Before the Mission Burrito Came the San Francisco Tamale: An Interview with Gustavo Arellano, Part 1

Categories: Talking Points

gustavo_arellano.jpg
Gustavo Arellano.
San Francisco has gotten used to thinking of itself as a remote outpost in the Mexican diaspora, since our lively but embattled Mexican American community is dwarfed by much larger ones in Los Angeles and the Southwest. But according to this week's cover story, written by Gustavo Arellano, San Francisco has played a key role in convincing the rest of the country to adopt two Mexican American dishes, tamales and burritos, as their own.

The story is an excerpt from Arellano's new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, which comes out this week. SFoodie had a chance to speak to Arellano, who is also editor of the OC Weekly several days ago. (Part 2 of this interview runs tomorrow.

SFoodie: Were tamales the first Mexican dish to be assimilated into American cuisine?

I would say yes, because the first two Mexican foods to achieve widespread popularity were chile con carne and the tamal -- specifically the tamal that came from tamale men from San Francisco. The tamal had existed across the American Southwest, of course, but up until the early 1890s it never had nationwide traction. It was really Robert Putnam and his California Chicken Tamale Co. who set out to conquer Chicago, spread a tamale frenzy there, then spun off to New York and inspired all those imitators.

Chile con carne, meanwhile, was limited to San Antonio, and the fulcrom [in the spread of chile con carne and tamales across the U.S.] was the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, where you had tamale men all around the city for months. That's when all these Chicago canning companies said, oh, we could can chile and tamales.

That's not to say that Los Angeles didn't have its own tamales, but the difference was in terms of development. In the 1890s, Los Angeles was a cow town, and it didn't matter in American affairs, while San Francisco was the big city. Anything happening here would get the attention of the press.

Are canned tamales still around?

I think they still do exist, but at this point they would be such low sellers - there's no point for canned tamales anymore. In the book, Tony Ortega at the Village Voice described for me, as a Mexican kid growing up in southern California, having to experience canned tortillas in New York City in the 1980s. To us the idea is just bizarre. But the two companies at the forefront of canned tortillas don't make them any more. I think I have found one final producer of canned tortillas, but they're for survivalists.

I was also interested to see that you do credit San Francisco with the rise of the burrito.

There are actually three kinds of burritos in the course of burrito history in this country. The first burrito was very simple: beans, rice, maybe some meat, all rolled in a flour tortilla. Those are the burriots you make at home. They're also the burritos spread by the fast-food taco chains. Taco Bell, in its initial menu, had a burrito with red or green sauce.

The second burrito, which governs what Americans now think of as a burrito, is the Mission style burrito. In the book I talk about Febronio Ontiveros of El Faro [which introduced San Francisco to the Mission burrito]. He says that he grew up in Durango in Mexico. When he came up to work in the camps in the United States, that's what the brazeros would make. So Ontiveros began making this massive burrito with huge tortillas, and tortillas that big were limited to Sonora and Southern Arizona.

Then there's a third type of burrito that's going to start spreading across the United States by virtue of the "Bertos" clones -- Roberto's, Alberto's, Filiberto's -- in San Diego area. The "California" burrito, with cheese and fries, only dates back to the 1980s. There are now 500 'Bertos clones around the area. Since you have such a huge military presence in San Diego, I think that's going to be the next big burrito.

Tomorrow: Is Chipotle a force for good or evil?

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