Five Mexican-Food Empires Started By Americans Ripping Off Unnamed Mexicans

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One of the few cases in Mexican-food history in the US where a Mexi wasn't ripped off by gabachos...

Michelle posted earlier today about how the man credited with creating Fritos, former Frito-Lay executive, Arch West, just passed away in Dallas. First thing I told her? "The origin story for Doritos IS A LIE!!!"

The story goes, according to West's daughter, that the family was on vacation in San Diego and "he stumbled on some little shack where they were making some interesting kind of chip." The story is a crock--but you're going to have to wait for my book on the history of Mexican food in the United States (out April 10, 2012!) for the full story.

For the purposes of this post, what interested me most about the quote was the attribution of West's discovery to an unnamed "little shack." It's the latest example of the same story told again and again in the annals of Mexican-food history in the United States: an entrepreneurial gabacho stumbles into a Mexican restaurant, finds a product that entices him, gets "inspired" by it, and proceeds to make millions of dollars off of the product. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, it's The Dumb Mexican with a Thousand Nameless Faces--these origin myths never disclose who the ripped-off Mexican in question is (although there is always one specific person, as opposed to general inspiration from Mexicans), always refer to the run-down restaurant from whence the genius gabacho got the idea, and leaves the Mexican in the dustbin of history. It's part Black Legend, part Manifest Destiny, and all latent racism, baby. Don't believe me? Consider four other official origin stories behind Mexican-food behemoths, and ask yourself: why no full telling of the tale?

4. Rubio's


Rubio's is rightfully credited with introducing the fish taco to mainstream America, but where did Ralph Rubio get the idea for them? All the company's website states is that "As a college student, Ralph made regular pilgrimages to Mexico's best beaches to surf, sun and socialize. It was on one of these trips that Ralph sat down at a seaside taqueria and met his true love. After just one bite, he was hooked." What's the name of the taqueria, Ralph? What town? He's never said. Hey, at least the Wahoo's brothers say they got the idea for their business from eating nothing but fish tacos while down in Baja.

3. Fritos
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Fritos are such a part of America today that most people don't realize that Fritos Co. founder Charles Elmer Doolin bought the idea for them from a Mexican during the 1930s. "He met a man from San Antonio selling fried corn chips," reads the company's website. "[Doolin] offered him $100 for the recipe." Who was the man? Frito-Lay doesn't say, but the crazy thing is that the man's name is out there and confirmed by Doolin's daughter, Kaleeta, in her recent bio of her dad. Why not name the man, Frito-Lay? Right--because when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

2. Chipotle
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I interviewed Chipotle founder Steve Ells for my book, knowing full well his foundation myth: while working in San Francisco in the early 1990s, Ells was introduced to the Mission-style burritos of the city. I asked him which taqueria (quick aside for us non-SanFraners: in the citys lingo, a taquería actually specializes in burritos and not tacos. Those crazy hippies!) in particular "inspired" him, and he pleaded amnesia, which I found to be a bullshit answer. Anyone who's eaten at a taquería in the Mission quickly remembers the great ones, and adopts a specific one as their own (my favorite: El Castillito). No way Ells magically forgot which one, especially since most of them have been around decades. Why not spill the black beans and cilantro-lime rice, Steve?

1. Taco Bell

But the worst culprit in this group by far is Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell. In his self-published biography, Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story, Bell tells his biographer that he got the idea for selling tacos from a Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire. He'd eat there again and again, always asking the owners how they made their tacos, and would promptly return to his hot dog stand and try to replicate the recipe. Bell never named the restaurant, but I found it, and the owners aren't really happy with Bell--details to come in the book, of course...

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