Buds taste salsa and so sample Hispanic culture

HAPPY EATER

October 18, 1992|By ROB KASPER

Tucson -- Experts agree that the surge of popularity of salsa -- a sauce usually made with chilies, tomatoes, lime juice, cilantro and onions -- is evidence of the increasing culinary clout of Hispanics in the United States.

And a recent report on the nation's condiments reported that when the salsa category was widened to include every red peppery sauce, it outsold ketchup. Moreover, according to the Census Bureau, Hispanics had the largest numerical gain among the country's ethnic groups.

Ever anxious to taste a trend, I took my pencil and my appetite to Tucson, a city with a strong Hispanic flavor and good food.

There I met with Dr. James Griffith, director of the Southwest Folklore Center on the University of Arizona campus. Not only was Griffith versed in the culture of the region, he also was the only researcher I knew of who had studied salsa labels.

As Griffith explained it, there are three types of salsa labels. First there were those designed for eaters in Mexico. Then there were labels appealing to Mexican Americans and long-term residents of the area. And finally there were those labels aimed at novice salsa eaters.

We met in Griffith's office. The labels of salsa sold in Mexico, he said, lifting up a can, were straightforward. The artwork on the labels was designed to show the ingredients. The printing was in Spanish. There were no serving suggestions. People who bought this salsa, he said, knew what to do with it. They use salsa as often as Americans use ketchup.

The second group of salsas had labels that emphasized a familiarity with Mexico, he said. He lifted up a simple bottle with a brown label, showing an image of a Mexican woman, the central figure in the region's labor-intensive cuisine. The language on these labels was in English, but again there were few claims made. This second group of labels, Griffith said, was often found in groceries frequented by Mexican Americans.

And finally there were what Griffith called the "Southwestern lifestyle" salsas. These salsas would have images of anything Southwestern, from cactus to cowboys, on their labels. They were often ripe with instructions on how to serve salsa. One salsa claimed to be biodegradable. These labels, he said, were aimed at Americans who were venturing into the new world of Southwestern flavors. There were sold in a variety of stores.

Griffith was careful to make observations, not judgments, about salsa labels. But some images on the labels bothered him. One showing a sleeping man leaning on a cactus conjured up old stereotypes, he said, of "lazy Mexicans."

And when another label showed a kachina, a Hopi spiritual being, on the label, he shook his head in amusement. A kachina, he said, had nothing to do with salsa.

Overall, he said, the Mexican-style labels treated salsa-eating as an everyday event, while the American labels treated salsa-eating as an event in the new Southwestern lifestyle package.

As for the flavor differences among the three, Griffith said he didn't know. When he wanted salsa, he made his own. (Later I did a small amount of tasting and concluded that the Southwestern lifestyle salsas seemed to play up one ingredient -- often the chilies -- while Mexican-American salsas had rounder, fresher flavors.)

Having finished the note-taking part of my research, I was ready to move onto the next phase, lunch. We went to El Minuto, a small restaurant in downtown Tucson.

There was salsa, homemade. I loaded some on corn chips. It was terrific, moist, flavorful, faintly fiery. It didn't have a label. It was just sitting in a stainless steel cup in the middle of the table. I had flat Sonoran cakes made of masa, cheese and chilies. I had flour tortillas that were almost big enough to cover the table.

It was magnificent fare, with both strong and subtle flavors.

Then I got brave and had the menudo. Menudo is a soup. It is made of cow parts and hominy. It has been described variously as "a rite of passage" or "cow guts and popcorn."

When the bowl of soup was put in front of me I realized its aroma was heavy on "cow parts." I took a big spoonful. The flavor was heavy on the hominy. I liked it.

Now that I am back home, I miss that food. I will be glad if, as predicted, the wave of Hispanic flavors sweeps into American kitchens. Salsa in lifestyle labels is already creeping northward. Tortilla factories in the Southwest are having trouble keeping up with demand.

But some regional dishes travel more slowly. It will take a while for menudo to replace chicken noodle as America's lunch-time fare. No matter how much salsa, or even ketchup, you put in it.

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