Books acquired: “Funny in Farsi,” Firoozeh Dumas
Books read: “Tortilla Flat,” John Steinbeck; “Eat Mexico,” Lesley Tellez; “Ask a Mexican,” “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” Gustavo Arellano
Regards, readers! September saw me finish four books, all of them with a similar theme, as the titles above make clear: our friends in or from Mexico. It was a south of the border September.
Steinbeck’s novel, one of his first, takes place in Monterey, Calif., among the paisanos. It’s a gentle farce set after World War I and about a returning vet and his friends, cast in a mock-heroic Round Table mold that contrasts with their basically useless lives.
Some find it charming. There is some nice writing here, and humor, and I warmed to it, but it’s basically the unstructured story of a bunch of useless, conniving winos, friends who’ll buy a jug of wine as a gift but then drink it on the way home. Steinbeck’s later “Cannery Row” is in similar knockabout mode, but I remember liking it more.
“Eat Mexico” has a local tie, as author Tellez is a Rancho Cucamonga native. It’s a cookbook with recipes for casual Mexican dishes she learned while living in Mexico City. How does one read a cookbook? Well, there was enough explanatory text about markets, street vendors and more that I found plenty to read, as well as lovely photos to look at. I can’t really judge the recipes other than to observe that her from-scratch approach means effort of varying degrees. If you’re interested in Mexican cooking, you might take a look and see if you think you’re up to it.
This brings us to not one but two books by Arellano, a journalist, OC Weekly editor and commentator. (His other book, “Orange County,” was read in 2012.) He’s best known for his syndicated column, “Ask a Mexican,” early examples of which are collected in the 2007 book of the same name. It’s a sort of advice column in which readers submit questions, often inane or offensive, about cultural mores: Why do Mexicans swim with their clothes on, why do Mexican women bleach their hair, why don’t they assimilate faster, that sort of thing.
Snappy answers to stupid questions, as Mad’s Al Jaffee would put it, but also enlightening answers to penetrating questions. Arellano can be profane and snarky in classic alt-weekly fashion, which some won’t appreciate. But his scholarship and common sense turn many criticisms on their head, placing Mexican immigration and assimilation squarely within the American tradition of Irish, Polish, German and others now deemed acceptable. (No one objects to Irish flags in St. Patrick’s Day parades, he notes, while Mexican pride is viewed suspiciously.)
“Taco USA,” from 2012, is a history of Mexican food in America: where it came from and how it’s adapted. As sophisticated SoCal residents, we may think we know Mexican food, but Arellano has turned up all sorts of hidden history, such as the tamale men who operated from carts a century ago even on the East Coast. Then there’s the hiding-in-plain-sight modern origin stories for Taco Bell, frozen margaritas and El Torito, which made foreign foodstuffs safe for plain folks. His nonjudgmental approach to “authenticity” and adaptation is refreshing, just like an agua fresca.
I think Arellano gave me “Taco USA” when I interviewed him in (gulp) 2012 over combo platters at Ramon’s Cactus Patch — er, it’s been a busy four years, Gustavo! — and I bought “Ask a Mexican” from him shortly after that at an event in Upland. (It’s nice to be caught up on his books, at least until his next one.)
Meanwhile, I bought Tellez’ book from her last year during an event at the Rancho Cucamonga Barnes & Noble that also resulted in a column. Steinbeck’s not around to sell me his book, alas, but I did the next best thing, buying the “Short Novels” omnibus in 2009 at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. I read the omnibus’ five other novels here and there and saved the first, and worst I’m afraid, for last. Nice to have the thing polished off at last.
Winner of the month was “Taco USA.”
Some of you have no doubt read “Tortilla Flat,” and you can tell me about that. But what did you read during September? After all this Mexican food, we’re not hungry to know, but we’ll loosen our belt and listen in due time.
Next month: a little horror, a little history.