LongHouse Brain Trust: Interview with ¡Ask a Mexican! Gustavo Arellano

cookNscribble - January 28, 2013

Over the next few days, we’ll be bringing you interviews with the members of the “LongHouse Brain Trust,” presenting at the upcoming LongHouse Food Revival in Austin, TX on February 1st.

Today, LongHouse intern and writer Molly Gallentine interviews journalist, author and Mexican-American authority Gustavo Arellano.

Molly Gallentine: Why do you love food stories?

Gustavo Arellano: What’s amazing to me about the genre of food writing is that it provides a window into so much of what constitutes the human experience. Whether it’s a window into history, into a particular neighborhood, an ethnic group, a culture, or a society—all within something as simple as a taco de cabeza. From there, you can spin many tales around it. It’s not a genre, as say, film writing or investigative reporting or even music criticism are. We all have to eat. We don’t need music to live, ultimately, you know? It wouldn’t be a nice life, but we don’t need music to live. Food though, is essential to who we are. We are what we eat, as the saying goes.

M: What are the big challenges facing food writers today?

G: Making a living. With the decline of the newspaper industry, there have been lay-offs of food writers. There have been cutbacks of food sections. Of course it’s easy to blog, and with Yelp… it’s made everybody a food critic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s just made it that much more difficult to make a living out of it. That’s what concerns me most about the state of food writing within the United States right now — it’s so hard to make a living out of it. The story behind the story takes time, and takes a budget.

M: Do you have any advice for a young person who’s into food—who would maybe want to make a living?

G: At this point today, start off with a blog. You can amass clips. My main food critic here, at the OC Weekly—by day, he’s a mild mannered computer technician. By night, he’s an awesome food writer. He has no formal journalism experience. I discovered him years ago, searching for food writers in Orange County. Here was this blog—as he tells me now, just for himself and for his friends—and I found that he was a natural at food writing. I said, “Hey, I love your stuff. Do you want to start writing for me?” So he started freelancing in 2004, and became our full-time food critic. Well, not full-time. He’s still technically part-time. Being a computer technician pays more than being in journalism now a days. But, he’s been our main food critic now since 2007. I know other people with stories like that. People decided to write on their own, but because they were talented, people found them. Talent, like cream, always rises to the top. It is obviously harder now, because there are less writing opportunities. But I still believe some of these bloggers are better than some food critics who have been at it for 20 years.

M: Where are the greatest opportunities in food writing today?

G: I think there’s a huge opportunity in food history, or talking about food as a scholarly subject. I still think not enough people are doing it. How about just telling the history of a particular restaurant? Or a history of regional specialties? Kind-of what Andrew Zimmern and Marc Summers do in their best moments, which is tell you these histories. People love it! That’s why I did my book, Taco USA, because those stories had never been told on a national level. I love going to San Antonio or Denver. The people will come up and say, “Thank you for telling those stories we know in Denver… but that the rest of the country hasn’t heard.”

M: What are the great stories not being told about food today?

G: Doritos, as everyone loves to castigate now as America’s ultimate snack—which is about as Mexican as the White House—well, as it turns out, Doritos were invented by a Mexican family. In of all places, Disneyland. I challenge people to find those stories within your own cities. I’m not from Austin, TX, so I’m not going to be able to tell you the full history of Mexican food in Austin. I can give you the highlights that proved influential toward the development of Mexican food in the United States, but some of the classics that are in Austin—like Torchy’s—I don’t know the history of Torchy’s. Somebody should know that history. And Torchy’s is something that is relatively recent.

M: This is a side comment, but I’m originally from Iowa. In the Midwest, we have these concoctions called Walking Tacos.

G: Walking Tacos… what is that?

M: First we crumble a bag of Doritos, and then we slit it open, throw in some taco meat, lettuce, and tomatoes… It’s big at football games.

G: Wow. I never encountered that! I encountered tater tot burritos and tater tot tacos. That blew my mind away.

M: It’s kind-of like a taco salad you can carry with you, I guess.

G: I’m Googling it right now. It sounds like a Frito pie.

M: Folks also make them with Fritos. It’s usually one or the other. You get to pick.

G: This is awesome. Woah! I learn something new every time I talk to people about Mexican food. I really do.

M: Why is it important for interdisciplinary groups to gather and talk about food?

G: When I first started writing about food, I would just concentrate on the basics: the restaurant, how it looked, the service, etc. But I quickly discovered that there’s so much more; this is what’s continued my interest in food writing. I’ll give you an example. A couple months ago, I discovered an Iraqi restaurant in Orange County—which is also the first Iraqi restaurant to open in Orange County. We have a lot of Middle-Eastern restaurants. We have one of the highest concentrations of Middle Easterners in the United States outside of Detroit. But most of those restaurants are Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian. So what does an Iraqi restaurant tell me? It tells me that more Iraqis are moving into Orange County. Why would that be? Probably because of the war that’s been going on for almost a decade now. Why are the Iraqi immigrants coming here? Well, that’s a story I could farm out to one of my writers. If all I concentrated on was the food, it would be so limiting, and frankly, so ignorant of me to do such a thing.

Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Orange County, California, author of Orange County: A Personal History and Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, and lecturer with the Chicana and Chicano Studies department at California State University, Fullerton. He writes “¡Ask a Mexican!,” a nationally syndicated column in which he answers any and all questions about America’s spiciest and largest minority. Arellano has also been the subject of press coverage in national and international newspapers, The Today Show, Hannity, Nightline, Good Morning America, and The Colbert Report, and his commentaries regularly appear on Marketplace and the Los Angeles Times.

Edited transcript.