Saturday, March 4th. 2:11 pm.
How much do we know about Mexican cuisine? That was the question I asked myself before we launched República. I spent much of my life criticizing Mexican food in this country. In fact, I always thought it was funny when fellow Californians would move to Oregon and complain about the lack of good Mexican food in this town, as if California was any better! Look, most Mexican food in this country sucks; California does not get a pass. The biggest heartbreak I’ve ever experienced when we came back to this country was simply being away from the people I loved. The second, was the goddam prepackaged pressed sheets of preservative-laced corn that everyone accepted as tortillas. And the food was just as bad. This might sound a bit odd, but the inspiration behind our restaurants came primarily from my many years of disdain for the atrocious interpretation of Mexican food in this country. And believe me, I’ve eaten a lot of Mexican food over the last 30 years, and I can genuinely tell you that during that time I never had a place where I could say, “this here is the food of my childhood.” Not one.
I can tell you about the best tacos in SoCal. Or the best tortas, or mariscos, or even caldo de albondigas, but there was never a restaurant that transported me to the memories of the food I ate as a chubby kid. I know that sounds like an exaggeration but there was a point where I spent fifteen years or so going back to the same Mexican hole in the wall to order the same thing everytime; a plate of beans, queso fresco, a side of salsa de molcajete, and a dozen tortillas. Nothing else in that place, or any other place for that matter, was like back home. And surely, nothing else in this country was like the food of my mother or grandmother. That is, unless of course you were invited to the home of your very Mexican friends, which outside of my own mother, this was always the closest thing to that food I keep referencing.
I am talking about all the good shit. All the stuff that will never end up in one of these Mexican restaurants: chicharrones en salsa verde, costillas en salsa roja, bistec con papas & tomate, tortas de camaron & tortas de papa (not what you think). Don’t get me wrong, there are markets in this town that sell this. In fact, we used to offer it for lunch at La Fondita, but because it is often prepared in large batches it is never the same. Every market and every place I’ve had these dishes in this country pales in comparison to having it made by a loved one or a lunch special at a beloved fonda. Not even us, with all of this talent around La Fondita, could recreate that experience for you, mostly because whenever we put it on the menu, people who would come for lunch would often stay with the things they recognized: tacos, quesadillas, or pozole. And so, the longer the guisados sat in those warmers, the more the quality would suffer. There is a reason this food always tasted so much better during family meals (staff): it was made fresh and was loaded with love and nostalgia.
Man, to think that we took a shot at the most genuine interpretation of homestyle Mexican cuisine and failed, not because of quality but because it was too unfamiliar to even some of these first and second gen Mexicans, bums me the fuck out. It was tragic I tell you, tragic! Which brings me to why most Mexican cuisine in this country sucks: lack of familiarity. Not just to the non-Mexicans, but the Mexicans as well. I am talking to you, father of three stubborn-ass so-called “picky” eaters who refuse to eat anything that doesn’t come on a tortilla. You conditioned these intolerable children who refuse to try some of the same food you grew up eating. Instead, they are out there eating tostilocos and drinking chamoyadas! I blame you all for their poor taste in food and edgar haircuts. But really, let me say this, it is one thing to have “Doñita” or a Paisa give you feedback like “this isn’t the way X dish is made”, most of the time you simply have to ask what part of Mexico they are from to understand why a certain dish doesn’t look or isn’t served the same way they are used to. That part is easy to understand and educate them on. Yes, I say educating because most Mexicans who come to this country have never had the privilege to travel outside the state or city from which they originally come. Therefore, something like menudo looks very different to someone from Guadalajara than to someone from Puebla, and so after a good conversion you pass that knowledge down. However, when Junior, the twenty-something son of Mexican parents comes to our restaurant and says something like “this is not real mole” or better yet, this is not “authentic” Mexican food, my first thought is always, “give me back that plate.” The second is mostly me wondering how do I politely educate this young, arrogant dumb-shit. I try, honestly. I am as polite as I can be. When that doesn’t work I simply take their food back, issue them a refund, and send them on their way. That right there is why Mexican cuisine sucks in this country. That right there is why just about every fucking menu in so many Mexican joints looks just like the others. This is why almost every place offers some sort of “combination” plate – with some bullshit mass-produced rice and beans topped with yellow cheese or Monterrey Jack, some sort of grilled main side, and for the life of me I still cannot understand why but a fucking pile of mostly wilted shredded lettuce and a folded orange wedge – all in one predictable and familiar plate. The worst part of it all, is the number of Mexicans that you see eating this shit. Why? Because many of them – people like my parents, who to this day cannot travel back to their home country – have settled for this interpretation of this cuisine. Anyway, this is not what I meant to write. I am going to circle back later tonight after service and give y’all something that doesn’t make me sound like such a dick. Saturday, March 4th. 9:37 pm. I am not Chef. I don’t claim to be one, despite what writers and other folks like to address me by. I am grateful that they do it as a form of respect for whatever they think I do, and I don’t question it anymore, I just say thank you and bow gracefully. I think of myself as a lover and historian of this cuisine. Someone who has spent much of his free time attempting to learn about this food, this culture, and the country we simply know as Mexico.
