Six Presidential Encounters with Mexican Food, Ranked from Best to Worst
So what more-random topic than a quick overview of American presidents and their interactions with Mexican food?
The good, the bad, the Nixonian, Democrat, Republican, we have them after the jump, from best to worst. And, yes: this is but a partial tortilla chip in the big nachos that will be my coming book on the history of Mexican food in the United States.
1. Ronald Reagan Helps Promote Zarela Martinez
I don't like the Gipper one bit, save for his unlikely contribution to the advancement of Mexican food in this country. In 1983, Reagan invited Martinez--a Mexican chef making splashes in food circles at the time with her "authentic" recipes (and mother of current celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez--to provide a recipe so that White House chefs could prepare it for Queen Elizabeth II at his Santa Barbara Ranch; she submitted the glorious caldo tlapeño. The royal approved. Later that year, at the Williamsburg Economic Summit, a meeting of foreign bigwigs, Martinez prepared fish tamales. Martinez's then-bold Mexican interpretations stood out as Mexican America at its best, and she used that push to become one of the first Mexican chefs trusted by Americans to prepare Mexican food, as ridiculous as that sounds.
2. Barack Obama Invites Rick Bayless to Cater a White House State Dinner
Okay, so the head of state invited that day was Mexican President Felipe Calderón, and we all know Bayless is a thin-skinned prig, but still: quite an accomplishment for a gabacho to not only serve regional Mexican dishes to a sitting Mexi presidente, but for the prez to enjoy the meal--and for Obama to even bother with the gesture.
3. Richard Nixon Asks Avila's El Ranchito to Cater the Opening of his Presidential Library
When the disgraced president opened his Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in 1989 in Yorba Linda, Tricky Dick hired as the event's caterers Avila's El Ranchito, the family-run chain of Mexican restaurants that has parlayed America's obsession with Mexican food into an Orange County empire. Good choice (especially then), and it almost makes up for his most-notorious Mexican-food sin: when reporters during the 1960s asked for his favorite restaurant was when enjoying days off at the Western White House, Nixon replied it was the Mexican restaurant, El Adobe de Capistrano, in San Juan Capistrano. Only problem, of course, was that El Adobe was a continental restaurant that only made Mexican food for Nixon and Nixon alone.
4. Bill Clinton Jogs in a Mi Tierra Café T-Shirt
Mi Tierra Café is the El Cholo of San Antonio, an institution that draws all the politicos, celebrities, and tourists. A young Clinton ate their while working on campaigns during the 1970s, and its fine Tex-Mex and northern Mexico grub stayed with Slick Willie. As president, a photographer once photographed Clinton jogging in a Mi Tierra T-shirt, an image that an artist immortalized by reproducing it as a painting. It now hangs at Mi Tierra--I KID YOU NOT!
5. Gerald Ford Bites into a Tamale with Husk Still Wrapped Around It
While campaigning for his reelection in 1976, Ford stopped by the Alamo. During a reception afterward, he got a tamale and bit into it despite the husk still being wrapped around it. Maybe Chevy Chase was right...
6. Jimmy Carter Cracks a Joke about Montezuma's Revenge--In Front of the Mexican President
At a 1979 luncheon honoring Carter in Mexico City hosted by Mexican President José López Portillo, Carter reminisced about his last previous visit to the megalopolis. "I first acquired my habit of running here in Mexico City," he told the audience. "My first running course was from the Palace of Fine Arts to the Majestic Hotel, where me and my family were staying. In the midst of the Folklorico performance, I discovered that I was afflicted with Montezuma's Revenge." Oy vey...just further proof he was history's greatest monster.