Toxic nacho culture must fall

Toxic nacho culture must fall
Photo by Ismael Trevino on Unsplash

If you’re going to pretend to serve Mexican food, at least make it tasty.

On my 21st birthday, back in 1634, my parents threw me a Chinese braai. My father borrowed a skottel, my mother chopped pineapple and cabbage, and at 7pm a handful of friends arrived and we stood around the gas canister, frying beef strips and bean sprouts in sweet and sour sauce, our hair smelling of smoke and sunflower oil. My boyfriend at the time gave me a gift of three rubber animal noses and a carton of Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, which I had to hide from my parents by stashing it in the retaining wall. I stashed down my anger at the substandard gifts by drinking too much Amarula and then threatening to run away to Borneo. 

Since those days of Alsatians and government bread (and, in the agricultural heartland of white-people Camperdown, BARN DANCES), this country has slowly filled up with a slew of cultural cuisines: Thai, Chinese, Ethiopian, Korean, Belgian, Italian, Japanese, Congolese, Spanish, French. 

And Mexican. Or not Mexican at all. 

I never learn. Lured in by fake piñatas, sombreros dangling from the ceiling and plastic garlands possibly left over from a Hawaiian night, I go in. I sit down. I order a burrito, and it arrives resembling the inner duvet of an unwashed student-mouse. And it’s filled with sundry bits of rice and beans, possibly fished out of a plug hole, and is accompanied by a bowl of pale guacamole and a white ramekin of sour cream. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I’ll opt for the nachos, and they arrive like a pile of Jenga tiles smothered in melted Cheddar with an afterthought of yellowed coriander.

Admittedly, I’ve never been to Mexico. Or Borneo. The closest I’ve been to Mexico is San Francisco, where we stayed a few years ago in a youth hostel that had an astounding Heath Robinson bulk bagel toaster and sticky carpets. Besides the Norwegian motorcyclist who was riding from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, we were the oldest people there, and spent our evenings in our tiny room watching Louis CK reruns while the lounge downstairs bulged with young people in 80s clothing playing cards and discussing Teju Cole.

Just around the corner from the hostel was a Mexican takeaway, and when we’d had enough of Louis, or my conscience reminded me of all the terrible things he had done, we’d saunter to the eatery and sit at one of the plastic tables and hoover up bean burritos that were tasty, not cheesy, rustic and ricey. Being a bit of a wally, I would practise my Spanish on the friendly woman behind the counter and may have told her she was alive with crocodiles.

Purists will know that burritos are not traditionally Mexican, and neither are nachos. In fact, nachos were originally invented in 1943 by a hotel maître d called Ignacio Anaya, who threw the concoction together for a group of wives of US soldiers stationed at Eagle Pass, near the Texan border, who arrived at the hotel after hours and wanted food. The resourceful Señor Anaya fried up some tortilla triangles, threw on grated Cheddar, melted it all together and topped it off with chopped jalapeños.  And so the potential for horror was born.

I once had a plate of nachos whose chips were made from what appeared to be samosa pastry. Admittedly, it was at a pub on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast whose raison d’etre seemed to be selling pitchers of green alcohol and televising motorsport. I felt too bad, and too complicit, to query the frantic waitress about the fried pillows on my plate. And the dearth of advertised jalapeños. And the occasional flash of red Gouda wax in the molten mess on top. I have also been served nachos smothered in a white (packet) sauce that coated just the top layer of the chips (Doritos), leaving the stack underneath as dry as a Texan plain.

Cut to our suburb in Cape Town, 15,892km away from Tijuana. In our local commercial strip (read: one long road filled with, in no order of priority, slinking cats, cars behind gates in front of tiny cottages, electric fences, a pilates studio, an advertising company that never seems open, a swimwear shop I no longer frequent after the owner told me I needed “at least two sizes bigger”, and a clutch of restaurants), there have, over the years, been two Mexican restaurants, one that admittedly had pleasing tiles. And because I’m a wally AND an optimist, I dined a few times at both. And each time I became inexplicably cross.

It’s not so much the cultural appropriation that annoys me – the fact that a non-Mexican would try their hand at making Mexican food. Being a wally, an optimist and a fan of bargains (a shop flogging out-of-date food in Fish Hoek has recently been selling cheap taco kits), I have turned out the occasional Tex-Mex meal, with varying degrees of success. Cumin is not a subtle disguise for over-brined kidney beans. I have also made sushi (dry rolls of rice and seaweed like dissected anaconda) and chickpea curry (stew, with a weird aftertaste of glue), but the difference between my at-home disasters and those proffered in restaurants is that no one has to pay for them, and I’m not lying about my proficiency.

I’m also not such a purist that food interpretation bothers me – people have rehashed cuisines for decades, sometimes out of necessity (the bunny chow) and often out of a need to cater to local palates (my British grandmother’s “curry” was more a mélange of raisins and Bisto). A friend who lived in Japan for six years says traditional sushi, as opposed to the Westernised fare we eat, doesn’t come all slapped up with wasabi and is sometimes unidentifiable. However, if a restaurant sells itself as “authentic Mexican”, charges R50 for a greasy chilli popper accompanied by lashings of the Gypsy Kings and serves a bland interpretation of what is normally robust, flavourful food, that’s just plain insulting. To an entire country and a whole restaurant of diners.

Perhaps it’s the audaciousness that also irks – that fact that someone lies in bed one night, dreaming of that perfect spot that’s come up for rent, and all the cheese they can melt, and the trip to Mexico they’ll have to take, and the couples who will hold hands over frozen margaritas served in jam jars, and then decides to just do it. I have always wanted to have an iguana circus, but I know nothing about iguanas or circuses. But then neither do most South Africans – and perhaps that’s how the wool-over-the-eyes happens. If you’ve never eaten pozole or pico de gallo, who’s to know what Mexican food is meant to taste like? 

I’m thinking an iguana in a tutu miming Billie Eilish while riding a bicycle. You’d pay good money for that, right? DM

Helen Walne is an aspirant vegan who detests food snobs, kale fascists, tartare sauce and misplaced apostrophes on menus, but is very fond of broccoli.


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