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Mexican Food in Tucson
by Dr. James S. Gifffith
April 14, 1997

Reprinted and revised with permission from the Introduction to Tucson's Mexican Restaurants by Suzanne Myal. Tucson: Fiesta Publications, 1997.

Mexican food is wonderful, fascinating stuff. It is the product of the coming together of two very different culinary traditions: that of the Mediterranean and that of Native Mexico. This process started in the 1520s and continues to this day. Mexican cuisine varies widely from region to region of Mexico (and from one end of the Border to another), but at the same time has certain general characteristics that give it unity.

Foremost of these unifying factors is the tortilla. (The Mexican tortilla, that is; a tortilla in Spain is a kind of potato omelette.) Tortillas are flat cakes of masa -- corn that has been soaked, cooked with lime or ashes, and then ground. (The lime-cooking process, which goes by the wonderful name of nixtamalization, greatly enhances the protein value of the food for humans. Corn never caught on in Europe, partly because the process did not travel across the Atlantic along with the seeds.) Tortillas are seldom eaten alone, but are rather an ingredient in a whole repertoire of foods. They even can serve as eating utensils in their own right.

Take a tortilla and fold it around any sort of food, and you have a taco. Tacos in Mexican culture can be hard-fried or soft, folded or rolled around the food. Larger hard rolled tacos are often called flautas (flutes) and are usually served in Arizona with guacamole, a paste made of chiles, onions and avocados. Fry the flat tortilla till it's crisp and heap goodies on it, and you have a tostada.

If you cook your tortilla lightly in a red chile sauce and roll it around meat or cheese and cook it in more sauce, and you have an enchilada -- the name refers to the process of cooking and serving in chile. However, things immediately start to get compl icated in southern Arizona, because what are locally called "flat enchiladas" or "Sonoran-style enchiladas" aren't really like other enchiladas -- they are thick cakes of corn masa, red chile and often cheese which are fried and then served in a red sauce! That's what one gets for letting people be people -- we never seem to look at the rulebook.

Let those same tortillas get slightly stale (after all, they are a staple food and made in huge quantities -- one can't expect to eat them all at one sitting) and cut them into strips. Fry them ever so slightly, and serve them in any one of several kinds of sauce, and you have chilaquiles -- a favorite breakfast dish. Let them get really stale, fry them crisp, and you have tortilla chips.

This holds true over much of Mexico, but there's a special wrinkle here in the northwest. Our region has been wheat growing country ever since Father Eusebio Francisco Kino introduced wheat seeds and beef cattle into the area in the late 1600s. And in So nora and southern Arizona, people make tortillas out of wheat as well as corn. Not just tortillas, but huge regional tortillas, often well over twenty inches in diameter. Wrapped around some sort of filling, they are called burros or burritos, depending on the size. Burros can be filled with anything -- teenagers in the upper Santa Cruz Valley have for years made and consumed them with peanut butter and jelly.

If you deep fry a burro, it becomes a chimichanga -- a truly local dish from southern Arizona or northern Sonora. There are many legends concerning the origin of the chimichanga its apparently meaningless name (some folks insist it's a chivichanga). I don't know which, if any, might be the truth... I'd honestly rather eat the things than argue about their origin.)

Finally, a crisp, flat flour tortilla with something on top of it becomes a tostada, just as a corn tortilla does. Often topped with melted cheese, they are called "cheese crisps" in English, and even, Heaven help us, "Mexican pizzas!" (But not by me, thank you.)

That just about exhausts the possibilities of the tortilla, to whatever extent it is possible to categorize and circumscribe such a versatile folk food. It's time to move on to Father Kino's other great introduction to our region -- beef.

Sonora and southern Arizona are truly beef country, and the traditional Mexican diet to this day includes a lot of beef. You can cook your beef over a grill, and it becomes carne asada. It is even said that a high Mexican government official in the 1920s described Sonora as the place "where civilization ends and carne asada begins." Chop your beef into cubes and cook it with red chile sauce and you have carne de chile colorado, a dish that has been a mainstay of the local diet since at least the 1750s, w hen the German Jesuit missionary Ignaz Pfefferkorn tasted some and thought he had put hellfire into his mouth. You can cook it with green chile too, but that isn't as popular here as it is in New Mexico. If you cut your beef into thin strips, dry it, shre d it, and cook it up with chiles, onions, garlic and some tomatoes, you have machaca, a wonderful dish also called carne seca or "dry meat."

Sonoran ranch families traditionally use every part of the beef critter except perhaps the moo. The head can be cooked and turned into wonderful taco filling, and the marrow guts or tripas de leche, are slowly grilled as a wonderful picnic treat. And the tripe and sometimes the feet are prepared in a kind of a stew along with hominy. This is called menudo, and merits a paragraph all to itself.

There are no halfway measures about menudo -- folks either like it or they don't. Menudo is typically served for breakfast on Saturday or Sunday, and many restaurants will only prepare it on those days. It is a wonderful, hearty dish, especially after you add cilantro, bits of chile, and perhaps some lemon juice to it, and accompany it with a toasted and buttered split Mexican roll. Although menudo in Arizona and Sonora is traditionally a whiteish color, Texans prefer to cook it with some red chile, chang ing the color to a deep red. Many restaurants serve both kinds.

