The taco that ate Sweden
WHENEVER migrants cross the globe, they generally take their favorite recipes with them. That’s how Frankfurt got its kebab stands and Philadelphia its pizza joints. That’s why in every corner of the planet there are Chinese restaurants that serve fried rice.
Of course, recipes generally don’t survive such journeys unchanged. In their new homelands, migrants encounter new cooking conditions and ingredients and unaccustomed taste buds. Local health department regulations prohibit cooks in L.A. from preparing Peking duck the way it’s done in Beijing. Rampant globalization notwithstanding, we generally don’t expect our favorite dishes to taste the same in Bangkok as they do in Cape Town.
Still, I wasn’t fully prepared for the Swedish taco craze. For one thing, there don’t seem to be too many Mexicans here.
You see, here -- as in other parts of Europe -- Mexican food was not brought over by Mexicans at all. Rather, it was introduced by American TV shows and movies. That explains why there’s a “Gringo Special” on the menu at the Taco Bar, a Swedish fast-food chain, and why nearly all the Mexican products in the grocery stores -- “Taco Sauce,” “Taco Spice Mix” and “Guacamole Dip” -- are labeled in English.
Most of the grocery sections in major European department stores sell Mexican food products made by Old El Paso, a division of General Mills, the same company that brings you Cheerios and Hamburger Helper. The hard taco shells and bland salsa are processed and unmistakably American.
But in the grocery section in the Ahlens City department store in central Stockholm, you’ll find Old El Paso competing with Swedish companies -- Santa Maria and the cheaper store brand El Dorado -- that also make their Mexican food the processed American way.
As you go down the escalator to the basement, you can’t help but see the big “Tacos” sign hanging from the ceiling. The Mexican aisle is by far the largest part of the ethnic food section. Indeed, according to a recent market research study, Sweden is now the highest per capita consumer of Mexican food in Europe. That’s why in 2001, the Nordfalks spice company changed its name to Santa Maria, after its most successful brand.
“I would wager that every family in Sweden has tacos at least once a month, and maybe a third eats them every week,” Anne Skoogh, a local food blogger, told me. “It’s a Friday night come-home-from-work-relax-thing,” she said. “It’s really popular.”
Having spent a year of high school as an exchange student in Long Beach, Skoogh says Taco Bell is one of the things she misses most about life in the States. She says Swedes are under no illusion that the items they so enjoy bear any resemblance to the food most Mexicans eat. “People here don’t think of tacos as Mexican as much as they think they are American,” she said, “probably because their only concept of Mexico comes from American movies. I think the products are in English because the makers want you to feel that this is cool, new and American.”
I walked into a Taco Bar on Kungsgatan, one of the principal drags here, and ordered a single taco for 19 kronor -- the equivalent of $2.62. Packed with young people, the place was decorated like a Southwestern cantina with the “No Smoking” signs painted on the walls in English. My meal evoked a Taco Bell in Burbank; the filling tasted like a spaghetti meat sauce with chopped lettuce.
But, heck, at least it was vaguely Mexican-inspired. Back in Berlin, I had just missed a late summer McDonald’s promotion called Los Wochos, a play on the German word for week (woche). A video ad on the Kurfurstendamm featured blond kids wearing sombreros selling “Big Jalapenos,” which turned out to be hamburgers with cheese, Jalapenos and spicy sauce.
MY FIRST reaction to this hijacking of Mexican culture was to shake my head and think of that old saw, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” But then I remembered Pat Buchanan’s warnings about Mexico invading the U.S. and Mexican culture undermining American institutions. It suddenly became clear to me that this was actually yet another case of Mexicans exploiting U.S. corporations as part of their devious plan for global cultural dominance.
Today Stockholm and Berlin, tomorrow the world.