Gustavo Arellano wears many hats.
Or in his case, sombreros: alt-weekly editor, author, feather-ruffler and perhaps his biggest claim to fame, the mastermind behind the ever popular syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican!
Since the feature's inception in 2004 as a one-off parody to its current incarnation as a mainstay in close to 40 publications nationwide, its purpose has been the same, he says, "To debunk and deconstruct the stereotypes and misconceptions that people have about Mexicans."
This weekend, the noted foodie arrives in Santa Fe to take part in FUZE.SW, a first of its kind, 3-day gastronomic bonanza that, through a series of conferences, panel discussions and tastings is sure to make a tasty splash.
With a keynote titled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Panocha," the author of Taco USA promises to deliver an experience filled with a dose of history, gubernatorial cravings and rallying cries from the forthcoming sopaipilla revolution.
SFR: What have been some of the most memorable questions you've received over the years?
Gustavo Arellano: Oh my God, let's get to the crazier ones: 'Why do Mexican men like to rape so much?'—that was a classic; 'Is it true that George W Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, stole the head of Pancho Villa?'; 'Why are Mexicans always so damn happy?' I'll answer any and all questions that people have about Mexicans. It's been a lot of desmadre and a lot of just insanity. And that's why I love doing it.
Why are we so damn happy?
Because! What is there to be sad about? Those of us here live in a country that hates us; those of us in Mexico live in a country that also hates us. Life's one big shit storm for us, so what do we do? We laugh! It's like that old Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song, 'I Gotta Dance to Keep From Crying.' In this case, we gotta laugh, and that's the great thing about working-class culture—the humor that comes from it is the best—like Jewish humor.
Jewish humor was created from this world of oppression. The Jews, they compensated by telling some of the funniest jokes around. Us, it's all about double entendre—the sexier the better.
You also get a lot of questions in regards to Mexicans and our love of Morrisey or Depeche Mode. What is it about new wave pop that moves us so?
It's not even just new wave pop, it's like, 'Why do Mexicans love…' and then you have a blank and insert whatever English-language music there is. I've gotten everything from, 'Why do Mexicans love Led Zeppelin?' to 'Why do Mexicans love Tupac?' People think we don't listen to anything other than banda or mariachi, even though they don't know what the fuck banda is. In regards to new wave, if there is one style of music that Mexicans are hooked into when it comes to English-language, it is the music of the 80s. The reason why is because the 80s were really the first decade of this reconquista of ours. We had a lot of Latinos coming of age during that time and it was really the music of their youth. Also, the music of the 80s is just great.
A big debate that you've challenged head-on on social media is this preference of Hispanic versus Mexican.
Oh my God.
I'm not saying that 'Mexican' is a dirty word in New Mexico, but…
Yeah it is. If you won't say it, I will. Mexican is definitely a dirty word. Whatever people want to call themselves is fine. If you want to call yourself Hispano or Hispanic, God bless you. Good for you. However, what drives me nuts are these people's insistence that they have no Mexican blood in them; that New Mexico was a colony of Spain and had nothing to do with Mexico whatsoever. The Spaniards called the land 'New Mexico' and not Nuevo Andalucía or Nuevo Granada, because Oñate and all of those people were Mexicans! They were born in Mexico and a lot of them were mestizos or mulatos and those who weren't were still the scum of Spain—conversos or people from Extremadura—all the loser regions of Spain. That's what drives me crazy. When they call themselves 'Hispanos,' they're trying to assert their purity or superiority over Mexicans or surumatos and it's historically false. Again, call yourself whatever you want, but please don't say you come from pure Spanish blood when your tía looks like mine: dark, fat and Mexicana.
And probably diabetic.
That leads us to the topic of food, which is what's bringing you to town. What are some of the more unique aspects of New Mexican food you've discovered through your writing?
All of this said, New Mexicans are not Mexicans. They're part of the Mexican family but they're not Mexican-Mexican. So, New Mexican food has a relation to Mexican food, but it is it's own trip. The first couple of times I went there years ago, it seemed familiar to me—I know what burritos are, I even know what carne adovada is, because we have that in Zacatecas—but this whole obsession with red or green, I didn't get that. Sopaipillas? We don't have those out here in Southern California. The same thing with bizcochitos. Then there's the legendary panocha; we have a lot of great panocha here, but not that kind of panocha.
