MESQUITE, nopal, maguey, wild maize: These were some of the foods eaten in Mexico 9,000 years ago by nomadic people. Then came squash, chiles, avocados, guava, cultivated maize and beans, the foods of sedentary people. The Aztecs made tlaxcalli (the Nahuatl name for what is now called tortillas). The Aztecs, Mayans and Incas ate salsa. The foods of the nomads gave way to pozole and masa and tamales. The Spaniards brought wheat and rice, cattle, pigs, sheep and sugar cane.
According to "The Oxford Companion to Food," tamales were actually pre-Columbian, but dishes like pozole and tamales still have some of their Aztec mystery. Burritos and tacos, which according to many food researchers were first introduced in the U.S. in the early 1930s at El Cholo on Western Avenue, have a different glamour (perhaps a little of the cowboy big-screen stardust). Tortillas ... well, they seem the province of women: mothers and daughters and grandmothers and that rhythmic, repetitive labor that bound them together.
Here in Los Angeles, the variety once typical of Mexican food (from the Sonoran Desert to the tropical forests) is represented better than anywhere else in the country -- except maybe Texas. Yet if Texas can claim the controversial mix of Spanish, Mexican and Anglo food first called Tex-Mex in the 1940s, it is in L.A. that Mexican food became comfort food. Here, you can eat Oaxacan or Yucatan or regional dishes from Veracruz. You can eat at elegant restaurants or at trucks pulled up on busy side streets. Even the beans are a placeholder in a larger memory. Refried beans, wrote Diana Kennedy in her 1972 classic, "The Cuisines of Mexico," actually translates as "well-fried beans," beans that are cooked and then fried and treated with respect.
These days, you can find Mexican food everywhere, in chains such as Taco Bell as well as restaurants in cities, that are thousands of miles north of Mexico. We eat burritos as if they're hamburgers; Mexican food has been that Americanized. But it is useful to remember that buried in the beans and rice (even in the Taco Bell in upstate New York) is something smoky from the primal childhood, the mesquite, the dark cactus, the dangerous deep green of the chiles, the mythic fire.