Tacos in space: Mexican food in the U.S., and beyond.
January 16, 2020 7:51 PM   Subscribe

"People are not interested in any scientific result of the experiments I performed (NM Space Museum), what fills them with emotion is that something Mexican came into space." The most popular food in the country left Earth 30 years ago to stay. NASA now uses it as one of the basic meals for its missions. “This is one of Mexico's great contributions to the conquest of space,” [Rodolfo Neri Vela] mentions with laughter. (Google auto-translation of article in El Pais) In 2013, Astronaut Chris Hadfield and Chef Traci Des Jardins made a Space Burrito (YouTube), and four years earlier, José Hernández and Danny Olivas made their own burritos in space. "Their feast made the news; a video soon went viral across the Internet, the astronauts’ beaming, proud smiles as they hoisted their fast food for humanity to see. So high in the heavens, up above the world, the burrito not only had become universal—it was now, finally, truly, cosmic." (Latino Magazine)

"Tacos in Space" is an excerpt from Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (Amazon; Goodreads) by Gustavo Arellano, formerly of ¡Ask a Mexican! in OC Weekly.

Arellano's excerpted chapter includes the widely covered topic of how NASA turning to Taco Bell for tortillas that were shelf-stable but wouldn't get bitter or degrade (First We Feast), but also notes:
And for short missions of five to seven days? Astronauts often bring their flour tortillas fresh from a Houston tortillería—a tortilla factory. No customizing, no chemicals—just unadulterated rapture. The perfect food.
He quotes from Sandra Magnus' NASA journal entry titled Food and Cooking in Space ("I cannot think of anything that cannot be put on a tortilla, or has not been put on a tortilla"), and from there goes on to introduce the broader theme of his book:
What’s so cosmic about a burrito? Everything. It says something about us that Taco Bell makes billions of dollars in sales each year, that Koreans in this country are making millions by stuffing their barbecue in tortillas and selling them from fancy food trucks—and it’s a good thing. Anyone who dismisses this reality as not indicative of something seismic in the American story is more deluded that someone who thinks refried beans are actually fried twice. It’s been conquest by a thousand tacos, a million tamales, and a hell of a lot of salsa, which surpassed ketchup as America’s top-selling condiment back in the 1990s. Through interviews and archival material, via chronological and thematic chapters, and never, ever losing focus that we are, after all, talking about food, behold the story of the best cuisine on Earth, one now set on taking over the world. The United States is on the losing side of this Mexican-American War—and boy, are we grateful.
(If you're looking for newer content from Gustavo, here's his personal website. He is also a writer for the L.A. Times, which covered his resignation from OC Weekly, after the paper was bought out and staff were cut; more on the impact of Arellano's departure from OC Weekly in an L.A. Times OpEd by Carolina A. Miranda.)
posted by filthy light thief (19 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I bought 4 copies of Taco USA because I kept giving it away while I was reading it.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:56 PM on January 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

I hear that given the success of the The Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel, they're now working on a Space Cannon.
posted by Ickster at 9:13 PM on January 16, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm here for the orbital delivery of burritos. What I'm saying here is send me a burrito.
posted by loquacious at 9:52 PM on January 16, 2020

fodagut put red kibble in your burritos, beratna!
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 10:06 PM on January 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

Make sure you bring your own bottle of Tapatio...

Makes anything a yummy meal.
posted by Windopaene at 11:13 PM on January 16, 2020

" But that so many Americans, with no blood ties to Mexico, who might not even like the country, revere my cuisine? The reporter in me is fascinated; the Mexican in me, flabbergasted."
It's really interesting to me that Americans embrace the food and not the people, but I suppose it's a story that reverberates around the world with white people everywhere. It's lazy cultural engagement. So called cultural sensitivity on easy mode.

My complaint is that Australians don't seem to understand the type of spice/heat that is required for good Mexican food, and I haven't perfected how to cook Tacos for 2, instead of for 10.

Tortillas are great.

beans aren't for astronauts. Small text because I don't want to privilege the very thing mentioned in the article: "But even negative stereotypes and digestive concerns never stopped our collective yen for the stuff."
posted by freethefeet at 3:48 AM on January 17, 2020 [4 favorites]

Now we know what those strange sounds are coming out of Uranus.

(sorry, I had to)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:47 AM on January 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Puts a dark spin on It's Raining Tacos, though.
posted by condour75 at 4:59 AM on January 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've had a lot of wilderness first aid and cold weather injury training and when someone has hypothermia out in the field you wrap them up using a technique called "The burrito wrap."

Burritos save lives, is what I'm sayin'.
posted by bondcliff at 6:22 AM on January 17, 2020

I don't normally get too spun up over fresh vs preserved food, but fresh tortillas are the exception. Now I want to ask for funding to see if tortillas can be made in 1/6th g on the moon or 1/3 g on Mars. It may require a tortilla centrifuge (tortillafuge) to get the correct consistency.

Heh, spun up.
posted by BeeDo at 6:25 AM on January 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Armageddon but with old ladies instead of roughnecks and NASA tortilla presses instead of drills
posted by FakeFreyja at 7:04 AM on January 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

A couple of years ago my daughter was enamored with videos of Chris Hadfield on the ISS, and in one of them (this one, maybe) he mentions that tortillas are a standard food ingredient in preference to other kinds of bread on the ISS because they don't produce crumbs and it's possible to process them so that they keep indefinitely.
posted by Kikujiro's Summer at 7:07 AM on January 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I bring whole wheat tortillas when camping. They pack nice and flat, stay fresh forever, and go great with anything.
posted by sjswitzer at 7:15 AM on January 17, 2020

A MetaFilter post so powerful I had to go make a breakfast burrito.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:18 AM on January 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Cosmic Burrito-now my favorite euphemism.
posted by Oyéah at 8:23 AM on January 17, 2020

More Gustavo here. He was killing it at LA Taco! Always a good read, and definitely ranging waaay out beyond the bounds of "food writing".
posted by ButteryMales at 8:33 AM on January 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

It's really interesting to me that Americans embrace the food and not the people, but I suppose it's a story that reverberates around the world with white people everywhere. It's lazy cultural engagement.

Well put. In putting together this post, I was thinking about what could have been under a different president, when some (myself included) were rooting for taco trucks on every corner (Wikipedia), and I despair for and worry about rise of overt racism in the US.

In addition to making the lives of Latinx people miserable to dangerous, this ethnocentrism limits opportunities, solutions and resources (which is not to say that people are only valuable if they can solve a problem). It was 23 years from John Glenn's first meal in space (previously) to tortillas being considered for space travel. And if not for Rodolfo Neri Vela being an astronaut, it might have been even longer.

People only consider the options that are already familiar to them. With an increased diversity of backgrounds for astronauts, space food is becoming more diverse, too (Wikipedia).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:37 AM on January 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

Some foods are just so good they instantly become universal as they spread. Tacos and sushi are my two prime examples of this.

Plus for space tacos have an advantage over European style sandwiches because tortillas make fewer crumbs than sandwich bread does.
posted by sotonohito at 8:56 AM on January 17, 2020

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