The “Spicy” Myth

“My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, your’re going to have taco trucks on every corner”

Such were the words of Marco Gutierrez, founder of Latinos for Trump. The phrase “taco trucks on every corner” has taken over social media, with many professing their love for tacos and discussing how delicious it would be to actually have tacos in every corner using the hashtag #TacoTrucksOnEveryCorner. The phrase has also motivated the actual spread of taco trucks, under the initiative to “Guac the Vote”, using these trucks to register new voters.

While the last piece of Gutierrez’s quote has been the one catching the most attention, I was more taken aback by the first part. The notion that Latino culture is “dominant”, “imposing” and “causing problems” is in line with common stereotypes of Latin Americans being passionate, loud and belligerent. These stereotypes are also encompassed by the often ascribed adjective: “spicy”.

Cristen Conger, from Stereotypology, explored how our culture was reduced to a jalapeno pepper:

The “Spicy” stereotype is not only the product of racism or a lack of interest regarding the richness in history of the region that comprises most of what is called America. The stereotype is also promulgated by many of us in the community, as seen in Gutierrez’s response to the backlash regarding his statement:

“I really didn’t mean to ridicule my fellow Mexicans and their jobs. I misspoke, I used poor [phrasing]. I wanted to describe something and I didn’t use the proper words to do it. But in my community we are also very sensitive, we Hispanics are very emotional, so I guess I hit a nerve.” (From interview with GW.com)

The homogenization Latin American cultures as “spicy” is also expanded to our food, as noted by Puerto Rican cookbook author, Erisbela Garriga, during a recent exchange:

“I’ve been approached several times to answer the question about the differences between Mexican and Puerto Rican food. Mexicans were among the first Hispanics/natives to have lived in this continent for centuries including parts of Texas and California former territories of Mexico. Puerto Rico was discovered in 1493 and was a Spanish colony until 1898, when it was transferred to the United States under the Treaty of Paris after the Spanish American War. What makes our food different from Mexican and other Latin American countries is the seasoning. The base of our Puerto Rican dishes is sofrito which is a blend of spices and herbs such as garlic, onion, oregano, cilantro, culantro, and sweet and bell peppers. Some cooks add cumin, basil and other aromatic herbs. Also the adobo which is a paste that we prepare with garlic, oregano, vinegar or lemon juice, annatto oil (a combination of olive oil and annatto seeds) to marinade or rub meats. The main staple of Mexican food is the use of corn and chiles as their base ingredient. Their food is spicy hot, at the point that, sometimes, you cry when you eat it.

There is a misconception that all Spanish/Latin food is cooked Mexican style. However, Latin American foods are so diverse and rich in different flavors and spices (not all of them hot spice). When you watch some of the food channel programs, almost all of them treat Spanish/Latin food as Mexican. It seems that there is no difference among the various Latin cuisines such as Peruvian, Colombian, Argentinean, Dominican, Cuban and Puerto Rican. Even when some of the chefs are judging, instead of tasting the food the way it is served in that country, they usually make comments that it needs some “hot pepper”, jalapeños, to kick it a little bit with some hot sauce, etc. Not all Spanish/Latin food use the jalapeños to give food a good taste. It is a matter of regional preferences and judges should be aware of that. The notion that Latin food is expected to be spicy hot keeps adding to the many misconceptions of what a Latin dish should look and taste like.”

Mexican food is popular in the United States. This has been evidenced lately in the responses to Gutierrez’s remarks. The long history of the Mexican community is evident in the merging of foodways at the border, including the creation of the Tex-Mex cuisine as representative of this blend. Still, we need to recognize the heterogeneity of the community, and its growing diversity in the United States.

Cecina: Salt, meat and changing times

Salt as well as meat, is one of the many things we are told to consume “in moderation”, or to avoid altogether given health, ethical or environmental concerns. However, salt has been an important part of human history serving as one of the world’s main commodities. Salt accentuates the flavor and texture of foods. Its mineral components preserve food as it inhibits microbial growth by drawing moisture out of the food. The name “salt” (or sal, in Spanish) is linked to Salus, the Roman goddess of health and prosperity. Furthermore, salario, the Spanish term for wage, comes from the use of salt as a method of payment for soldiers. Nutritionally, salt provides sodium and chloride, two of the essential minerals for many body functions. If iodated, it keeps our thyroids happy by providing the essential mineral for its functioning.

The marriage of salt and meat has given us delicious results including: jamón Serrano, ibérico, prosciutto, and carne cecina. Cecina can simply be defined as salted meat. It is also called tasajo or, in Puerto Rico, carne vieja (old meat).The type of meat used and the process varies depending on where you are.  In Cuba, tasajo is said to be traditionally prepared with horsemeat. A similar case is seen in Spain. In Puerto Rico, carne vieja is made out from dried, salted meat. Like bacalao (salted cod fish), tasajo should rest in water overnight before preparing, to remove the excess salt.

Personally, I have not tried Puerto Rican tasajo yet. It is not common in the Puerto Rican tables nowadays. I did tried the Mexican cecina, sliced beef cured with salt, left marinating for 3-4 days resulting in delicious, tender and flavorful tacos, as these:

Tacos de Cecina
Sembrado Restaurant (NYC)

Cecina was brought to Latin America and the Caribbean from Spain, from the northern region of León. However, the tradition of salting and airing meat for preservation was already present in the Americas, using the traditional animal protein sources of the time, such as deer, rabbit, and others (See: C. Lavin). These traditions continue today, as I witnessed during a stroll along an urban town in Chalatenango, El Salvador:

Meat drying outside
San Ignacio, Dept. Chalatenango, El Salvador

The salting meats allowed for a more secure and constant access to animal protein. Throughout history, access to meat has been a symbol of status. In some context, cecina or other types of dried or cured meats, may be a food of the poor, or those lacking access to fresh meat or the technology to preserve it. As access to more modern preservations techniques became available, people may opt for fresher meats, and leave tasajo behind. However, the staying power of these foods goes beyond the material function they play. Now, in contexts with refrigeration and better transportation systems, such as NYC, cecina is valued for its flavor. Its purpose is to be enjoyed by choice and not by necessity.

 

Thanks to C. Espada, for the topic suggestion.