Interview

Gustavo Arellano Pushes A Few Buttons

The OC Weekly columnist breaks down the trend of “Columbusing” in the culinary world, before explaining why that “door close” elevator button is just for your mental health.

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Normally during Small Talk, we have a newshound share their favorite under-the-radar story. For our show at the Now Hear This podcast festival, we welcomed to the stage one of the most delightful bomb-throwers in Southern California journalism — Gustavo Arellano.

He’s the publisher and editor of the OC Weekly. Gustavo is also the writer of the nationally syndicated column, “Ask a Mexican” and author of the book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food conquered America.”

Interview highlights:

On how the subject of his recent column on hipsters “Columbusing” Mexican food came up

Gustavo Arellano: The thing that’s set up immediately was, in Dallas, there’s a huge controversy over some hipsters in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, which historically, African-American, Latino, and now gentrified like crazy. [The hipsters are] selling corn, corn from carts and Spanish elotes.

Fresh hot mexican street corn on grill.

So, they did this whole Instagram post saying, “Yeah, you know, we do the real deal, not like those roachin’ ass carts all over the place in Dallas.” Huge, huge controversy.

But what struck me was that some people were saying that it’s fundamentally wrong for white people to cook Mexican food. And I don’t think that’s a problem at all. I think, “Hey, white people are nice. They can cook food. Sure, good for them. Why not?”

But the problem comes when you start seeing these people saying, “Not only are we going to cook your ethnic cuisine, but we’re going to do it better than you.”

And this whole year has been, like, the year of Columbusing, really. Earlier, you had Bon Appétit — they had a video… it was a white chef from Philly with a headline saying, “We Going to Show You How to Cook Pho” — the Vietnamese soup — “The Right Way!”

Are you [going] to tell me that a white guy from Philly knows more than the people here in Little Saigon in Orange County? And so, I just wanted to make that point, like, “Look, white folks. You can cook our food! You can cook all food. Just don’t be Columbusing dicks about it.”

On a personal “Columbusing” experience he used for the column

Gustavo Arellano: So, the example that I had in my story was: I was talking to someone, and they wanted to sell paletas — Mexican popsicles. And they said, “Yeah, we’re going to do paletas just like Mexicans do, but we’re going to do it better. We’re going to use organic fruit, and we’re going to use real fruit.” This assumption that Mexicans don’t use real fruit.

And I said, “Look, no. You are telling me that the people who sell nieves and paletas don’t use fruit?” Like, “Let me bring you over to these places, and you’re going to see all this organic, fresh fruit… You think you’re all so cool with trying to make, ‘Oh, you know, we’re going to do goat cheese and this.’ Well, this paletero makes blackberry and goat cheese, but he doesn’t have an Instagram account saying that he invented this.”

On his “long-standing beef” with Chef Rick Bayless

Rico Gagliano: Give us an example of how we could do this without being “Columbusing dicks.” How does one go about that?

Gustavo Arellano: Let’s take two famous white chefs when it comes to Mexican food. You have Rick Bayless. And then, you have the Too Hot Tamales: Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.

Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, from the start — Border Grill, legendary restaurant in Santa Monica just closed. They’re like, “Look, we’re two white girls. We love Mexican food, and we’re going to cook it.” Rick Bayless, on the other hand, you see him, he passes himself off as white Jesus for us dumb Mexicans.

gustavo

I’ve had long-standing beef with Rick. Like me and my good friend Bill Esparza. Like epic… There was another problem with Rick. He was saying that people have a problem with him because he’s a white man cooking Mexican food, and the headline for that story was: “The Problem Isn’t Rick Bayless Being a White Man Cooking Mexican Food. It’s That He’s a Thin-Skinned Diva.”

Once, Jonathan Gold, the legendary food critic for the Los Angeles Times, he was doing a lecture for a group of journalists. And he was talking about how Rick Bayless had just come to Los Angeles, and he was consulting on a new restaurant, and Rick literally said, “I was interested in opening up a restaurant in Southern California to show folks here what the true flavors of Mexican food are.” [Ed note: you can watch the Rick Bayless interview in question here.]

And Jonathan lightly challenged him on it. I wrote about it, published it on Sunday afternoon. I didn’t think anyone would care. The very first comment? Rick Bayless himself. Not only that, he called Jonathan Gold a liar. You might as well throw elephant dung at the Virgen de Guadalupe, if you’re going to desecrate someone of that seniority! And it went on from that. So, Rick Bayless, total Columbuser; Too Hot Tamales, not Columbusers at all.

On why the “door close” button in an elevator are pointless

Brendan Francis Newnam: You do have a Small Talk story for us. So, what under-the-radar-ish story are you going to be talking about this week?

Gustavo Arellano: The Daily Mail or one of those British tabloids [has a story] about how, when you go to an elevator, you know how you have to press the “Door Open” or “Door Closed”? That, apparently, they don’t really work. It’s a placebo.

They are not operational at all. But I do… I’m a Mexican, so we make a sport out of going to stop signs and just, like, clicking it as fast as possible, as much as possible, and it does work. It does work.

Rico Gagliano: So, you just don’t buy this?

Gustavo Arellano: Of course not.

Rico Gagliano: I mean, I guess it’s the British tabloid, so…

Gustavo Arellano: It’s the British tabloids. It’s News of the World. They’re all Murdoch operations, anyway. We all know how truthful Murdoch operations are.

Rico Gagliano: So, basically, the story you brought us, you believe is a lie.

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, thank you [all laugh].
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]