Latino Studies Mexican-American Cuisine
Sarah Portnoy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0076


“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” quipped Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste, in 1825. While nearly two centuries have passed since his meditations on gastronomy, in the 21st century food remains just as closely linked to one’s identity and social status. One’s culinary practices continue to identify religious, national, and regional origins. For the diverse Latino population of the United States, food has always been and still remains a valuable affirmation of identity. Latino cuisine has been a part of United States food habits for centuries, but the representations of Latino cuisine found in most major cities were once far fewer and much more standardized than they have become in 21st-century American cities. The recent growth of the Latino population in the form of documented and undocumented immigrants and refugees has given rise to a rich and flavorful pan-Latino cuisine across the United States, with a concentration in cities such as New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Houston. Despite several generations of immigration, United States Latinos have maintained their heritage by simultaneously preserving the food culture of their homeland and adapting to the available ingredients and culinary practices in the United States. Given the diversity of nations represented by Latino immigrants in the United States, as well as the fact that the population includes a mix of both recent immigrants and families that have resided in the United States for multiple generations, Latino cuisine cannot be categorized as homogeneous or uniform.

General Overviews

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011 Hispanics made up 16.7 percent of the population, an estimated 52 million people. Of the overall Latino population, persons of Mexican origin form the largest Latino population group, 63 percent. Therefore Mexican cuisine is an essential component of Latino cuisine, and a general overview of Mexican cuisine along with its historical background is vital to understanding the development of Mexican food and Latino food in general in the United States. Long-Solis and Vargas 2005 offers a general overview of Mexican food culture, while Pilcher 1998 examines the cultural history of Mexican cuisine in a study that explores the food-related conflicts between Europeans and Mexican natives. Albala 2012 compares Mexico’s culinary history, key ingredients, and cooking tools with those of China and Italy. Janer 2008 offers a broad overview of the foods of all the different Latino groups in the United States, along with chapters on foods for special occasions, eating out, etc. Gabaccia 1998 provides a broad discussion of ethnic foods in the United States, while Anderson 2005 discusses how to define cuisines by nationality or region and makes references to the exchange of food and culinary traditions that has historically taken place between the United States and Mexico.

  • Albala, Ken. Three World Cuisines: Italian, Mexican, Chinese. Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2012.

    Albala discusses the parallel culinary histories of Italy, Mexico, and China. While Latino cuisine in the United States is not the focus of his work, Albala’s study provides important historical background to understanding the contributions of Mexico to global cuisine today. He briefly discusses the incorporation and adaptation of Mexican cuisine into mainstream American cuisine in the final decades of the 20th century.

  • Anderson, E. N. Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

    Anderson’s study, particularly the chapter “Foods and Borders,” (chapter 12, pp. 186–208) discusses defining cuisines by nationalities or even regions and the value of food in representing the identities of ethnic groups. He analyzes the development of the United States’ culinary landscape and the influence of the United States-Mexico border on this evolution and discusses why Mexicans in California have preserved their culinary culture for centuries.

  • Gabaccia, Donna. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    Discusses how food choices reflect American consumers’ evolving identities, how Americans are willing to “eat the other,” (p. 9) as well as the history and development of popular ethnic foods, such as Tex-Mex, and early entrepreneurs of these foods.

  • Janer, Zilkia. Latino Food Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008.

    Janer provides a broad historical overview of the diverse Latino groups; their presence in the United States; and their cuisine, including Mexican, Caribbean Latino, Central American, and South American. She includes chapters on major ingredients, eating out, diet and health, and special occasions, as well as a useful glossary of terms.

  • Long-Solis, Janet, and Luis A. Vargas. Food Culture in Mexico. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005.

    Although the focus is Mexico and not the United States, this book gives a historical overview and introduces readers to the major foods and ingredients, regional differences, etc. Provides readers with a background vital to understanding Mexican cuisine in the United States.

  • Pilcher, Jeffrey. ¡Qué Vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

    Pilcher’s cultural history of food in Mexico traces the influence of gender, race, and class on food preferences from Aztec times to the present and relates cuisine to the formation of national identity. He describes the “tortilla discourse”—the colonial conflict between the Mexican natives’ use of corn and the Europeans’ use of wheat—and how that influenced regional and socioeconomic differences in Mexican cuisine.

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