a restaurant called xochitl -- 5/5/21

Today's selection -- from The Restaurant by William Sitwell. The origin of fried taco shells:

"[Juvencio] Maldonado had arrived in New York in 1924, at the age of twenty-six, possibly as a former soldier looking for a new life in the wake of civil war in Mexico. His girlfriend, Paz, joined him four years later; they married and started a Mexican grocery store on New York's Upper West Side. This was not to cater for a local Mexican population -- there wasn't one -- but just because the couple felt that their foods, the likes of salsa, tortillas and chocolate, would be popular with the neighborhood. This was the era of the motor car, cigarettes, trams, wide streets and modernity. New Yorkers were up for the novel and the exotic. The couple worked long days and charmed the locals, but it was too hard. The ingredients were too unusual; the idea of cooking with items whose names people couldn't even remember by the time they got them home was just too much. So, in 1938, the Maldonados, still convinced that Mexican food could charm New Yorkers, resolved to make it easier. They shut the grocery store and, finding a small site in the West 46th Street theatre district, opened a restaurant called Xochitl, the word for flower in their native tongue.

"The stout Maldonado decorated the place with sombreros and wooden American Indian heads, and at the center of the restaurant was a large and vulgar painting of an Aztec eagle and serpent. This related the classic legend of the Aztec gods telling their people to build a city -- Mexico City -- on the spot where they saw an eagle consuming a rattlesnake.

"The menu offered chilaquiles (corn tortillas), salad made with cactus, and that rich Mexican sauce, mole. The tortillas were made fresh every day, and from them came tacos (hard and soft), enchiladas (soft tortillas stuffed with meat, veg, beans or salad and covered in chili sauce), and tostadas (crispy tortillas covered with various goodies, but invariably tomatoes, salad, refried beans and grated cheese).

"Finally, the New Yorkers got it and flocked to Xochitl. They particularly enjoyed the crunch of his fried tacos. So much so that Maldonado -- an electrician by trade -- spent his spare time inventing a machine that would fry a large number of tacos mechanically. In 1947, he filed a patent for a 'form for frying tortillas to make fried tacos.' The application contained five elegant technical drawings on one page and a detailed explanation on another. It showed a hand-held device with a number of shelves that would contain the tortillas, which would then be dipped in the fryer. The drawings identify Juvencio Maldonado as the 'inventor'; he attested that the device was 'new,' and the application was granted in 1950. (The patent finally expired on July 11, 2019, on the day this very sentence was written!) Not only did the device considerably increase the number of tacos that could be fried at one time, it also maintained some peace in the kitchen. While the customers loved tacos, the chefs hated their creation. The constant splattering of hot oil marked them with little burns on exposed bits of their skin and made their aprons filthy, and, even in their sleep, they never seemed to be able to escape the smell. When Maldonado unveiled the device to his team, they cheered. His invention, he later said, had restored 'peace after open mutiny among the cooks, who dreaded handling the fried taco orders.'

"In the ensuing years, Maldonado sold his tacos 'to go,' as an addition to his restaurant business. His invention saw tacos grow in popularity.

"Perhaps it was a coincidence -- innovation needed to solve the same problem at the same time -- but the contraption that Glen Bell [founder of Taco Bell] introduced to his taco shop in San Bernardino was virtually identical.

"Yet, if Bell was guilty of the sin of plagiarism, was Maldonado guilty of a worse crime? Pandering to the sensibilities of New Yorkers by frying tacos and thus abusing his culinary roots? Was his adulterating of tradition, his hand in the Americanization of Mexican food, an act of cultural treachery? According to the late Mexican poet Octavio Paz, 'the melting pot is a social idea that, when applied to culinary art, produces abomination.'

"But another contemporary Mexican writer, Gustavo Arellano, defended the likes of Maldonado and even Bell's taco empire. 'We must consider the infinite varieties of Mexican food in the United States a part of the Mexican family; not a fraud, not a lesser sibling, but an equal.' Arellano felt that, 'wherever there is something even minutely Mexican, whether it's people, food, language or rituals, even centuries removed from the mestizo sauce, it remains Mexican.'"

 | www.delanceyplace.com


William Sitwell


The Restaurant: A 2,000-Year History of Dining Out


Diversion Books


Copyright 2020 by William Sitwell


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