Politics

Tucker’s Taco Paradox

What the Fox News host doesn’t get about Mexican food.

Side-by-side photos: On the left, we have Tucker Carlson. On the right, delicious tacos.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images, jeffreyw/Flickr CC.

A couple of weeks ago, Tucker Carlson got into a fight about tacos. But of course, it was about much more than that.

The Fox News host had invited my colleague Enrique Acevedo on his show to discuss a Univision report about Houston restaurant owner Roland Laurenzo, who had faced criticism after sharing a picture on social media of Attorney General Jeff Sessions patronizing his eatery, El Tiempo Cantina. “We had the honor to serve Mr. Jeff Sessions,” the enthusiastic post read, sparking disapproval. Univision reporter Vilma Tarazona covered the story, which news anchor Jorge Ramos presented by dutifully noting the controversy surrounding Laurenzo. Ramos’ summary of the piece apparently irked Carlson, so he called on Acevedo for a clarification.

The debate deteriorated quickly. Carlson began by wrongly accusing Ramos of calling for a boycott of Laurenzo’s restaurant. “I never did such a thing,” Ramos told me recently. Carlson then tried to corner Acevedo by bullying him with some nonsense about whether his job as a Univision journalist included bringing Hispanic Americans “back into the herd” when they “step out of line,” referring to what he though was the report’s (nonexistent) condemnation of Laurenzo. “Did you think when you joined Univision that part of your job would be to attack disobedient Hispanics?” Carlson asked. “Was that in the contract?” Acevedo laughed off the provocation and proceeded to lament the “trickle-down incivility” that Donald Trump—and people like Carlson—have brought to American public life.

If it had ended there, the exchange would have been just one of Carlson’s many theatrical tussles. It didn’t. Instead, it took an unexpected turn into, of all things, culinary history and cultural appropriation. In the end, the argument laid bare some of the inconsistencies in Carlson’s nativist rhetoric.

When Acevedo suggested that the attorney general’s visit to Laurenzo’s restaurant to enjoy Mexican food might be a contradiction given that Sessions has attacked Mexican Americans, and their cultural influence in the United States, Carlson took offense: “It’s American food!” he said, chuckling. “What, do you think you own tacos now?” Trying hard to keep his composure, Acevedo explained that no one “owned” tacos and that Mexican food in America should be celebrated as an example of cultures merging. Carlson would have none of it: “You’re not going to appropriate my culture. I’m from San Diego, man,” he said. “Those are my tacos! Mine!”

Historically speaking, of course, tacos are certainly not an American food. Tortillas have been an essential ingredient in Mexico’s culinary tradition for millennia, having been “wrapped around other ingredients from the moment they were invented,” writes Mexican food critic Alonso Ruvalcaba. There have been commercial taquerias in Mexico since at least the late 19th century, with every region developing its own spin on the country’s most emblematic food item.

Much of that gastronomic tradition made its way up north and, with ingenuity and entrepreneurial drive, evolved into something new and unique. I asked journalist Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, how much of the United States’ culinary evolution has been influenced by inspiration from Mexico and elsewhere. “Nearly all of it,” he said. “Even corn, the historical base food for so many indigenous tribes, came via migration and trade centuries ago.” Arellano, a Californian native, is an obsessive student of the vibrant food scene around Los Angeles. He told me Korean tacos—made famous by Korean-American chef Roy Choi—are the perfect example of how the culinary encounter of two different cultures (in the streets of one of the country’s most diverse cities, no less) might produce something new and, yes, American.

California is not alone. Immigrant cooks have long transformed culinary scenes across the country, both with street food and in more formal settings. In New York, for example, Enrique Olvera, Mexico’s most celebrated chef, combines Mexican know-how and ingredients like Mexican Coca-Cola with the produce and tradition of the American northeast to create the much-celebrated “duck carnitas” at Cosme, his flagship Manhattan eatery.

Something similar happened years ago in Carlson’s hometown of San Diego. Carlson grew up in La Jolla, 30 miles from the border. When he speaks of his early love of Mexican cuisine, he is likely referring to a version of fish tacos, perhaps at Rubio’s, the legendary chain that began in the Mission Bay area in 1983 when Carlson was a teenager. “Rubio’s” now has 200 locations all over the southwest, but that first taqueria stood only 15 minutes away from La Jolla. Rubio’s success is another example—not of Carlson’s rather crude notion of nativism, but rather of the power of both the exchange of ideas and the sway of cultural assimilation. While in college in San Diego, founder Ralph Rubio travelled to Mexico to surf the Baja waves. There, he fell in love with traditional Mexican fish tacos: beer-battered fish on a corn tortilla. Legend has it he asked the owner of his favorite taco stand for the recipe, which he kept for years until he opened the original Rubio’s. At first, clients were not used to the flavor or texture of Rubio’s creation. But the place eventually caught on. In time, Rubio’s tacos became, well, quintessentially American without losing one bit of their Mexican flare.

That cultural blend is at the heart of much of the country’s culinary tradition (Cajun and Creole food? Floribbean cuisine? The southwest’s burritos?). In Southern California, the extent of immigrant influence on food is undisputable.

Chef Ray Garcia, owner of Broken Spanish, a top Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, agrees. Garcia, who considers himself a Mexican-American chef, is a third-generation Southland native. “My cooking is probably best described as Mexican food through an Angeleno lens,” he told me. Garcia found Carlson’s exchange with Acevedo “painful to watch.” Garcia described gastronomy in the United States as “a mosaic in which cultures are being brought together, maintaining their individual beauty, to create something beautiful.” I asked Garcia about the role that outside influences play in America’s burgeoning culinary scene. He was adamant: Without it, he told me, “American cuisine would become stale and stagnant.”

Are Choi’s Korean Tacos in Los Angeles “American”? Are Rubio’s tacos, in Tucker Carlson’s childhood neighborhood? What about Olvera’s New York “carnitas” or Ray Garcia’s bright and inventive cuisine in Los Angeles? Yes, but probably not in the sense that would fit Carlson’s restrictive interpretation. For Ray Garcia, at least, immigrants hold the key to the country’s present and future culinary greatness. “It is the constant influx of new ideas and cross pollination of information across borders and cultures that has made American food what it is today,” he told me.

Sounds like a lesson about far more than just tacos.