food establishments, more than 7,240 Mexican restaurants have proliferated throughout the United States. Mexican food is the third-largest restaurant cuisine in the United States, outnumbered only by Italian and Chinese restaurants.[88] However, not everyone was pleased with the cuisine served in Mexican restaurants in the United States. Diana Kennedy has been highly critical. In her The Art of Mexican Cooking, Kennedy writes: "many people outside Mexico still think of them as an overly large platter of mixed messes, smothered with a shrill tomato sauce, sour cream, and grated yellow cheese preceded by a dish of mouth-searing sauce and greasy, deep-fried chips. Although these do represent some of the basic foods of Mexico in name only they have been brought down to their lowest common denominator north of the border, on a par with the chop suey and chow mein of Chinese restaurants 20 years ago. These dishes can be wonderful when cooked with care and presented in their correct culinary context, but instead, they have been transformed into a cheap culinary 'fix.'" To be fair though, she does note "some significant, positive changes going on across the United States as a small, but growing, number of speciality restaurants are attempting and with no small measure of success to change this image by presenting Mexican regional foods, interpreted in an American or southwestern style."[89]


Mexican cookery is diverse and, like all cuisines, ever changing. Richard Condon and Wendy Bennett maintain that it is one of the three great cuisines in the world, the other two being French/Italian and Indian/Chinese. Condon and Bennett believe that other cooking systems evolved from these three.[90] While we may quibble with their generalizations, Mexican food is one of the world's great cuisines. It has been long under development and it is deeply imbedded in Mexican culture. Mexican cookery is not just a recitation of ingredients, durations, and quantities, as popular cookbook writers would have us believe. Understanding this cookery requires a comprehension of Mexican culture, history and traditions.

In the United States, Mexican-Americans also have diverse culinary traditions, and these too have undergone fast-paced change. Until recently, Mexican cookery has financially subsisted on internal tourism that attracted mainstream Americans. Americanized foods are but distant reflections of Mexican food which contained flavors that did not appeal to Anglo-Americans. Mexican-American food preparers removed unappealing traditional ingredients and substituted flavors more palatable to their target mainstream audience. When Mexican food was translated into Anglo-American tastes, it lost its roots. This process accelerated as Mexican foods were mass produced. Traditional Mexican foods was time-consuming, laborious, and costly: commercialization developed processes that were easier, faster, and less expensive. When Mexican food was commercialized, it lost its soul.

Yet, all is not lost. The recent explosion of interest in Mexican cookery has developed a more sophisticated palate among Anglo-Americans. Likewise, since World War II, vast migrations of Mexicans into the United States have created new demands and a wider potential audience for more authentic Mexican food. Restaurants now cater to a clientele that want to go beyond the Americanized inventions of the past hundred years. This has created a resurgence of interest in the culinary traditions of Mexico, and offers hope for the future.


Comment by Nancy Ashley

Updated: Wednesday, February 21, 2007.

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