I was surprised to learn that in Sonora, as in most of Northern Mexico, the black bean is unheard of.
While the answer to “Why Mexican food Reilly?” is a relatively simple one, I think the “how” is much more interesting and revealing. The taco is not static. Cuisines, like cultures, are inherently fluid and malleable. A cuisine evolves and changes over time and space, depending on who is cooking it. So what I originally thought was just Mexican food can more accurately be described as Northern California Brock family Mexican food. I use this overly specific title because what my family cooks as Mexican food is in fact very specific to the region we live in, the culinary influences we choose to draw from, and our unique tastes. To illustrate, let’s talk about beans.
When I make refried beans, I almost always use black beans. The reason I cook with them is because I like their color and flavor over pinto beans. I used to assume that black beans were simply Mexican because of their availability at the supermarkets and taquerias that I frequented. When I lived in Tucson with a Sonoran family I was surprised to learn that in Sonora, as in most of Northern Mexico, the black bean is unheard of. People eat pinto beans in the North, and black beans in the South. While the black bean is a distinctly Southern Mexican ingredient, I certainly wasn’t using it because I had any affinity to Southern Mexican food. Thus, one can already see how much of an odd, distanced exercise in culinary tourism my family is engaged in, taking bits and pieces of regional Mexican cuisine, appropriating them, and synthesizing them into our own dishes. Indeed, my refried beans recipe came from a favorite Southwestern cookbook of mine and so, with their black beans and chipotles, resemble what you get in a restaurant in Albuquerque much more than what you would find in any part of Mexico.
Similarly, we tend to favor corn tortillas in our cooking because of personal preference, and in so doing have defined Mexican food as involving corn tortillas. Yet again this overlooks regional variation in Mexico, where flour tortillas are the norm, and corn tortillas are far less popular. So clearly the idea of an “ethnic” food is not as simple and static as we like to think of it. The character of my family’s Mexican food came from our unique ability and desire to sample regional Mexican dishes, rather than any familial or cultural affinity with any region of Mexico. Even though we have a noticeable affinity for what you can label as Mexican food, in cooking it, we inevitably modified the cuisine to suit our tastes, creating something different and new. Cooking is an act of transformation on many levels.
Our Mexican cooking is also distinct because of the happy intersection of two distinct privileges, the regional privilege of living in the Bay Area, with its ready access to a wide array of fresh produce, and the financial privilege of being able to afford to buy these vegetables. For example, we have the ability to eat guacamole for most of the year because we can afford to regularly buy California’s pride and joy: hass avocados. Avocados are notoriously expensive and climate-sensitive, so now matter how much we loved Mexican food, if my family lived in rural Montana, or made less money, it is very unlikely that guacamole would feature so prominently in our dinners. Because of Berkeley’s markets and their wide selection of produce, we can incorporate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables into our Mexican cooking, usually without worrying about price or season. We can choose to make mango salsa in February, or every day for that matter because we have the means to do so. With the world as our supermarket, we have the freedom to cook any Mexican dish at will.
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