September 13, 2017

RUSSELL | Taco Tuesday — Just Say No

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I remember a lot from freshman year: 1 a.m. Nasties, a cappella concerts at Balch Arch, free food if you knew where and when to look. There was so much to love, and I certainly took it all in. I didn’t care how dumb I looked wearing my I.D. on a lanyard or strolling through Collegetown in a group of 40. I was living my best life and experiencing a world I’d hardly imagined. Regardless of whether you saw me in the library or on the CKB quad, I was almost always smiling. But there was one thing that got me down every now and then, and I’ve waited years to speak my peace about it.

Recently I found myself back on my own stomping grounds, behind a line of kids wearing the same free Cornell t-shirt at RPCC dinner. When I saw the meal for the day, I was reminded of my qualms with it years ago.

Back then, during my freshman year, I’d walk to RPCC every Tuesday afternoon, only to find the same spread of beans, rice, ground beef and tortillas, reclining in the warmers like that uncle who always overstays his welcome when he comes to visit.

I don’t hate tacos — far from it. Some of my fondest memories from back home involve a good plate of Tex-Mex, with the melted cheese and the marinated meat tumbling out the taco’s back end and onto the table. In fact, I consider the Mexican restaurants in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, from Joe T. Garcia’s to Rosa’s Café, to be my domain, though I acknowledge that when my friends from south of the border tell me I still haven’t tasted the best there is, they’re probably right.

But despite this love for tacos, I’m convinced that the widespread culinary practice of dishing out half-hearted “Mexican food” on a weekly schedule is degrading to tacos everywhere. It turns them into boring filler meals — the gustatory equivalent of the throw-away card you put down in Apples to Apples when you don’t have anything clever to play.

If I’m going to eat a taco, I want it to be because the dining hall or fraternity chef or restaurant who served it to me was confident that it’d be the right meal for the day, not because they want to pay homage to a cliché. To serve a taco should mean something. And one should only do it when the timing is right.

According to the experts, when Mexican migrants began selling tacos in Los Angeles and San Antonio, they weren’t just selling food, they were selling Mexico to Americans too afraid to visit. Tacos were a tourist attraction, a culinary journey, a cultural experience. Now, over a century later, they’re just the things we eat on Tuesdays. But I guess that’s to be expected. Maybe we call America a melting pot because everything gets watered down and mixed in.

I remember sitting at a ceremony in a Zambian village last summer, watching a dance performance by a group of locals on a stage of red dirt. When it was over, they turned to a group of Australian high school students who had come to the village to volunteer at a school. “Can you show us one of your traditional dances?”

The Australians proceeded to perform the Macarena for us all, complete with scattered sets of mumbles through the lyrics. Such is the plight of young western nations; we don’t just occasionally make lackluster references to other cultures — our culture is based on these lackluster references. It’s tacos on Tuesdays and reggae nights on Wednesdays with white singers who fake Jamaican accents. It’s pizza with buffalo chicken and tattoos of Chinese characters that don’t actually say anything meaningful.

But this isn’t always wrong. There’s a difference between wearing a headdress to a music festival and enjoying a good gyro. I can’t speak for the Mexican community, but from my conversations with friends in preparation for this piece I’ve gathered that calls for the end of the American taco industry on the basis of cultural appropriation aren’t very likely in the near future. After all, if we purged our culture of every reference to other nations, we’d find ourselves with nothing but burger patties and Leave it to Beaver.

But for Pete’s sake, if we’re going to base our cuisine on the food found in the rest of the world, let’s do it with some integrity. Let’s make good tacos and let’s not churn them out on a weekly basis like a low budget sitcom.

But change can be a lofty proposition. Last Tuesday night, when a group of North Campus dwellers invited me to eat with them on a guest swipe, I declined. Minutes later, as I eased into the parking spot in front of my own house, I could already smell the tacos from afar. I asked what was for dinner. “Don’t you know what day it is?”

I guess some things you just have to learn to live with.

 

Paul Russell is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at prussell@cornellsun.com. Russelling Feathers appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.