- Tortillas, Tiswin, and T-Bones: A Food History of the Southwest by Gregory McNamee
Gregory McNamee, a highly prolific author, publishes about the American Southwest with both popular and scholarly presses. Tortillas, Tiswin, & T-Bones shows the influence of both types of studies on his telling of history. The book provides a sweeping look at southwestern food, from pre-history to the future, from Texas to California, in slightly more than two hundred pages. McNamee defines the Southwest as “anywhere Mexican influence is primary . . . and where three cultures meet in roughly equal measure: Hispanic, Native American, and Anglo-American” (xi).
McNamee begins with the earliest peopling of the Southwest and includes a tongue-in-cheek recipe for roast mastodon and a chat about whether mastodons should be brought back from extinction from their DNA. In this fashion, similar discussions throughout the book weave together deep history, humor, and contemporary issues. He proceeds chronologically through his first chapters, blending Native American legend with detailed discussions of proteins and grains as well as personal reminiscences of eating in New York. An eyewitness account by Bernardino de Sahagún from about 1530 illustrates the foundational use of corn, beans, squash, and chiles. McNamee spices his account of Spanish settlement with several recipes, and past and present come together in [End Page 108] his narrative of the blending of European and native foods. The chapter on Anglo settlement brings a lengthy discussion of Daniel Boone and the frontier thesis as well as the influence of foods such as biscuits from the American South. California opens the door for musings about water shortages, Luther Burbank, and the railroad. A chapter on African Americans continues the introduction of traditionally southern foods into the region. Jews, Lebanese, Greeks, Germans, and Czechs all brought specialties from their homes. Asian Americans, of course, figured prominently into the settlement of the Pacific West, and the chapter on them discusses Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Indian foods, with recipes for pineapple salsa and California rolls.
Fritos, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell are but three of the topics in the chapter on corporate food. Southwestern-created drinks can be fermented (wine), distilled (tequila), brewed (beer), or carbonated and bottled (Dr Pepper). The titular tiswin is a drink fermented from boiled corn with a little sweetener, the formula for which came from Mexico. The book concludes with the idea that the ethnic diversity and fusion of southwestern foods will continue into the future, exemplified by a recipe for hummus made from white beans by the Tohono O’odham for a restaurant in Arizona.
Documentation is limited to a short list of sources for each chapter. The author promises that his web site, www.ancientsouthwest.com, will offer news related to the book, but at this writing it is limited to a link to the book at a huge online retailer. Despite the centrality of ethnicity, the book is relatively free of discussions of conflict, and gender is completely absent. In the final analysis, Tortillas, Tiswin, and T-Bones likely does what the author intends: it introduces the reader to the food of the Southwest in a lively, readable style. It tells what happened to a point and leaves out questions of why it mattered. Readers wanting more in-depth information and analysis will need to look elsewhere.