Tuesday, May 10, 2011


My recent obsession with bad American food takes on another dimension with the death of Louis Stumberg, a Texan who invented the Tex-Mex frozen TV dinner in the 1940s.

Tex-Mex occupies an interesting place in the history of American food. It's not good. On the other hand, it was an attempt to bring Latin American food into the United States and, in a small sense, giving legitimacy to a non-white culture in a white supremacist nation. For those of you not immediately familiar with Tex-Mex specifically, it's the root of the bad "Mexican" food you see throughout the country--enchiladas, burritos, and tacos, but covered with cheese, in huge portions with fatty beans and large piles of rice, usually topped with a bit of chopped lettuce and tomato. In Texas itself, this is pretty much what you get at these places; in places farther from the border, the cheese ratio actually increases and the limited spiciness of original Tex-Mex either disappears entirely or gets ramped up to ungodly levels as some way to prove authenticity. In general, it seems that Tex-Mex restaurants are declining, both because it is pretty unhealthy and because real Mexican food is becoming  more common with the rise of immigration.

The interesting comparisons to make with Tex-Mex are Italian and Chinese food. The latter became Americanized fairly quickly. As the first non-white group to immigrate voluntarily to the U.S. in large numbers, the Chinese quickly became marginalized within a labor market that equated race and work. Women's labor like cooking and cleaning became areas they could flourish in an American West that was almost all male. And given that the nation equated gender and work as much as race and work, the Chinese could take on feminized tasks. One of those was cooking. But of course, 19th century Americans were less than enamored of foreign foods they had never heard of. So the Chinese quickly transformed those foods into items palatable to the American palate. This has become so standardized that even today, good Chinese food is hard to find. Asian food has risen rapidly in the American consciousness, but Chinese food has been left behind Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese, and even Korean food.

On the other hand, Italian food was also seen as weird by early 20th century Americans. Yet it managed to become central to American culture. Why the difference? The key here I think is the expanding definition of whiteness in mid-20th century America. Foods like pizza and garlic moved from the margins of American food life to central places at the table at the same time that World War II broke down the old southern and eastern European ethnic barriers into a general whiteness. Pizza became a generational food among young people of all races by the mid 20th century (I've actually seen articles from the time about how to introduce pizza to your parents).

Of course, thinking about Tex-Mex isn't the only factor in this equation. There's also TV dinners. Much has been said about this phenomenon. There's nothing to say for the genre. They are revolting. Thinking back to eating them at home in the 80s makes me retch. But I'm hardly going to blame Stumberg and the like for them. They were a cultural phenomenon that had lots of factors: fetishizing technology in the kitchen, the realities of women in the workplace, relief at avoiding the old time-consuming ways of cooking, clever marketing, etc. If anything, I'm glad Stumberg took this crappy food delivery form and offered something different. Opening a market for a different kind of food, even if it's a bastardized form of something much better, is laudable in the end.