While I was growing up in a small city in southern Ontario in the 1970s, “tacos” were one of my favourite foods. My mother often made them for my birthday. We would buy a taco-making kit that included crispy corn “tortillas” that had to be heated in the oven before eating, a (very mild) spice packet that was added to ground beef cooked in sliced onion, and a mild salsa (sauce). The latter was dribbled over the “tacos” once they were filled with the cooked meat, chopped tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and grated orange cheddar cheese.
Today I recognise that these crunchy, mild and fat-filled little parcels have little to do with tacos served in Mexico. In fact, they were a home–cooked version of the fast food tacos created by Mexican Americans in the years after World War Two, which later spread across the United States and Canada as part of the growing consumerist trend towards convenient and “ethnic” foods.
When I first travelled to Mexico as an adult I quickly learned that tacos, a ubiquitous street food dished out on corners from small stalls, are made with soft tortillas, served with different meats, and topped with various vegetable condiments and an array of (mostly hot) salsas. On later trips, I was delighted to discover a whole range of taco stalls and small restaurants in Mexico City serving tacos made with seitan and tofu. These vegan eateries made travelling easier and much more fun.
I have sometimes heard it said of middle-class vegan tourists that we are ungrateful if we turn down animal-based food while travelling. This jibe was famously made by the late television chef Anthony Bourdain, who accused vegans and vegetarians of being “rude” for refusing to accept the generosity of hosts who share their food. The charge that vegans are ungrateful or culturally insensitive when we do not eat meat, fish, dairy and eggs while travelling is an example of what some call the vegan “Gotcha!” moment, when someone tries to identify all the potential contradictions or hypocrisies of practising veganism. The travel “Gotcha!” moment is based on an omnivore fantasy: that by eating everything they are offered, meat-eating tourists are participating in “authentic” local culture. What these people often forget is that the tourist industry helps to determine what food is sold as “authentic” in the first place.
The geographers Gino Jafet Quintero Vallegas and Alvaro López López make this point in their study of tourism and cabrito (kid meat) in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey. Cabrito is often marketed as the typical local dish, even though the historical delicacy is expensive and inaccessible to most of the city’s inhabitants. Because tourists often suspend their everyday habits and even their ethics while travelling, abiding by the injunction “when in Rome,” they may not concern themselves with the welfare of the goats (treated in a way comparable to veal calves in Europe). This is an example of what the authors call the “widespread practice” of marketing animal-based dishes in popular Mexican tourist destinations.
Another thing many tourists to Mexico may not be aware of is that Mexico is home to a vibrant and very active animal rights or “anti-specieist” movement. On my last trip to Mexico City, in early 2018, I met a number of vegan activists, involved in projects from anti–bullfighting campaigns and protecting feral cat colonies, to protesting against slaughterhouses and challenging the impact of colonialism on contemporary Mexican eating habits. Much of the food sold in Mexico today reflects the country’s history of colonisation, whether the first wave (Spanish rice, beef, and pork) or the second (American McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Starbucks). David Peña-Guzman calls this legacy “(t)he dinner table as colonial and neo-colonial reenactment.”
One project resisting this reenactment is El Molcajete — which takes its name from the Spanish word for mortar and pestle — set up by the organisation Faunacción (Animal Action). I was fortunate to attend the inauguration of the El Molcajete food van, where I was served plant-based tamales — a dish made from corn meal normally stuffed with meat, vegetables and/or cheese — and pambazo, a popular sandwich-like street food. El Molcajete combines animal rights activism with food justice and anticolonialism. Its remit is to repopularise the use of PreHispanic Mexican foods — corn, beans, squashes, cactus, chillies — as part of a struggle against animal abuse, poor human health and economic inequalities. Its volunteers provide free and accessible cooking classes, pop–up food book libraries, food samples and artwork aimed primarily at Mexico City’s poorest communities.
Projects like El Molcajete challenge the idea that the popular Mexican diet is based on meat, eggs and cheese, and that veganism is for tourists only. Since meeting vegan activists in Mexico City I’ve tried to be more imaginative when looking for food I can eat when I travel. Now I research and try to seek out local plant-based foods and traditional dishes that may have been traditionally plant-based, even if they have changed over the years because of histories of colonialism, globalisation or tourism.
Sharing plant-based foods based on pre-Hispanic recipes with animal rights activists in Mexico has also made me think differently about “Mexican” food back home. I ask myself why, like my yummy but highly Canadianised childhood “tacos,” most of the items on menus in Mexican restaurants in London contain pork, chicken, beef, eggs or cheese. Thankfully there are Mexicans and Mexican Americans out there in cyberland putting us straight with great plant-based Mexican food and facts. And as much as I enjoy the odd seitan taco, my favourite Mexican foods don’t rely on imitation meat. So I look forward to the day when my local “Mexican” restaurants ditch the pork tacos and chicken burritos and start serving up feasts of corn tortillas, black beans, plantains, avocado and cactus salad accompanied by rich spicy salsas — and a shot of smokey mezcal, of course.
C. Lou Hamilton is a researcher and writer living in London. This piece is adapted from her forthcoming book Veganism, Sex and Politics: Tales of Danger and Pleasure published by HammerOn Press on World Vegan Day (1 November) 2019. For more tales of travel and other vegan adventures about and beyond the food chain, follow her blog: Veganism, Sex and Politics.