Can you describe your first encounter with New Mexican panocha?
I was doing research for [Taco USA] a couple of years ago, research that took me, literally, all the way across Lake Arthur where I tried to see Jesus on a tortilla to Albuquerque and finally Chimayó. I got in after a big snowstorm, so it was Chimayó at its most magical. I go to the Santuario, I go get some dirt from the posito, then I went to Leona's Restaurante and there I see a sign that reads, 'Panocha for sale, 50 cents.' I was like, 'What the hell is going on here?' I did not know what panocha was, other than the Mexican-Spanish term, which is pussy.
How'd it go?
I went in and I asked, 'Can I have some, um, panocha please?' I didn't even trust myself, and it ends up being this really amazing pudding. Now I know why they call panocha, panocha because that was some good shit.
Any dish in particular you're looking to try while in Santa Fe?
Obviously, I have to make a pilgrimage to the Five and Dime for the Frito pie that Bourdain trashed. You know, I'm not the biggest fan of Frito pie, but I pay my respect where it's due.
Say that we're staging a cage match between one food representative from Mexico and one from New Mexico. What should the two items be?
The taco for Mexican food; the legendary taco de carne asada. For New Mexico, everyone will say Hatch chile, of course, but I'll go with the panocha because it's unique to New Mexico.
Who would win?
Of course panocha would beat the taco…panocha always wins. You don't argue with panocha. Ever.
What can people attending your FUZE.SW presentation expect?
I'm gonna be on two panels. One of them talking about this idea of the mongrelization of food and another about Frito pie. My actual keynote is going to be about—obviously New Mexico is proud of its food—but there are a lot of misconceptions about what New Mexican cuisine is in the rest of the country. The way I see it, it's a rallying cry for all the people there to be proud of your food and also start exporting your cuisine to the rest of the United States.
"The reason why Mexican food is so magnificent is because it's anything but pure."
Why hasn't that happened?
There was a movement partially based in Santa Fe during the 1980s to export New Mexican-style cuisine but it failed miserably. Let's not make it a fad, let's make it something that's long-lasting and sustainable so that Southwestern cuisine is in the same conversation, as say, Southern cuisine or New England food—clam chowder and all that shit.
What piece of New Mexico-centric food do you think could cause a nationwide, cronut-worthy phenomenon?
If you really want to create a new style of New Mexican insanity, gosh, sopaipillas. There is so much to be done with sopaipillas; stuff them with Korean barbeque, or mac 'n' cheese or God knows what. It takes time though. New Mexican food is still not considered to be hipster food and I think that's a good thing. I think, especially now with Breaking Bad making anything New Mexico popular, there's an opening there.
Talk to me about the relation between our green chile and Anaheim, your home turf.
The reason why green chile is so popular is partly because of New Mexico but mostly because of the Ortega chile, more commonly referred to as the Anaheim chile. The Anaheim chile was originally a New Mexico chile. A guy from California named Emilio Ortega lived in New Mexico in the 1890s and while he was there discovered chile culture. He decided to take some seeds back to California with him and grow them, and that's where the Ortega Chile Packing Company came from. It's bland. My New Mexican friends say, 'We let you Californians steal our worst chile so that's what you get for stealing our culture, you get the worst ones.'
Sort of how the Spain let us have the worst Spaniards to populate New Mexico?
Exactly. Of course, when I say 'the worst Spaniards' I mean it partly in jest, but these so-called 'mighty conquistadors' who came to the New World and that these people like to claim heritage from, they were the rejects of Spain. The son that wasn't gonna get any inheritance; the Jews or Muslims that just needed to get the hell out of Dodge because the Catholics were killing all of them; or just bastard children, or whatever. Listen, it's perfectly fine to be descended from the scum of the earth. It's the scum of the earth that always wins, not the pure. The pure people die.
Explain the importance of food in Mexican culture.
