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The Americas 60.3 (2004) 411-429



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Fajitas and the Failure of Refrigerated Meatpacking in Mexico:
Consumer Culture and Porfirian Capitalism

Jeffrey M. Pilcher

Tourists who visit a Mexican market to observe a butcher at work will readily notice the difference between the material cultures of meat in Mexico and the United States. Instead of thick, neatly cut steaks, wrapped in clear plastic, they will find butterflied strips of meat, corre-sponding to no known part of a cow, sawed with ragged edges but remarkable thinness, and hung on hooks and rods. Thick slabs called suadero might be steak except for the checkerboards carved across the front, and seemingly random chunks of retazo complete the baroque display of craftsmanship. Although of little use in making Anglo-American roasts or steaks, these cuts are ideal for such delicacies as carne asada (grilled meat) and mole de olla (chili pepper stew). Indeed, fajitas—skirt steak pounded thin and marinated, then seared quickly on a hot fire, and served with salsa and fresh tortillas—are nothing more than a Tex-Mex version of the standard method of cooking and eating beef in Mexico. Moreover, the differences between U.S. supermarket meat counters and Mexican artisanal market displays extend beyond national culinary preferences to reflect the historical growth of industrial supply chains. Indeed, meat provides a case study demonstrating the significance of consumer culture in shaping the development of Mexican capitalism during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911).

Livestock has been a vital sector of the Mexican economy ever since the Spanish conquest, but Porfirian businessmen faced significant challenges in tapping that wealth to support industrialization. The phenomenal spread of European cattle and sheep across Mexico, and the resulting ecological devastation of the indigenous agrarian economy, is a well-known story. 1 Despite [End Page 411] the gradual recovery of staple grain production in the central highlands, a late colonial estimate still valued livestock markets at about half of New Spain's agricultural consumption or 30 percent of total economic activity. 2 Yet beef was primarily consumed fresh because of the inferiority of its dried product, some excellent regional versions of tasajo and cecina notwithstanding. Unlike pork, which takes well to curing because of the shorter, less dense muscle fibers and the distribution of fat throughout the flesh, beef is rendered hard and tasteless by the process of salting and drying. As a result, vaqueros in northern Mexico, with scant local markets, often slaughtered cattle for their valuable hides and left the meat to rot. 3

In the late 1860s, Swift & Company of Chicago finally solved the dilemma of supplying fresh beef to rapidly growing urban markets through refrigerated meatpacking plants and railroad cars. By the early 1880s, industrial packers had created a continental market linking cattle ranges in the great western plains, recently conquered from Mexico and from Native Americans, with consumers in the eastern United States. About the turn of the century, Argentina likewise adopted refrigerated technology to tap the enormous potential of the pampas by shipping chilled beef to England. 4

Mexico failed to effect a similar transformation of its livestock industry because of the confluence of domestic and international markets. The most favorable cattle range, in the north, became integrated with markets across the Rio Grande rather than with cities in central Mexico. This commercial relationship developed in a dependent fashion in which Mexican stockmen assumed the greatest risks by raising calves while allowing U.S. feedlot operators the bulk of the profit from selling the mature animals. 5 Cattle markets in the lower two-thirds of the country—the focus of this essay—had even greater scope for modernization, but adopting refrigeration to the domestic market meant reconciling Anglo-American preferences for aged [End Page 412] beef with Mexican demands for the freshest possible meat. Even consumers in the North Atlantic world had rejected the taste of refrigerated meat at first, and only an overwhelming cost advantage assured the transition to a refrigerated supply system. 6 Consumer tastes gradually adjusted, compensating for...

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