Menudo has considerable reputation as a sovereign hangover cure, and is sometimes jokingly referred to as the "breakfast of champions." In fact, menudo seems to be one of those foods that just naturally attracts jokes -- a Chicano friend once explained to an inquiring tourist that it was really nothing but "cow guts and popcorn."

Mention of menudo leads us into the wonderful topic of Sonoran soups. These household staples have only recently started appearing in many restaurants, but they are well worth seeking out. Called caldos or sopas in Spanish, there are several popular kinds, each capable of being given a slightly different turn of flavor by whatever cook is assembling it. Some of the most popular are: caldo de queso (cheese and potato soup), sopa de albóndigas (meatball soup), sopa de tortillas (tortilla soup), cazuelas (made with machaca), pozole (a hominy and meat stew), and cocido (a vegetable soup). Try them all -- they're wonderful.

Now for a few important entries that don't fit so easily into the framework I've been using. Tamales are a truly ancient food in Mexico -- they were being made and eaten in great variety long before Columbus ever crossed the ocean blue and ran into places he didn't know existed. Tamales, quite simply, are some sort of doughy mixture, usually based on corn, that have been wrapped in corn husks or leaves and steamed. They vary from one end of Mexico to the other. In the southern state of Oaxaca, for example , they're wrapped in banana leaves; in coastal areas, they can be filled with seafood. Here in Tucson, many tamales are filled with... you guessed it, beef. These are the tamales that are made in huge quantities in so many homes at Christmas time, and are often called "red tamales." Shredded beef, cooked in red chile, with perhaps an olive added before they are wrapped in corn shucks. But there's another kind of tamal that's made at a completely different time of year. This is the green corn (read "fresh corn") tamal, consisting of ground fresh white corn, with some cheese mixed into the masa, and perhaps a bit of green chile laid down the center. They are wrapped in the fresh shucks and steamed... and eaten. Don't forget that last part -- it's the most fun of all.

Mexican bakeries (and there are several in Tucson) give us another bit of Mexico's history, served up and ready to eat. If tamales remind us of Mexico's Indian heritage, baked goods let us know that Europe is an important part of the equation as well. A legacy of Spain (and perhaps of 19th-Century France as well), the bakeries produce a wonderful, traditional variety of breads and cookies.

What have I forgotten? Beans, by golly! Frijoles can be served in a number of ways. Frijoles de la olla are cooked in a broth with onions and other wonderful things. Frijoles refritos are usually translated as "refried beans," but are perhaps more accura tely "well-fried beans." They vary greatly in quality. Some I have eaten seem only fit for sticking pages of books together; others are delicate, almost crisp in places, with wonderful additions of cheese, milk, and other ingredients. Pinto beans are the most common bean in this region; elsewhere in Mexico there is a wide variety used and enjoyed.

Finally, something wet to wash it all down with and something sweet to top it off. Try some of the wonderful refrescos naturales (also called aguas) or natural soft drinks that many restaurants now serve. The most common are horchata, made of rice water and cinnamon; tamarindo, made of tamarind squeezings; and jamaica, a sweetened decoction of hibiscus flowers. Wonderful drinks for a Tucson summer. And for dessert, what better than almendrado, a tricolored almond confection that was invented, according to one story, right here in Tucson in the 1920s.

Of course I haven't really looked into all the sorts of Mexican food available here in town. There are restaurants specializing in seafood, restaurants specializing in food from Guadalajara and Mexico City, and restaurants specializing in Sonoran carne a sada and Michoacano birria (another thing you can do with shredded meat.) I haven't even called the roll of all the different kinds of chiles that are used in Mexican cooking, much less embarked upon an analysis of the myriad variations of the salsa that you find on your table at the beginning of the meal. Nor have I mentioned Mexican beer, tequila, and mescal. That, as Mr. Kipling used to say, is another story. But whatever else I've accomplished, I have certainly managed to make myself hungry. Buen provecho, y hasta luego.

Suggested Readings

Coe, Sophie 1994 America's First Cuisines. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Foster, Nelson and Linda S. Cordell 1992 Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Two cookbooks from Sonora and Arizona

Camou-Healy, Ernesto and Alicia Hinajosa 1990 Cocina Sonorense. Hermosillo (Sonora, Mexico): Instituto Sonorense de Cultura.

Clark, Amalia Ruiz 1977 Special Mexican Dishes, Easy and Simple to Prepare. Tucson: Roadrunner Technical Publications. (This is a collection of family recipes from northern Sonora and southern Arizona.)

Two Mexican cookbooks with cultural background information

Bayless, Rick with Deann Gordon Bayless 1987 Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. New York: William Morrow.

Kennedy, Diana 1972 The Cuisines of Mexico. New York: Harper and Row.

View video segments from Arizona Illustrated of Dr. James S. "Big Jim" Griffith talking about the northern Mexican breakfast dish, menudo and a second about Las Posadas.

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