How much do we know about Mexican cuisine? That was the question I started with before my thoughts became a long rant about wilted lettuce and edgar haircuts.
That was the question I needed to answer before we attempted to try to give República a voice and identity.
It started with the vernacular: words like “ancestral”, “endemic”, “authentic”, etc. They needed to be given a definition. What do they mean? How are people using them? How are we going to use them or should we even use them? When you have a baseline answer to those questions it becomes much easier to read something and question its validity. Really quickly, you realize that there is just as much unlearning as there is learning. At every turn there is something or other that contradicts your ideas and beliefs, things that I, and others have often interpreted as foundational truths have turned out to be incomplete or incorrect.
All of this started with an obsession with the connection of it all. Somehow, almost three years later, I find myself questioning whether the country that is now Mexico would have been better off being governed by the Spanish crown than by its own people, and I think to myself “how the fuck did I get here?” Now, before you scoff at that last statement, understand it was mostly the sons and grandchildren of Spaniards who were responsible for Mexico’s independence, and quite honestly when it was all said and done, they made a goddamned mess of it.
But again, I am a third generation something or other from a lineage that is not from Mexico nor Spain, the only horse I have in this race is that of someone who identifies as Mexican-American… whatever that means. Which brings me to now. Over the next few weeks (2 or 3), I am going to share with you all a bit more about the things I’ve learned about this food, this country, and this culture.
Today, I am going to start in Mexico City, a capital whose architectural foundation was built by African slaves. Yes, that beautiful baroque Zocalo along with that Cathedral and many other historically rich buildings were erected primarily by people who were kidnapped, brought to this continent, and sold against their will. A fact that has been deliberately ignored for centuries, mostly for the purpose of erasing the idea that there was more than one race in the history of the country, and creating a national identity simply known as mestizaje.
You see, up until about 1600, more Africans were brought to Mexico than anywhere else in the new world. They were auctioned off in the Port of Veracruz, many of them sold and sent off to work in the silver mines or sugar cane plantations. But there was also a sizable number who were sold to the elite of New Spain (Mexico City), or the nearby city of Puebla.
During this period, Mexico City became one of the wealthiest and most magnificent metropolises in the world and every rich motherfucker from Spain living there, wished to be attended by his very own group of joyful black servants. Even more importantly, as the indigenous population declined and struggled even to survive, the other rich assholes, the movers and shakers in some of the bigger cities, found they could use enslaved labor in places like textile workshops, shoe factories, as well as the booming iron foundries and construction trade, including brick-making, tile work, and masonry. Because of this, the now Capital of Mexico, at that time known as New Spain, saw a rapid boom in construction. It was through this period that an enormous and elegant Baroque city was built, primarily by enslaved Africans.
Just to give you context on the numbers, in the 1570s there had been about as many African or African-descended men in the capital city as there were Spanish men, roughly 8,000 each. The number of Spanish settlers increased as time went on, but because of the scale of trade in those decades, the percentage of black enslaved folk continued to grow as well. At the start of the seventeenth century, there were at least 12,000 Africans and mixed Africans in a city with perhaps three times that many Spaniards. Meanwhile between the 1570s and early 1600s, the indigenous population of Mexico, like that of New Spain as a whole, had dropped immensely.
But not all Africans were enslaved. In this beautiful booming metropolis, many black men were incentivized to work by being allowed the right to pay for their freedom, or chose to have children by free indigenous women, thus saving their offspring from a life of slavery. In fact, many claim that much of this history and this culture has disappeared from existence because of the disproportionate ratio of enslaved African men vs enslaved African women. As many of the men procreated with indigenous or mestizas, their children did what many of the children of immigrant families do: assimilate to the culture of that country. Because they did not have much in common with Spaniards, they defaulted to a culture closer to that of the native indigenous population. It took about a century before much of their own culture disappeared from Mexico’s history. There is a cruel irony in the fact that many of those buildings are still standing, often crediting the work of the architect but never actually making mention of those who were forced to build it.
You are probably wondering, what does this have to do with food? Everything. Hibiscus, tamarind, watermelon, okra, yams, coffee, black eyed peas… these are all things that are native to Africa and not the Americas. But then there is also the other stuff, all the beautiful spices that were found in Asia, but came to what is now Mexico via ships from the African continent – the same ships that came loaded with those people who had their language, culture, history, identity, and food stolen and erased from existence. Something as “ancestral” as the mole we love so much in “authentic” Mexican cuisine is only possible because of ingredients that are not from Mexico. In fact, outside of corn, beans, and chocolate, most of the flavors of that Mexican cuisine you love so much, is only possible because of this chapter in its history. This is where those questions have brought me – to a place where I’ve spent my time and energy stripping down the etymology of so-called “endemic” Mexican dishes. What can I say, one day I started trying to figure out mole and somehow ended up in a Baroque-style Cathedral.