America is part Mexican

The Dogs Still Bark in Dutch

I grew up in the old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now known to you as the State of New York. There, I carried out extensive archaeological and historic research, and along the way, came across that phrase, “the dogs still bark in Dutch.”

It is an idea that might occur to a denizen of Harlem, the kids off to Kindergarten, sitting on his stoop eating a cruller, or perhaps some cole slaw with a gherkin, and pondering the Dutch revival architecture down on Wall Street.

There was a war between the Dutch and the English in the 17th century, and as a result of that war, colonial lands were passed back and forth multiple times. In the case of the colony of New Amsterdam, the passing to the English involved the arrival of a warship on the Hudson, but they used their cannon only to wake up the governor so he could receive a letter telling him about the change. Actually, the colony went back and forth a couple of times.

But when the English took over that Dutch colony, they did not remove the Dutch, or really, do much at all. There were some old Dutch customs, such as the Pinksterfest, a bit of a happy go lucky free for all dance party with vague religious overtones, that were illegalized, because the English versions of Christians at the time didn’t like dancing. But mostly nothing happened to affect day to day life for most people. The Dutch parts of the collection of English Colonies and the early United States retained its Dutchness long enough for someone to remark of the time that even with all the political change, the new form of money, the change in monarch, all of that, the dogs still barked in Dutch.

(I oversimplify two centuries of history slightly.)

We know we are eating burritos, yet we call them tacos

I think this is a Minnesota custom but it could be more widespread. This is what you do. You get a large flour tortilla, some kind of meat or beans, tomatoes, lettuce, salsa or hot sauce, grated cheese and sour cream, and you put all that stuff inside the tortilla, roll the tortilla up, eat it, and then say, “That was a good taco, you betcha.”

The part about the tortilla, lettuce, cheese, etc. is not Minnesotan. That is widespread. But calling a burrito a taco may be more local. And, we know it is a burrito. Nobody in Minnesota ever gets confused about what they are ordering at a Mexican restaurant. In fact we’re pretty good at that. Indeed, of all the upper mid west cities, I’ll bet you that Minneapolis has one of the oldest Mexican restaurants, and there has always been a Mexican community here, though it has grown in recent decades.

But never mind the taco-burrito distinction. We Minnesotans also mix up “yet” and “still” and do things “on” accident instead of “by” accident. Don’t get me started on soda vs pop vs sodapop.

What I really want to talk about here is “Mexican food.”

Go find some hipsters and tell them, “Imma go get Mexican food, wanna come?” and you’ll find out that there is no such thing as “Mexican food,” that what you really mean is “Tex-Mex” and that if you want some authentic “Mexican food” there’s this great taco truck down the street that has authentic tacos.

So you got to get the authentic tacos. I did that the other day. Hipsters everywhere. All the tacos, though, were various meat or bean substances, some kid of lettuce, tomato, etc. with some sort of sauce, on a flour tortilla. The only difference between our home made “tacos” and these legitimate “tacos” was that our burritos are chimichanga size, and those burritos were hand size.

Don’t get me started on chimichangas.

Anyway, here’s what I want to say about Mexican food. It is Mexican, and it is not Tex-Mex. Why is it not Tex-Mex? because Tex-Mex is a made up word, a made up category of food. It was made up because people thought this stuff we call “Mexican food” was fake, an American, non-Mexican version of what they eat in Real Mexico. It was not understood that America did not invite Mexico over as long as they bring the Tacos, that things Mexican in America are not immigrated, but rather, indigenous, often. Even though many Mexicans actually do go back and forth across the US-Mexico border, the truth is, the geographical and cultural entity that gave rise to the Country of Mexico also gave rise to the Country of the United States, in part. In part for both. The Yucatan is no more Hispanic Mexican than El Passo is Anglo-American.

Both modern countries have histories that involve big areas of land, country size areas of land by European standards, that had this or that national, ethnic, or cultural thing going on, and all of that stuff contributes to the present. Native American zones were everywhere, of course, and for the region of which we speak here, that included hundreds of languages, many language groups, and numerous entirely different but often overlapping or intermingled lifeways (such as foraging, bigly civilization, and all the arrangements to be found on the small-group-forager to pyramid-building-nation spectrum).

America did not become a first-Native then Anglo-European country that then had Mexicans show up to fix our roofs and run Tex-Mex style taco trucks. Mexican culture, or more broadly speaking New World Hispanic culture (or some other word, you pick) was in place, across a huge area, long before the United States took its current form, and a whopping big chunk of the eventual United States was part of that. And no, I’m not talking about Texas, or even New Mexico, or the Southwest, or the land ceded to the US in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. I’m talking about a big blobby thing that includes regions from Atlantic Florida to California, from the Rio Grande to the Great Lakes, overlapping with other big and small blobby things that were French, English, Dutch, Creole, Acadian, Russian, and so on.

So don’t call what we eat “Tex-Mex” because that implies that we are America sans Mexico. We are Mexico. Even up here in Minnesota, the Cowboys sometimes spoke Spanish. A cowboy IS a Spanish-American thing. And out east, the dogs still barked in Dutch. And our northern beginnings are as French as anything else.

America is part Mexican, but not because they came to us. Rather, we come from them.

Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    United States
    February 2, 2017

    The way that oft is put by families here with roots that go back to the time is: “we did’t cross the border — the border crossed us.”

  2. #2 Richard Bribiescas
    New Haven, CT
    February 2, 2017

    “Don’t get me started about chimichangas.” Love it. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.. Well said Dr. Laden.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    February 2, 2017

    Yeah, I should have used that … damn.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    February 2, 2017

    But, I quickly add: The Hispanic/Mexican zone of culture and influence, as noted in the post, is not just those ceded lands, but a much larger area.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    February 2, 2017

    Dr. Bribiescas, as you may have guessed, you and yours were very much on my mind as I wrote this piece. And not just about the abuse of the concept of the burrito, but all the anthropology.

    And, for those who have not seen it yet, check this out: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2016/10/24/aging-in-men-an-evolutionary-perspective/

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    February 2, 2017

    Mexico is of course large enough to have regional variations in its cuisine. Don’t expect a local place in Ensenada to serve the same things as a local place in Merida, and what you get in Oaxaca will differ from both. (Of course you’ll be able to find your favorite regional cuisine in Mexico City, and probably in Guadalajara as well.) We used to have an Oaxaca style restaurant in my town (it didn’t make it), and I think I have had both Veracruz style and norteño (from one of the inland states bordering the US) style in the town where my mother lives.

    Chinese food is a more extreme example. There isn’t really a single Chinese cuisine, but something like 8-10 different regional cuisines, none of which is the Americanized stuff you see in most Chinese restaurants in the US. (If you can still find a Chinese restaurant–at least in my part of the country, the trend is for restaurants to attempt both Chinese and Japanese cuisine, with the usual result that they do neither one well.) You can find any regional Chinese cuisine in the big cities (Beijing and Shanghai definitely, probably Guangzhou as well), but out in the provinces expect the local cuisine, and any resemblance between what you get in Yunnan and what you get in Heilongjiang will likely be coincidental.

  7. #7 lyle
    February 3, 2017

    Compare the “mexican” food found in California to that in Texas and there is a big difference. Partly this may be because the source region in Mexico is different. California mexican tends to be less spicy than what is found in Texas. Texas really had a significantly larger Spanish/Mexican presence than California before the revolution/ mexican war.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    February 3, 2017

    Eric and Lyle, all good points about on the ground diversity.

    Go to the Maya Riviera and eat. If you look really hard you can find a Mayan restaurant. The next hardest restaurant to find is a “Mexican” restaurant. Lots of aItalian and modern fusion bistro style, and fast food.

    OK, so I’ll mention Chimichangas. I learned to cook them in Phoenix, from an anglo dude I knew in Albany but who went there about a year earlier and got a job as a Chimichanga chef in a very popular restaurant in the middle of the city.

    When I returned from Phoenix I introduced chimichangas to the Northeast, and eventually restaurants opened to serve them. You are welcome.

    I used to judge a Mexican restaurant by its chimichangas. But I think the Chimi has evolved into something different than the original and traditional style, possibly because someone figured out you could make them in advance and them microwave them.

    Which you can’t, really.

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    February 3, 2017

    Lots of aItalian and modern fusion bistro style, and fast food.

    Well of course the areas with high gringo tourist traffic are going to cater to the gringo tourists. So it will be harder to get authentic local cuisine in Cancun or Cabo San Lucas than in places with less tourist traffic. I saw the same thing when I toured the Great Wall in China: the restaurant where all of the tour buses stop serves Americanized Chinese food, not the real stuff.

  10. #10 Pierce R. Butler
    February 4, 2017

    So what do Minnesotans say when they want to order a taco-taco?

  11. #11 Bert Chadick
    Tacoma WA
    April 21, 2017

    I like to think I an tolerant of all the versions of “Mexican” food, and they all have their charms. Unlike my favorite aunt, who opined that flour tortillas were an abomination, I have learned that fajitas just aren’t the same when made with corn (traditional) tortillas. Believe me I’ve tried. I was raised on TexMex and it tends to go down the spicy road but not as spicy as New Mexico & Colorado Mexican dishes can be. Tamales are actually pre-Colombian (pre Mexican) native foods. Anywhere corn was grown the tamale was the preferred dish. Burritos, fajitas and churros are relatively recent addition to the cuisine.
    Traditional European foods wouldn’t exist without the new world foods. No tomato, no spaghetti sauce. No chili pepper, no Northern Chinese & Thai dishes. No potato, no…. pretty much everything. Coming back across the Atlantic, cheese, onions, wheat, olives, pork, beef and sour cream. I will give California a pardon for the repulsive habit of putting black olives on everything because they added sour cream to our dishes.

    My point agrees with Greg’s theme; we would all be worse off without cross cultural pollination. The truth of this can be seen in South Texas where many families before The Great Deprression didn’t really know which country was their home. I’m as Anglo as they get but because my ancestors were colonists in Texas before the revolution they were Mexican citizens (a requirement for all the settlers before 1836). Just for fun I do list my heritage as Mexican on a a lot of surveys and forms to be filled out.

    In post Trump America folks need to become used to fabulously expensive fruit and vegetables. Only the rich will eat apples. Give peas a chance.