Netflix's Taco Chronicles is deliciously predictable
It's a food documentary that hits all the familiar beats. And it sends an unavoidably political message in the process.
Food documentaries are predictable. You will see a meal expertly prepared in seconds; all the hours of labor that go into a dish will be evoked, but also compressed into a few tastefully shot jump-cuts. You will be told stories about the food's history and cultural meaning — how the Lebanese Shawarma came to Mexico and became the taco al pastor, for example — that make eating a simple meal feel like a journey in time and space. And you will visit with specific chefs or restaurants, whose personal stories will imbue the meal with a story and meaning. It's the same way good restaurants are predictable, because they employ the same expertly-Pavlovian techniques to make you want their food. One does not simply "taste" a dish, after all, something a variety of neuroscientists have shown, but which every cook or waiter already knew: telling stories about food — and putting on a show — utterly shapes the entire experience and joy of eating, and does so at an inescapably basic level.
We eat stories as much as we eat fuel made from plants and animals. Context is everything: tell a different story about two identical meals, or alter the presentation, or even eat them at a different time or place, and what happens in your gustatory cortex will be completely different.
Pablo Cruz's Las Crónicas del Taco — which Netflix presents and subtitles in English as Taco Chronicles — is predictable, delivering exactly what it promises to. And it will make you hungry for tacos. In six episodes, you will travel to a variety of taquerias, from fine-dining establishments to street carts to humble home kitchens, and everywhere in between. Interlaced with brief cartoons about history — and some gloriously over-the-top segments in which the taco itself becomes the narrator — each episode explores a specific taco and tells a story about the region in Mexico it comes from (or where it is best known): the tacos al pastor of Mexico City, Michoacán's carnitas, the bicycles that deliver tacos de canasta in Tlaxcala and elsewhere, carne asada in Sonora, Hidalgo's barbacoa, and a nation-wide tacos de guisados. Each episode has a personality and a mood, from the luxurious carnitas and melting barbacoa to the hard-working bicycle-driven canasta and the dusty ranches and open flames of carne asada. The final taco, the guisado, becomes Cruz's rhapsodic ode to the glorious stew of Mexican history's many ingredients.
There's a lot of information, and there are a lot of tacos. (There are so many tacos!) But you won't get full. While the gut-busting exploits of Javier Cabral, the show's "taco scout," apparently included as many as 16 or 17 tacos a day, you will gorge yourself on the sounds and sights without ever losing your appetite. One taquero declares, with relish, that the "gluttony of Mexicans" is "interminable," but the subtitles translate interminable as "endless": in Spanish, this cognate doesn't have the wearisome connotations of its English false friend. Indeed, if Las Crónicas del Taco has one thing to say about tacos, it's that tacos are the meal that never needs to end (and that friendship and gluttony taste great together).
Predictability invites parody. In "Juan Likes Rice & Chicken," from the second season of Documentary Now!, a remote Colombian eatery serving only chicken and rice is treated with the same reverence — the same high-definition, slow-motion shots of food preparation over swelling classical music and rave reviews from talking-head chefs and food critics — as David Gelb's Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the documentary it satirizes, and whose follow-up, Chef's Table, is a clear influence on Las Crónicas del Taco. It's a perfect sendup. High in the tropical mountains, 40 miles from the nearest road, Juan's exacting standards for the simplest of dishes are excessive, ludicrous — on days when the quality of the chicken doesn't measure up, he only serves rice — as are the rhapsodies Jonathan Gold and David Chang deliver on Juan's humble fare. And yet I dare you to watch "Juan Likes Rice & Chicken" and not, deep down, want to eat Juan's rice and chicken. You can parody the mode of presentation all you want, but your mouth and stomach will feel things about the food that the more "rational" parts of your brain can't touch. You might know that it's parody, that it's ridiculous; you will still want to eat that rice and chicken. Taste reveals things about you — the stories you tell about yourself, deep down — that you can hide, but never erase.
Context is everything. Though the debate rages on, a taco isn't a sandwich — no matter how structurally identical they might be — because of the stories we tell that make mere food into a meal. But just as tacos could never just be a tortilla, salsa, and a filling, how — in a country building a wall, concentration camps, and an ever-more xenophobic culture war against the specter of Mexicans in particular — could a show like Las Crónicas del Taco ever just be about tacos? Even "tacos" can't just be tacos. The taco is a profoundly political sandwich in this country, and not only since "a taco truck on every corner" became a meme in 2016, or Trump tweeted the world's most unappetizing taco salad. The hunger we estadounidenses have for Mexican food is a perfect expression of the United States' addiction to the labor and consumption of our number one trading partner. "You may not like the Mexican," as Gustavo Arellano has observed, "but you sure love Mexican food."
In the face of a president whose monstrousness is beyond parody — who has proved so immune to irony and satire — what relief can a taco give? What retort can a documentary make? His name is never mentioned, because of course the story of Mexicans in America — and in Mexico itself, "so far from God and so close to the United States!" as Porfirio Díaz once said — didn't start and won't end with him. And it does no justice to Las Crónicas del Taco's passion for its subject to make it into a response to "El hombre del peluquín."
Even so, I can't help but watch it and think about the choice Pablo Cruz offers us, now that his Spanish-language documentary has come to Netflix in English. There is no witty response to the Americans who hate Mexicans for reasons only they will ever know, no irony and no parody; there is no interest in them at all. Instead, in its uncynical sentimentality and gloriously over-the-top full-throated embrace of every parodic excess of Mexican gustatorial culture it can think of, there is only a wholehearted invitation: to feel, to welcome, to honor, and above all, to taste something deeper and truer than fear and hate.