February 07, 2006

Americanized Mexican Convenience Foods

Mexican food was a staple in my diet while growing up in Houston during the 1960s. While some consider it to be an ethnic food, I don't recall ever considering it as such. It was as much a part of my diet as was Wonder Bread, Roast Beef and Lucky Charms.

I learned to prepare both the traditional Mexican style food and the Americanized Tex-Mex version in the homes of my friends. Much of it was prepared from scratch, and with the exception of spices, and sometimes pre-packaged corn or flour tortillas, there was no need for canned enchilada sauces, refried beans, or pre-formed taco shells.

Commercially packaged Mexican food products were available nationally, however, even if we didn't use many of them. Many of these products originated in Texas and California during the late 1800s.

The little fold-out advertising leaflet that got me started on this topic today was one called Old El Paso Mexican Recipes (from Pet). It's not dated, but was most likely published in the late 1970s, based on a sentence found inside: "Fresh ingredients, authentic recipes, and over 60 years of experience make OLD EL PASO Mexican Foods the ones you can trust for dinners to please you and your family."

The Mountain Pass Canning Company, the original manufacturer of Old El Paso products, was founded in 1918 in Deming, New Mexico. Pet acquired the Mountain Pass Canning Company in 1968.

At the time of publication, the list of Old El Paso products available were Taco Shells, the Taco Dinner, Tostada Shells, Seasoning Mixes, and canned Refried Beans, Pinto Beans, Tortillas, Spanish Rice, Taco Sauces, Green Chiles, Tamales, Enchiladas, Mexican Chip Dip, Enchilada Sauces and Chili Con Carne.

The list is not much different from the current Old El Paso brand product list, the most notable exception being that in the seemingly never-ending attempts by the food companies to crank out new products, Old El Paso now offers flat-bottomed taco shells called "Stand 'N Stuff" (don't get me started--I'm not even going there.)

The leaflet provided a handy Lingo List for those who might be unfamiliar with the basic ingredients of (Americanized) Mexican food:


Corn is a native American food which was a favorite with Indians in all parts of the continent, including Mexico. Ground and dampened into a dough called "masa," corn is the basic dough for most Mexican foods.

Tortilla: Masa pressed into a thin pancake then quickly singed or "blistered" over a hot fire. Tortillas are in Mexico what bread is in United States cooking.

Chilies of many sizes and varieties contribute the unique flavor of most Mexican foods. Chili has become the standard-bearer of Mexican flavor.

Tomato is the partner of chili in most Mexican sauces and relishes. It contributes moisture, flavor and bulk to a great many Mexican dishes.

Taco: A tortilla folded over meat, chicken or refried beans, and cooked until crisp. Before serving, fill taco with lettuce, onion, cheese and taco sauce.

Enchilada: A tortilla wrapped around meat, cheese and/or other ingredients and baked in chili sauce, or fried flat, sprinkled with cheese and grated onion and covered with chili sauce.

Tamale: Masa rolled around chili-flavored meat, then wrapped in a corn shuck and steamed in red chili sauce.

Beans of several sizes and varieties are served in many different ways in Mexican meals. The most important is the "pinto" bean which plays a similar role in Mexican cooking to the potato in the United States.

Refried Beans (Refritos): Pinto beans which have been boiled, mashed, and fried in vegetable oil.

It's a sweet little leaflet and it contains 35 recipes for a variety of dishes. And if your desire to prepare Mexican food goes no further than opening up a few cans and packages, thereby skipping the "scratch" part, it has all the recipes you'll ever need.


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