Taco USA, Taquitos, Olvera Street, & Nixtamal NYC Tortillas

Today’s adventure included Instagram fun, further US Mexican foodways overview (gracias maestro Gustavo Arellano), the “joys” of WordPress, then finishing up class with a reminder about the first big assignment coming up for next week.

We started class with a return to the previous chapter, to remind ourselves how a certain “pattern” of selling Mexicanidad without the Mexicans happens over and over. We spoke about this in the previous class about the case of chili, but as we saw in Chapter 3 of Taco USA, Arellano turns his attention to tacos, starting right away with the history of Olvera Street, and zeroing in on the famous Cielito Lindo restaurant, named after the famous ranchera song.

Cielito Lindo is famous for its taquitos, what some might call “rolled tacos” but may actually be the dish that gives us the name “taco,” as one line of etymological posits that the origin “taco” comes from the Mexican Spanish word for a stick of dynamite, un taco. I mean, maybe, why not?

The famous Cielito Lindo taquitos, on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

These taquitos are equally famous for the spicy green sauce they swim in. We also read over the passage at the beginning of Chapter 3 where Arellano describes the history of Olvera Street, and I could see some nods, recognizing how gentrification and selling Mexican culture (i.e. food and other cultural expressions, think Coco) for tourists coming to LA, using a kind of LA Spanish pastoral to market an image, an idea, of better bygone days. In other words, a kind of MAKE LA GREAT AGAIN, and that was interpreted as Spanish again, though if you ask the indigenous people of the region, or the enslaved Africans brought by the Spanish, they may have a different perspective of that history.

Olvera Street, making LA Spanish Again.

This kind of appropriation was recognizable in the case of chili, again. But it would become even more clear when we examined Taco Bell and how that hardshell taco, a taco dorado, became the “standard” for fast food and export, a US taco.

Okay, so that was deep, but we needed a little break, so we put the libro away and turned to the phones, to Instagram, and we broke tortillas together. This morning, I stopped at my favorite tortilla spot to bring some fresh tortillas for class so we could do some more Instagram practice, but also so students could practice writing about the flavors of nixtamal, smell these tortillas, and understand a little bit of the symbolic and cultural significance of tortillas.

Check out #TacoLiteracy on Instagram to see more of the artist “glamour shots.”

“Did you get my dimple?”

Some interesting responses to these tortillas, from “they remind me of home” to “these smell like the sawdust in the craft store.” All warranted! This led to some fun discussion, and where I think I blew some minds, that these tortillas are the “pregame” before the hardshell, that is, fry these in a U-form, and you will have the taco dorado, or what becomes the Taco Bell taco. But the flavors one tastes in these tortillas, so I argued, are the closest flavor to corn one will find, and the technology of nixtamal to make these tortillas is the same that links us to generations, to millennia, to the history of this hemisphere.

The challenge for this, though, was to write about flavors for an audience, while doing so with a kind of specialized vocabulary. I shared this, a useful guide for describing the flavors of wine.

This specialized vocabulary gave students some tools to describe the tortillas, and they practiced using this on the posts they produced for class. Hopefully these will become part of their first assignments, coming up soon, very soon. Next week soon.

We ended class with a quick review about the upcoming assignment, and I gave the students a couple of food reviews to work with, both by Pete Wells, and both about two of my favorite places in Queens, Birria-Landia and Casa Enrique. Wells will be the writer we are trying to emulate for the first assignment, a food review that is also a photo-essay and incorporates language and culinary history.

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