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Surreal murmurings on American food
2015-03-31
By Fangfang Gong

Is there anything that can merit the title “American food”? I mean real gourmet cuisine, not the mass-produced fast-food burgers (though that’s not to say that the humble burger isn’t a great culinary invention.)

While we mull over this, let me share my experiences of an art history trip to Italy with students and staff from the Art Institute of Chicago one summer.

It wasn’t just the breath-taking abundance of art and architecture wherever we cast our eyes, but also the perfectly brewed espresso, the mouth-watering fresh seafood, the mellow vino, and the never-ending pastas.

And to be honest, I could eat those pastas every single day.

While most of our Asian group members were immersed in this Roman food heaven, the American kids started to complain and murmur about their longing for “American Food”.

The Asians on the trip were shocked and confused: First of all, are they really missing the fries and burgers while having the world’s best food within daily reach? If not, isn’t bread and pasta what you have in the US as well? So what are they complaining about?

And in the end, if those things were not what they meant by “American Food” ... then what exactly is “American food?”

I was too busy blissing out on pasta to find the answers. It wasn’t until I came back and shared the story with friend from Cordon Bleu, that the mystery was finally clear up: Mexican food! That’s what they were craving! To be specific — Tex-Mex food.

What is Tex-Mex?

Back in the pioneering days, Anglo settlers marched ever-westward into what is now called Texas, where they encountered Mexican culture and cuisine.

The popularity of Mexican food grew as more incomers settled in Texas. This culinary cultural exchange went the other way too, with gringo elements such as wheat flour, cheddar cheese, canned vegetables, black beans, and cumin finding popularity south of the border.

It’s not as fancy as French and Italian, not as exotic as Chinese or Japanese, which are all well-accepted foreign cuisines in the US. But Tex-mex food is so down to earth, ubiquitous and so damned tasty that it should be on the pantheon of American food.

Chili’s, Taco Bell, Chipotle ... we don’t call these “Mexican restaurants”. (Even though people still call Panda Express “Chinese”, when in fact it should be identified as “American Chinese fast food” — an invention in its homeland of the United States.)

Many of the so-called Mexican food: hardshell tacos, burritos and nachos, are all Tex-Mex inventions. Identifying them as Mexican is as accurate as calling General Tsao’s chicken (a popular dish in American-Chinese restaurants) as Chinese.

And talking of China, I’m surprised that Mexican food hasn’t found more popularity yet in China, as the two nations have more in common than most of us had ever realized.

For starters there’s common heritage, as the many of the ancestors of Native Americans crossed a land bridge over the Bering Strait from Asia thousands of years ago.

Then there’s cooking. Mexicans and Asians both love to spice up their dishes. In a traditional “Mole” (pronounced “mo-lay”) sauce, Mexicans use up to 20 different spices and herbs to create this complex-flavored gravy, which usually pairs with rice. In fact, a rather similar arrangement to curry rice in Asia.

Indeed, the chili pepper was brought to Europe from Mexico in the late 15th century and found a new home in China some 100 years later.

My first impression of Mexico was from the hefty encyclopedia tomes on my grandpa’s bookshelf that I skimmed through when in elementary school.

I was shocked to discover that Mexico City had the highest density of population in the world. I was amazed because for the first time in my life, I realized there was some other places more crowded than where I lived!

From this starting point, my knowledge of Mexico grew to encompass the cactus, the sombrero, pyramid temples and the fascinating Mayan civilization, but nothing about what Mexicans actually ate.

The “Mexican crispy chicken wrap” from KFC China was my only association with Mexican food — and that has nothing in common with authentic Mexican cuisine, except for the “wrapping” part.

The 2002 movie “Frida”, in which Salma Hayek plays Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, first drew my attention to Mexican art. During a trip to San Francisco in 2007, I attended a Kahlo solo exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), where I was totally overwhelmed by her work: a bold color palette, fierce sentiments, ruthlessly revealing.

This passionate and troubled artist’s work was described as “a ribbon around a bomb” by surrealist movement initiator Andre Breton.

Kahlo herself rejected the surrealist tag, saying her work merely reflected her life’s reality.

Kahlo’s uncompromising work often reveals her love for nature and pride in her culture. Fruit motifs recur in her paintings: melons, papaya, lemons, lime and avocado — ingredients often seen in traditional Mexican cooking. She would often paint a Mexico flag waving on top of the fruit to showcase her national pride.

Kahlo’s work has a violent love/hate ambivalence toward life. No one can depict life in such detail without any deep affection for it, yet life was often too troubling for the artist, both physically and emotionally.

In her “Self Portrait Between the Borderline of Mexico and the United States”, Kahlo depicts herself standing on a pedestal, with a Mexican flag in hand. Behind her, is the juxtaposition of the industrialized modern United States and agricultural and history rooted Mexico. The moon and sun are both shining in the sky of Mexico, touching “fingers”, a metaphor on the Creation of Adam.

It seems to be part of Mexico’s characteristics: direct, dramatic, polarized. It’s love or hate, rarely lingering in the middle ground.

It’s hard not to talk about Mexican food and drink without the mentioning tequila, its most popular distilled spirit, made out of the agave plants and the base liquor of the Margarita cocktail.

But here I want to talk about tequila’s sibling — mezcal, a more artisanal, traditional agave drink, which in recent years has gained tremendous popularity in the craft drinks world. Mezcal and tequila are similar in terms of ingredients and main production concepts, but the distinguishing smoky flavor is unique to mezcal, partly due to the underground earth oven baking process.

Traditionally, mezcal is drunk neat, from a hand-made clay sipping cup called copita, as the wide mouth enables the robust spirit of the mezcal to open up, allowing the beautiful layers of flavor to shine. Now they have mezcal based cocktails as well.

The way of appreciate neat mezcal is not drinking it as a shot, because it’s not respectful, and therefore, mezcal will disrespect you as well.

If you respect mezcal, you kiss it, in small sips, and it will last and linger long.

In Oaxaca, in southwestern Mexico, locals insist that mezcal is the cure for everything. They also say that, mezcal together with mole is a perfect aphrodisiac.

I’m not sure about the actual effect, but the passion and energy, the spice and nutrients that go into making mezcal and mole would definitely make you feel warm and fuzzy.

As I’m writing this article, my Mexican friend Jessica has just sent me a picture of her family dinner tonight — mole with pork, tomato and garlic rice, nopales cactus and salad — made by her mom with love.

She “warned” me that her mom loves everyone, and if I go over to her family dinner, her mom might end up feeding me too much!

Always genuine and generous ... Salud! Mi Amigo, with love!

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