Food is important in all cultures, of course. Food is the transmitter of life, of tradition. Food is political. Food is economics. Food is religion, really. One time Jesus did appear on a grilled cheese sandwich, but that was an anomaly. He's always appearing in tortillas, guacamole, menudo and that just shows how important Mexican food is, really. It is who we are. Without Mexican food, we're as boring as Americans, I guess.
Out of the endless array of Mexican food in the US you've tried, what has been the best?
There are so many different styles of Mexican food. If I'm in Northern New Mexico, I'll go to Angelina's in Española—they serve these amazing chicharrones de borrego that are spectacular. In my book, I say the greatest meal in the United States is something called 'the Mexican hamburger' I had in Denver. The only reason I wrote this book was to celebrate Mexican food in the US, not a particular region, and give the people that deserve love, some love.
Talk a little about the Colorado-Mexico connection.
People always forget Colorado when it comes to this conversation of the Chicanos of the old generation. Everyone remembers California and Texas, of course, Arizona and New Mexico, but Colorado was part of Mexico as well. The old timers from Colorado were descendants of New Mexicans. It was called 'the manito culture.' Denver's Mexican cuisine is a lot like New Mexican cuisine—the smothered burritos, red or green? Though there, their chile is orange because they love the Broncos so much. We're all brothers, basically. That's the whole point. We're all part of this big, huge, crazy locura that is the Mexican family.
Without Mexican food, we're as boring as Americans.
What's up with the prevalence of American cheese in this big family?
It was Mexicans who did it! It wasn't Americans. Mexican cooks didn't have access to quesos frescos from the border. They didn't have requesón or queso Menonita or what have you, they just had American cheese, so they went with it. Some people don't like it and that's fine. Again, any idea of purity is silly. The reason why Mexican food is so magnificent is because it's anything but pure.
We've covered the best. What's the absolute worst Mexican food you've had?
When was the last time you stepped foot in one?
Last year, actually. I went with a reporter from The New York Times. She wanted me to try the new Doritos Locos taco. I had high hopes for it—you'll find no bigger Doritos fan than me—and I thought, 'Hey, how can they mess this up?' but they did. Their so-called 'beef' is disgusting, too salty and has no flavor to it.
Well, you know, our state's governor is a self-professed Taco Bell fanatic.
That explains everything.
Anything else you'd like to add?
All you New Mexicans out there: Rejoice in the cuisine of your homeland. Just remember, it’s mongrel food and the mongrels rule the world. Fuck purity. That’s how you should end it, fuck purity.
Every Holy Week, tens of thousands of Catholic faithful travel from across the world to Chimayó, about an hour north of Santa Fe, long notorious in law enforcement as a center of heroin sales and consumption in New Mexico, but beloved by true believers because miracles happen here. The pilgrims come by car, by foot, all along roads that wind off U.S. Route 285 toward the Santuario de Chimayó—the town's sanctuary, a humble adobe church built around a hole.
The Catholic Church maintains that in the 1800s, a Chimayó man discovered a cross in the ground while digging for water. He placed it inside the local church, but the cross mysteriously returned to the pit the following morning. The man built a sanctuary around the posito (watering hole) to mark this mystery, and it's still there, inside a small room toward the back of the sacred structure. Next to that room is a larger one filled with children's shoes lined up on a shelf and crutches that lean against the wall, along with hundreds of pictures and testimonials by families claiming they found cures for their terminal diseases by merely touching the dirt from the posito. Two hand shovels stay in the small pit so people can scoop dirt home to take with them, although warnings in distributed pamphlets urge people not to eat it. The Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe freely admits that the redemptive soil isn't self-regenerating, a sort of dirt-based Miracle of the Loaves, but rather comes from the mountain range that is the church's scenic backdrop, the towering Sangre de Cristo—the Blood of Christ.
This Lourdes of the America is a magical place, and not just because of its supposed curative powers. Gift shops run by elderly, cranky people (one has installed an alarm that automatically reprimands shoppers who don't close the door to stave off the chilling winds from outside) ring the Santuario, and another chapel offers homage to the Santo Niño de Atocha, an apparition of the infant Jesus beloved across New Mexico dressed like a pilgrim. And there is food—bags of roasted pecans sold in roadside stands, sacks of piñon (pine nuts) harvested from the fragrant, spindly trees, mounds of dried or fresh chiles depending on the season, Chimayó's other notable cultural product. Some get tied into colorful ristras, dried chiles strung up in wreaths that automatically bring a bit of the Southwest wherever they hang.
