When I first signed up for Taco Literacy, I wasn’t aware of what Taco Literacy truly meant and how it would involve me. But over the course of the semester, I discovered that being taco literate meant having a deeper understanding of Mexican culture, history, and it’s mythologies through its food. This concept made me realize how over the course of time, and even now, people don’t acknowledge the true meaning of the food being served and respect those who make them. People tend to forget or purposefully not acknowledge that food can be one’s source of identity and what unites people.
The first assignment of reviewing food from a Mexican Restaurant or Taqueria made me realize that the concept of authentic Mexican food is hard to pinpoint. Specifically because even in Mexico, the spices and flavors of the food can vary just depending on the region. In accordance with how Mexican food may not all be the same in flavors or presentation, each of the regions in Mexico identifies with the food they are used to. An example of this would be in the making of tamales, which is a well-known dish. They could vary in cooking method, flavoring, and even presentation just from the region they come from. In fact, it is estimated that there are an approximate of 500 types of tamales in all of Mexico. Despite the fact that they vary in many forms, the people still identify with tamales in its entirety and not by its differences.
Back at the very beginning of when tamales where first being produced and served, tamales were considered an important ritual food that the natives identified with. It was said to be “considered sacred as it is the food of the gods” (Clark), and they were offered to various gods at their appointed festivals. Then there is also the fact that tamales main ingredient is Maize (Corn), another food source that was considered sacred. The Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, and Toltec civilizations of ancient Mexico shared the same or similar creation myths that identified people with corn. A creation story in the Popul Vuh, an important collection of Mayan mythology, states that the “first humans were formed of mud that quickly dissolved, the second from wood that lacked a soul, and the third from corn, which gave humanity its lasting form” (Barksdale). This mythology about corn was what united every individual in their civilization with one another plus strengthen their relationship with life or their spirituality. Nowadays tamales unite a family through Las Tamaladas, a communal event of making tamales for holidays or special occasions. This process of making tamales with family and friends is a way to share a loving and deep cultural connection while passing on the tradition to future generations.
Food is something humans will engage with multiple times a day which in turn makes it easier to pass down traditions. This is because it gives people “[the] opportunities to connect to a memory, a family and place” (Choi). Mexican food carries important cultural elements from not only the history of Latin America, but from throughout the world that their ancestors identified with and protected. In our modern times, Mexican food has achieved in keeping and respecting its traditions, while also honoring its history that spans over one thousand years. This makes each dish unique and spectacular, not only in terms of flavors and aromas but in spirit and identity. The typical authentic cuisine of Mexico is not something one can find in an average Mexican restaurant since the palate of the cook can vary. To find it, one must first understand where it comes from and how it has changed and created legends and stories that are told from generation to generation. Even from one Mexican restaurant to another, they vary in flavor because the chefs have access to different flavors in their environment.
Besides needing to understand what a particular food could mean, Fox brings an equally favored outlook up in his article, Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective, that “food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is an occasion for sharing… for the expression of altruism” (Fox). This powerful act of food sharing and eating may involve simple everyday foods to extravagant ritual foods. Keeping this in mind, food in general is inherently layered with the “meaning” of cultures throughout the globe. The act of eating or sharing food may involve simple everyday dishes to extravagant ritual foods. With this in mind, this means that food in general is inherently layered with “meaning” from cultures throughout the globe. As to the specific consumption of food or the various forms of dietary plans that are classified, they tend to vary across cultures, but typically offer some insight into cultural norms, tradition, easily accessible ingredients, and the influence of seasonality. Understanding, or at the very least respecting, the origins of a culture’s eating habits can only benefit multicultural societies as our global community continues to grow.
Astoundingly enough, tourism unintentionally affects the identity associated with food in Mexico. The way certain countries are globally marketed effect how certain foods are promoted and presented to the world. Examples of this could be whenever there is a misrepresentation of a culture’s food that tourist come to associate with said culture’s daily lives, or how the food is represented globally as cheap marketing instead of their purest form. For many, this can affect the expectations they have for a certain food to look, taste, and smell. A perfect example of this is like when a person thinks about Mexican food they will usually associate it with foods like tacos, burritos, and nachos. Let’s say hypothetically there was a part of the world where the only exposure to “authentic” Mexican food is Taco Bell or Chipotle, it can lead to unintentional disrespect towards the history of food from the motherland. Particularly since there can be a group of tourists who do not understand or care to learn the history of the food that Mexico has to offer. It doesn’t help that when tourists actually visit Mexico, the food that a tourist consumes versus a native are completed divided. For example, the food that locals eat in their daily lives would most likely be street vendors, nice small mom-and-pop shops, or a home-cooked meal. Meanwhile, some tourists don’t even leave past the resort gates and assume that the food served at the resort is “everyday food.” If the world has a false preconceived notion of what is Mexican food, then it jeopardizes and cheapens the integrity of the people, history, and other customs.
However, there are still ways food helps keep enforcing the concept of identity and unity through food. When I interviewed Ruth Farias, she mentioned how her identity equates to her culture despite not being born in Mexico. One of the many reasons was because of the food she ate. Ruth talked about how when she was growing up her grandmother would cook Mexican food often, making many Mexican dishes feel like she is home when consumed. This especially rings true when she is eating and is surrounded by her family members that enjoy the same cultural food; enhancing her cultural participation and appreciation through food.
Food is more than just a need of the body, but a representation of unity and identity that many don’t think about. Food, especially Mexican cuisines, are filled with an intense history that some people till this day don’t seem to fully understand or truly appreciate it. Food brings everyone together through a bonding experience, whether that be eating or making it. Food in the long run is central to our sense of identity. The way any given human group eats (particularly mexicans in this case), helps assert its sense of cultural diversity, hierarchy, and organization. On the other hand, food asserts both oneness and otherness of whoever eats differently. Food constructs our whole being, developing individuality yet still maintaining unity.
Barksdale, Nate. “What Goes Into a Hot Tamale?” History, A&E Television Networks, 14 Nov. 2014.
Choi, Amy S. “What Americans Can Learn from Other Food Cultures.” Ideas.ted.com, 18 Dec. 2014.
Clark, Ellen Riojas, and Carmen Tafolla. Tamales, Comadres and the Meaning of Civilization: Secrets, Recipes, History, Anecdotes, and a Lot of Fun. Wings Press, 2011.
Fox, Robin. Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. Social Issues Research Center, 2014.