Before the Mission Burrito Came the San Francisco Tamale: An Interview with Gustavo Arellano, Part 1

San Francisco has gotten used to thinking of itself as a remote outpost in the Mexican diaspora, since our lively but embattled Mexican American community is dwarfed by much larger ones in Los Angeles and the Southwest. But according to this week's cover story, written by Gustavo Arellano, San Francisco has played a key role in convincing the rest of the country to adopt two Mexican American dishes, tamales and burritos, as their own.

The story is an excerpt from Arellano's new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, which comes out this week. SFoodie had a chance to speak to Arellano, who is also editor of the OC Weekly several days ago. (Part 2 of this interview runs tomorrow.

SFoodie: Were tamales the first Mexican dish to be assimilated into American cuisine?

I would say yes, because the first two Mexican foods to achieve widespread popularity were chile con carne and the tamal — specifically the tamal that came from tamale men from San Francisco. The tamal had existed across the American Southwest, of course, but up until the early 1890s it never had nationwide traction. It was really Robert Putnam and his California Chicken Tamale Co. who set out to conquer Chicago, spread a tamale frenzy there, then spun off to New York and inspired all those imitators.

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