The United States of Tacos

It's Americans, not Mexicans, who are responsible for the rise of margaritas and moles north of the border.

If you want to know how misguided Tyler Cowen's arguments are in explaining the popularity of Mexican cuisine in the United States, consider a word that he never uses in his essay: immigration ("The Cookbook Theory of Economics," July/August 2013). Talking about the rise of margaritas and moles in the United States without mentioning the immigrants who brought these marvels to el Norte is like ordering a taco without the tortilla.

I agree with Cowen that the modern-day ubiquity of Mexican food is helped by large-scale production, whether through fast-food giants like Taco Bell or through the salsa industry, whose annual sales have famously topped those of ketchup. But Cowen ties this triumph to economic development in Mexico. As I explain in my book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Americans, not Mexicans, are the most enthusiastic acolytes of Mexican food, and it was Americans, including Mexican-Americans, who pioneered the innovations that allowed Mexican food to become the global cuisine it is today. In fact, Mexico rails against the commodification and appropriation of its culinary heritage. If it were up to Mexicans, their cuisine wouldn't be a worldwide phenomenon but rather something as ossified as the Tanzanian cookery whose rareness Cowen laments. Chefs and food writers like Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy feel the same way and base their cookbooks on this stuck-in-the-amber Mexico, so using cookbooks as a litmus test of a cuisine's reach doesn't speak to its influence once it leaves its native land.

Thankfully, the American appetite doesn't hew to such backward thinking. The ceaseless waves of Mexicans to the United States over the past century have kept Americans intrigued with the cuisine by introducing new items with such regularity that Mexican food is like a seven-layer bean dip, with the most assimilated items on the bottom and newer trends on top -- each of them authentically Mexican, each of them eagerly gobbled up by Americans. Everything we now take for granted, from guacamole to chili, tamales to Corona beer, was once considered exotic, even foreign, until immigrants introduced it to los Estados Unidos. Witness the relatively recent success of burritos, a staple of northern Mexican cuisine that has been in the United States since the 1950s but that became popular only after the rise of Chipotle in the 1990s. It is Americans who decide whether these newer meals will become commodified, and it will be American companies, run by gabachos and Mexicans alike, that will be the beneficiaries of this decision, not Mexico.

Finally, Cowen has the state of Mexican food in the United States all wrong. He says Americans mostly get "northern Mexican food," yet the only foodstuffs from northern Mexico that ever penetrated the United States were burritos, flour tortillas, fajitas, and nachos -- important contributions, yes, but they pale in comparison with what central and southern Mexico gifted the United States: enchiladas, tequila, carnitas, mescal, and so much more. And the ubiquitous taco, that most iconic of Mexican meals? It only entered mainstream American cuisine after the Mexican Revolution, brought forth from central Mexico by -- sí, señor -- immigrants.

Editor, OC Weekly
Costa Mesa, Calif.

Tyler Cowen replies:

Gustavo Arellano mostly gets my argument wrong and then piles a series of misunderstandings on top. No one doubts the role of immigrants in transmitting Mexican (and other) cuisines to the United States and around the globe; that is merely stating the obvious, so I chose to focus on other factors. But there are many immigrants to the United States who have not transmitted their cuisine with equal facility, one obvious example being Filipinos. That is the difference we need to account for.

In addition, Arellano thinks I am mostly talking about Taco Bell and the like in my article, when my discussion explicitly takes a very different tack. The relevant commodification of Mexican food here is the economic development that occurred in Mexico (largely throughout the 20th century in squares, public markets, and restaurants) that was a prerequisite for carrying the cuisine forward to other locales -- exactly my thesis. There are plenty of dishes from Mexican villages that have not yet been commodified -- in Mexico -- and have had no real chance to cross into the United States.

Oddly, Arellano portrays Mexicans in Mexico as "ossified" and Americans as the dynamic commodifiers, a gross injustice to both Mexican culinary creativity and the relative successes of the Mexican economy in much of the 20th century. Among other misunderstandings, burritos were popular in the United States well before Chipotle, which, by the way, had little of its growth in the 1990s.


It Takes a Village

Why Africa won't wait for Western do-gooders to save a continent.

As the leaders of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in Africa, we were both amused and frustrated to read Paul Starobin's critical portrait of Jeffrey Sachs's plan to end poverty ("Does It Take a Village?," July/August 2013). The jibes come mostly from a familiar set of academics and critics who, like the author, have neither visited an MVP site nor discussed the project with the African leaders involved. Starobin did not speak to us or other Africa-based MVP coordinators, even though the project's communications director repeatedly asked him to do so.

This strikes us as an irresponsible way to report on an African-run project. Our aim in the Millennium Villages is to fight poverty and save lives here on this continent. The critics in Washington tell us to take small steps. But why should we go slowly in the fight against malaria, AIDS, and lack of safe water when these problems can be solved more quickly and comprehensively? Before outside observers tell us once more to wait on randomized trials of already proven innovations, let them come here to see what can be accomplished now.

Already, governments around Africa are embracing the MVP, adopting its methods, and showing confidence in scaling up the project. Several countries, for instance, recently accepted a major financing package worth tens of millions of dollars from the Islamic Development Bank. If Starobin had spoken with African leaders, he would have learned how the project is helping countries solve major problems by encouraging them to set national policies that support the poor and sick. The large-scale distribution of malaria-fighting bed nets across villages and the expansion of community health centers are but two examples.

Eight years ago, the leaders of the MVP, including Sachs and our colleagues working in the villages, stated that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals can be achieved even in the very poorest "hunger hot spots" of rural Africa. We disagreed with advice to tackle these problems in a slow, piecemeal fashion, as if Africa were the subject of a classroom experiment. And we still do. With the help of the MVP, our continent is solving its problems through cutting-edge technology and science, markets, and government programs -- all of which explains why more and more countries are joining Sachs's project. If Foreign Policy had cared to look at the real situation on the ground, it would have told its readers the truth.

Director, Columbia Global Centers, Africa
Nairobi, Kenya
Director, MDG Center West and Central Africa
Dakar, Senegal

Paul Starobin replies:

Belay Begashaw and Amadou Niang claim that my article's criticism of the Millennium Villages Project comes mostly from academics who have never visited a single MVP site. That is simply not true. Economist Edward Miguel at the University of California, Berkeley, and Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development, both of whom are quoted in the article as MVP critics, have made site visits to MVP villages and have written about their findings. Miguel, in a chapter of his 2008 co-authored book, Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations, drew on his visit the previous year to the Sauri Millennium Village in Kenya, and Birdsall wrote in a 2012 blog post about her visit to the Koraro Millennium Village in Ethiopia.

As for the claim that I did not talk to Africa-based leaders about MVP, that is also not true. I interviewed a senior Kenyan government official, Charity Ngilu, who as health minister worked closely with Jeffrey Sachs to launch MVP in her country, and she is quoted in the article. I also interviewed Bright Kanyontore Rwamirama, a member of Uganda's parliament and a cabinet official who is closely involved with MVP in his country. In addition, an Africa-based writer, Sam Rich, visited the Ruhiira Millennium Village in Uganda and talked to project leaders there, expressly for the Foreign Policy article.

It is understandable that Begashaw and Niang take issue with pointed criticism of MVP, but they have no basis for saying that such criticism, as voiced in the article, is ill-informed.