For the past couple of years, the biggest issue in food media has been cultural appropriation: who can cook what, whom can write about it, and how "privilege" trumps hard work and originality to keep people of color down and lift up bearded white hipsters. The heat really gets caliente when it comes to Mexican food, where it seems like every yoga-loving millennial wants to open a Mexican fruit stand in the barrio or bug Mexican women in Ensenada for their burrito recipes.
The topic is generally a non-starter to me. Anyone can and should cook comida mexicana, because (as I argued in my 2012 Reason story on the subject) it keeps the cuisine innovative and thus popular, unlike, say, liverwurst. And I've seen nouveau riche "privilege" burn millions of dollars on shitty tequila bars that close within a year while Mexican immigrants create fast-food empires on nothing but sweat and the perfect French fry–stuffed burritos.
But the death of the 84-year-old San Antonio native Frank Liberto is a reminder that cultural appropriation's biggest enablers aren't entrepreneurs but rather clueless reporters who'll swallow any Montezuma's Revenge that PR hacks and Google feed them. Liberto died on November 6, one day before National Nachos Day—fitting, because he helped push the cheesy, crunchy meal beyond the American Southwest and into leaky concession-stand cartons and souvenir ballpark baseball helmets nationwide with a cheese sauce that didn't need to get refrigerated. Liberto debuted these prefabricated nachos at Arlington Stadium during a Texas Rangers game in 1976, and consumers haven't stopped squirting watery queso since.
Liberto didn't invent nachos. That genius was Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya, who whipped up a quick meal of fried tortilla strips, melted cheese, and pickled jalapeños for hungry American military wives at his Piedras Negras restaurant in 1943. But facts didn't stop the San Antonio Express-News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Washington Post from calling Liberto the "Father of Nachos," even as they all acknowledged Anaya's innovation—and betcha more media outlets will do the same in the days to come.
Media love to use the Big Lie (Hey, I just broke Godwin's Law in an article about nachos! That must be some sort of record!) with Mexican food, because it precludes them from speaking with actual Mexicans. That's what I discovered when doing research for my 2012 book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Newspaper articles and cookbooks I scoured passed off as fact multiple dubious creation stories about Mexican foodstuffs: that the margarita was named after Rita Hayworth when she was a dancer in Tijuana (the screen goddess' birth name: Margarita Cansino), that chili became popular because the Texas delegation to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair set up a stand, that Rick Bayless is the greatest Mexican chef in the United States. No interviews, no research: just regurgitation of other food writers, who did the same ad infinitum. When I finally found the source for most of these origin stories, it turned out they were outright lies created to feed into American preconceptions of Mexicans as stupid, lazy beaners.
Such dereliction by writers not only erases Mexicans from their own history but becomes its own fuel for the hype fire that sets off most cultural appropriation controversies in the first place. Why look for Mexicans cooking Mexican food when it's easier to find whites and Asians doing the same? And why go to a Mexican restaurant run by Mexicans when they don't get the attention others do? You can't blame restaurateurs for wanting to make money, but you should blame the people whose job it is to promote the Next Big Thing.
If food writers (and social media influencers) would do actual journalism (or hire writers who know what the hell they're talking about), then most of the poster children for culinary cultural appropriation would get as much attention as a week-old bowl of guacamole and promptly disappear. Then social justice types could move on to bigger issues than whether it's OK that a Virginia housewife was the Johnny Appleseed of Mexican cooking in the U.S.
Liberto's death isn't the first time the MSM have gotten their tortilla-chip meal provenance wrong. In 2011, the death of longtime Frito-Lay executive Arch West made national headlines because he was credited with creating Doritos, those flavored tortilla chips that stain fingertips so delightfully. Reporters nationwide bought his family's claim that he'd discovered the concept in a "little shack" in San Diego and then brought it to his bosses.
The story was only somewhat right. West did encounter Doritos at a Mexican restaurant, but it was at Casa de Fritos in Disneyland, in the early 1960s. And it wasn't nameless Mexican who created it but rather the Morales family, whose fame via their XLNT tamales in Southern California was enough that Walt Disney contracted them to stock many of Disneyland's eateries. It wasn't a hard story to find: All I did was call the grandson of XLNT founder Alejandro Morales, who was more than happy to talk—and he spoke English, even! Yet the West myth remains. As recently as 2014, NPR still credited West as the Dorito's "inventor."
Postscript: My editor asked me to settle "the important 'messy pile of chips' vs. 'individually composed masterpieces' debate, if possible." It's not even a debate: The best nacho is the one at the bottom so soggy with cheese, beans, sour cream and grease that it has reverted back to its original masa form. Get a tortilla, and turn that into a nacho taco. "Individually composed"? Fuera!
Photo Credit: Brianna Soukup/ZUMA Press/Newscom