In Chimayó, as in the rest of New Mexico, people find magic—try and visit during the winter, just after a snowstorm, when snow blankets the region in white until the Sangre de Cristo mountains are as bright as a mirror, and the harsh sun melts the rooftops to create dozens of streams that create a fugue of splashing water—that has attracted tourists and settlers alike for centuries. But I did not know of this Chimayó until visiting for this book. The only Chimayó that I knew stood a thousand miles away from the village, on the edge of the Pacific, in Huntington Beach. There, Chimayó at the Beach lasted 15 years ago as a "Southwestern" restaurant, part of the empire of celebrity chef David Wilheim. It was already a relic when it opened in 1998, having missed the Southwestern food craze of the previous decades. And Chimayó at the Beach was itself a spinoff of Chimayo Grill, a restaurant co-created by Wilheim and Taco Bell in an effort to try and create a chain of Southwestern-inspired high-end restaurants to capitalize on America's latest obsession with borderland cuisine.
That didn't happen, and Chimayó at the Beach from the start offered food that was more accurately Mexican. Toward the end, long after Wilheim abandoned it, it didn't even bother with appearances other than sprinkling chile on some dishes, pecans on others, and baskets of blue corn tortilla chips at all tables. Toward the end, new management announced the addition of "street-style" tacos that were "authentic" to the menu, despite the fact that tacos have about as much to do with the historical Chimayó as surfing.
Thankfully Chimayó at the Beach is long-gone, but when I mentioned the restaurant to the food critic at the Santa Fe Reporter, the city's alt-weekly, he laughed. "At the Beach?" he asked incredulously. Yep. Laughs across the table.
It's the perennial local foodie query, the reason why Christmas is celebrated in Santa Fe year-round and our state question: Red or green?
SFR asked some of FUZE.SW's movers and shakers to finally settle the debate based on their personal taste and experience. The overwhelming response might surprise you.
Cheryl Jamison, James Beard Foundation award-winning author
Red at The Shed and Café Pasqual's. Green pretty much everywhere else—and on anything.
Camella Padilla, author of The Chile Chronicles: Tales of a New Mexico Harvest
Red. I love green, too, but when it comes to comfort food, I crave smooth and very spicy New Mexico-grown red chile. Red chile enchiladas. Red chile frito pies. Red chile by the bowl-full, or over Thanksgiving, mashed potatoes. Red chile with pork (not ground beef) simmered on the stove until its smoky-sweet heat permeates the kitchen. Why? Probably because that's the way my mother makes it, and the way my father eats it, as hot as he can take it. Just as red chile is the mature form of the green chile plant, red tastes like a pungent, poignant, full-flavored memory of the seasons of my New Mexico family.
Tom C'de Baca, nephew of fabled NM cookbook author Fabiola Cabeza de Baca
Well, I gotta say red. My Mom grew up in a small town—Puerto De Luna—along the Pecos River known for its red chile. It's the best in my biased opinion.
Juan Estevan Arellano, journalist, writer and researcher
For me, 'Red or Green' is a marketing strategy aimed at tourists. In the summer I prefer green; especially freshly harvested and roasted, peeled, with garlic and salt, and made by hand. In the fall and winter, I prefer red with pork. Of course, a good green chile caldo in the winter is great, with either frozen homegrown green chile or dried green chile. I never eat green chile from restaurants. Sometimes in restaurants you find good red chile but not green—most [of it] looks like gravy.
Dave DeWitt, food historian
Red. Red chile has the true complexities of flavor of a dried, ripe fruit, which it is; think of the intensities of flavors in sun-dried tomatoes and dried, sliced, mangoes but with heat—a food and a spice combined.
James Campbell Caruso, chef of SFR Restaurant of the Year, La Boca
Well, to me, when you say 'chile' in New Mexico, you're talking about red. Red is year-round, whereas green is a seasonal harvest sort of thing. Flavor wise, they're both great. I can't decide—it's like picking between a grape and a raisin…what's your favorite?
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SFR cover art by Erin Currier