Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America | By Gustavo Arellano | Scribner | 320 pages, $25.00

Recently popularized as a buzzword for genuineness, “authenticity” has a much longer history as a term used to commodify the “ethnic” and “exotic.” The use of the word is often imprecise, but usually has something to do with marketing a product as having the fewest degrees of separation possible from its regional or ethnic origins. National Geographic offers readers “a strong connection to China” with “Authentic China Photos”; tour companies encourage visitors to Southeast Asia to “experience ethnic hill tribe culture in its rawest and most authentic forms”; and food magazines argue over “The most authentic ethnic food in the U.S.” Purveyors of the authentic offer a kind of voyeurism—a glimpse into another culture as it would exist if unaware of an outside presence.

Journalists especially love the hunt for authenticity. Reporters and critics are paid to discover things and speak about them with authority, so it’s easy to see how “authentic”—which implies definitive familiarity with a foreign subject matter—might be a tempting word to use when writing about an encounter with another culture. Reviews of ethnic restaurants often center on the food’s authenticity or lack thereof. Arbitrating authenticity is perhaps as wise a business move as offering it. As it turns out, luring customers by applying the label is perhaps the strongest parallel between the American press and American purveyors of Mexican food.

How was the term used to market Mexican food in America? Let’s ask a Mexican.

Taco USA, the new book by OC Weekly editor and widely syndicated ¡Ask a Mexican! columnist Gustavo Arellano, is part culinary history, part travelogue, and part extended essay on the various accidents and ironies of colonialism that caused Mexican food to, as the book’s subtitle puts it, “conquer” America. It’s a fun read worthy of the burrito-loving masses—and a thoughtful examination of America’s simultaneous hunger for and fear of the influence of other cultures.

Beginning around the time of the Mexican-American War in 1846, entrepreneurs introduced Mexican food to the American palate in small doses over the course of more than a century, insisting that each new version of the food—first the tamales sold on the streets of San Francisco and Chicago and New York, then the fast food taco that gave much of America its first encounter with Mexican food, then sit-down establishments slinging margaritas— reached a new plane of authenticity. Arellano describes a remarkably predictable cycle: lure customers in with a promise of something new and different and exotic, and then, once the exotic allure fades, up the ante slightly with yet another supposedly outlandish dish.

The American press was instrumental in creating that exotic allure. Here’s Scribner’s magazine in 1874, talking about the Mexican women who sold chili con carne on the streets of San Antonio: “The fat, tawny Mexican mater-familias will place before you various savory compounds, swimming in fiery pepper, which biteth like a serpent.” During the 1890s, a journalist named Charles Lummis wrote dispatches on Mexican food from New Mexico for the Los Angeles Times: “One not used to eating fire might just exactly as well chew up a ripe red pepper raw and swallow it.” But by the turn of the century, canned chili was no longer exotic. New food, unlike new land, is in infinite supply, and Gilded Age writers seeking culinary adventure went off to conquer new frontiers.

Indeed, the story of Mexican food in America, as Arellano tells it, is itself a metaphor for colonialism:

“Chili con carne, now plain ol’ chili, was a harbinger of things to come for Mexican food. It was a Mexican dish, made by Mexicans for Mexicans, but it was whites who made the dish a national sensation, who pushed it far beyond its ancestral lands, who adapted it to their tastes, who created companies for large-scale production, and who ultimately became its largest consumer to the point that the only thing Mexican about it was the mongrelized Spanish in its name.”

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer.