Commentary, Peruvian Cuisine

Ceviche Time in America? Mexican Zings Peru

Ceviche Mixto, Cuzco

Peruvian food has claimed more fans in the United States. Its promotors, such as celebrity chef Gastón Acurio, hold it can follow the path of Mexican food to claim a place in the palate and hearts of Americans. But on Monday the acclaimed North American writer and historian of Mexican food in the fifty states, Gustavo Arrellano, argued “Peruvian food won’t happen.” Let’s take a look at Arrellano’s stance.

Often irreverent, Arrellano and his sharp intelligence and wit created a publishing phenomenon in his widely syndicated column “Ask a Mexican,” which his publisher Simon and Schuster, says “has a circulation of more than two million in thirty-eight markets (and counting).”

The author of three books, Arrellano has won numerous awards and has become not just a “wacky author” but the most incisive commentator on Gringo anxiety about Mexicans. From his base in greater Los Angeles, the inevitable second city of Mexico and home of Hollywood, Arrellano speaks the unspeakable with humor that draws people in and then whops them ‘long side the head with well researched fact.

Recently, LA Weekly’s Inky Squid Blog interviewed Arrellano. Currently promoting his just published and deftly titled book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Arrellano not only pokes irony at Anglo fears of a reconquista, a re-taking of the northern half of Mexico that has been part of the US since the mid-nineteenth century, but challenges food purists and brilliantly lays out the often hidden and misrepresented history of how Mexican food came to be so popular.

If there is any book Gastón Acurio and friends should study as they plot the ascent of Peruvian food in the United States Taco USA is it.

As a result, it is painfully surprising when Inky Squid sideswipes Arrellano with an unrelated question about Peruvian food and he answers.

Of course, Arrellano is not only a slinger of irony and gifted commenter, he also has lots of experience writing about food. Currently editor in chief of the OC Weekly of Orange County, Califronia, Arrellano honed his craft not only in his “Ask a Mexican” column but in the publication’s food blog.

Just after Arrellano holds forth on the exceptionalism of Mexican food in the US, Inky Squid hits him with “How about Peruvian food? Could it be poised to conquer America next?” Arrellano replies “Peruvian food won’t happen, because it’s mostly seafood. And Americans have an aversion to fresh seafood and ceviche. It will never take off.”

Oh man, what a set up. I mean Arrellano’s answer, not what Inky Squid did to him.

I can just hear the Peruvian juggernaut with its overwhelming seriousness and pride either tisk-tisking dismissively, or stamping its foot in anger. Chill out. This is “Ask a Mexican” Gustavo Arrellano. He is like a bull fighter with a cape. He may look all serious, but he is not where the bull thinks he is when it charges his brightly colored cape.

The clue should be that Arrellano knows this is the United States where raw fish has become a rage. He could write another book about how sushi now appears in every self-respecting strip mall across the country. So we can suppose that he knows that Peruvian food is not just ceviche and jalea.

He is tweaking celebrity chef and restauranteur Gastón Acurio´s nose while pulling his leg. Acurio is after all the owner of the La Mar chain of restaurants, found in chichi places in key US cities, and the very serious main promoter of Peruvian cuisine.

Before we get all surprised at so much body contact we should note that Taco USA emphasizes the role of promoters like Acurio in the growth of Mexican food as a phenomenon in the US. But it also shows three problems Peruvian food is bound to face.

  1. Peru just is not the subject of anxiety like Mexico is, and so there is not the same Freudian push for Americans to eat it.
  2. There is not yet a cadre of Gringos interpreting and pushing Peruvian food for an American audience, such as Rick Bayless, Diane Kennedy, and Sunset Magazine.
  3. Peru’s immigrant community in the United States does not come within spitting distance of Mexico’s in size.

Still, millions of Americans have come to Peru just as they regularly sunbathe on Mexico’s beaches. While in Cuzco, though McDonalds and Starbucks now make serious claims for their food dollar, they still try some coca tea and chicha morada. They may even get a lomo or alpaca saltado and certainly hear about cuy (guinea pig).

Acurio’s ceviche is gaining attention while quinoa has broken all bounds. Furthermore, Peruvians have set up ma and pa restaurants in most American cities of any size both for their compatriots who feel nostalgic and adventurous gringos.

What is missing is the mass marketers and mass promoters. They may arise or they may not. Arrellano’s analysis of Mexican food makes important cautionary points even if he springs them on us with a sharp sting and a laugh.

Peru has left no Alamo for Americans to remember every time they put ají on their dogs. That makes a world of difference though Peruvian cuisine is complex, varied, and delicious.

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