My thoughts on cultural appropriation of food changed forever in the research for my 2012 book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. One of my personal highlights was discovering the restaurant that Glenn Bell of Taco Bell infamy had cited in his autobiography as being the source of “inspiration” for him deciding to get into the taco business. How did he get inspired? He’d eat tacos the restaurant every night, then go across the street to his hot dog stand to try and recreate them.
Bell freely admitted to the story, but never revealed the name of the restaurant. I did: Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino, which is the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire. I was excited to interview the owner, Irene Montaño, who confirmed Bell’s story. I was upset for the Montaños, and when I asked Montaño how she felt that Bell had ripped off her family’s recipes to create a multibillion-dollar empire, I expected bitterness, anger, maybe even plans for a lawsuit in an attempt to get at least some of the billions of dollars that Taco Bell has earned over the past 50-plus years.
Instead, Montaño responded with grace: “Good for him!” She pointed out that Mitla had never suffered a drop in business because of Taco Bell, that her restaurant had been in business longer than his, and “our tacos were better.”
It’s an anecdote I always keep in mind whenever stories of cultural appropriation of food by white people get the Left riled up and rock the food world. The latest skirmish is going on in Portland, where two white girls decided to open up what the estimable Willamette Week called “a concept that fits twee Portland”: a breakfast burrito pop-up located within a hipster taco cart. The grand sin the gabachos committed, according to the haters, was the admission that they quizzed women in Baja California about how to make the perfect flour tortilla.
For their enthusiasm, the women have received all sorts of shade and have closed down their pop-up. To which I say: laughable. The gabachas knew exactly what they were doing, so didn’t they stand by it? Real gumption there, pendejas.
But also laughable is the idea that white people aren’t supposed to—pick your word—rip off or appropriate or get “inspired” by Mexican food, that comida mexicana is a sacrosanct tradition only Mexicans and the white girls we marry can participate in. That cultural appropriation is a one-way street where the evil gabacho steals from the poor, pathetic Mexicans yet again.
As we say in Mexico: no se hagan.
What these culture warriors who proclaim to defend Mexicans don’t realize is that we’re talking about the food industry, one of the most rapacious businesses ever created. It’s the human condition at its most Darwinian, where EVERYONE rips EVERYONE off. The only limit to an entrepreneur’s chicanery isn’t resources, race, or class status, but how fast can you rip someone off, how smart you can be to spot trends years before anyone else, and how much money you can make before you have to rip off another idea again.
And no one rips off food like Mexicans.
The Mexican restaurant world is a delicious defense of cultural appropriation—that’s what the culinary manifestation of mestizaje is, ain’t it? The Spaniards didn’t know how to make corn tortillas in the North, so they decided to make them from flour. Mexicans didn’t care much for Spanish dessert breads, so we ripped off most pan dulces from the French (not to mention waltzes and mariachi). We didn’t care much for wine, so embraced the beers that German, Czech and Polish immigrants brought to Mexico. And what is al pastor if not Mexicans taking shawerma from Lebanese, adding pork, and making it something as quintessentially Mexicans as a corrupt PRI?
Don’t cry for ripped-off Mexican chefs—they’re too busy ripping each other off. Another anecdote I remember from Taco USA: One of El Torito founder Larry Cano’s lieutenants telling me Larry would pay them to go work at a restaurant for a month, learn the recipes, then come back to the mothership so they could replicate it. It ain’t just chains, though: in the past year, I’ve seen dozens of restaurants and loncheras across Southern California offer the Zacatecan specialty birria de res, a dish that was almost exclusively limited to quinceañeras and weddings just three years ago? What changed? The popularity of Burritos La Palma, the SanTana lonchera-turned-restaurant. Paisa entrepreneurs quickly learned that Burritos La Palma was getting a chingo of publicity and customers, so decided to make birria de res on their own to try and steal away customers even though nearly none of them are from Zacatecas.
Shameless? Absolutely. And that’s what cultural appropriation in the food world boils down to: it’s smart business, and that’s why Mexicans do it, too. That’s the same reason why a lot of high-end Mexican restaurants not owned by sinaloenses serve aguachile now: because Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria made it popular. That’s why working-class Mexicans open mariscos palaces even if they’re not from the coast—because Sinaloans made Mexican seafood a lucrative scene. That’s why nearly every lonchera in SanTana serves picaditas, a Veracruzan specialty, even though most owners are from Cuernavaca. That’s why a taqueria will sell hamburgers and French fries—because they know the pocho kids of its core clients want to eat that instead of tacos. And that’s why bacon-wrapped hot dogs are so popular in Southern California—because SoCal Mexican street-cart vendors ripped off Mexicans in Tijuana, who ripped off Mexicans in Tucson, who ripped off Mexicans in Sonora.
To suggest—as SJWs always do—that Mexicans and other minority entrepreneurs can’t possibly engage in cultural appropriation because they’re people of color, and that we’re always the victims, is ignorant and patronizing and robs us of agency. We’re no one’s victims, and who says we can’t beat the wasichu at their game? And who says Mexicans are somehow left in the poor house by white people getting rich off Mexican food? Go ask the Montaños of Mitla how they’re doing. Last year, they reopened a long-shuttered banquet hall, and the next generation is introducing new meals and craft beers. They cried about Bell’s appropriation of their tacos all the way to the history books.