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Montezuma Surfboards

Outside Montezuma Surfboards, Australia. Courtesy of Professor Jeffrey M. Pilcher.

I blame figure skaters and their Olympic Championship.

Walking into the Bell Museum Auditorium last Thursday night, I questioned why I had just paid $7 for admission. I was there for Historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher’s lecture on the Globalization of Tex-Mex cuisine.  I was late. So why were only six people in the audience?

I figured that most people were probably at home watching the Olympics. I went to the front and chose an empty row. I sat down then reconsidered the whole thing–a woman ahead of me was knitting.

But then Prof. Pilcher took the stage.  He talked about Tex-Mex with fervor. And in the course of the hour, he made good my money.

Although the scholar said it best, here’s what I gathered:

  • Mexican is one of America’s top three ethnic cuisines beside Chinese and Italian.
  • What is known as Tex-Mex emerged during the colonial period, when indigenous dishes of Mexico spread north and people adopted Texas fare. In particular, beef replaced poultry and wheat flour replaced corn flour.
  • In the early 19th century, word about Tex-Mex got around via railroad. The Alamo and the Chili Queens of San Antonio–female Mexican street vendors, mythologized as uncouth, promiscuous women–became the two primary tourist attractions in Texas.
  • Nachos arrived mid century (before then, Mexican restaurants served saltines). Around the same time, following McDonalds’ lead, Tex-Mex entered the fast food industry.
  • Taco Bell’s Glen Bell claimed to have patented the first taco fryer. Not true. The first taco fryer was patented by Mexican restaurateur Maldonado Juvencio. Here’s the patent.
  • Still, credit goes to Glenn Bell for franchising Tex-Mex. It has since circled the globe. Tex-Mex feeds Europeans, South Africans, Mongolians, Japanese, and Australians. Astronauts, too. “NASA launches tacos into outer space,” said Prof. Pilcher.

During Q&A, a woman in the audience shared a story about her travels to Scotland. She had become sick of pub food and one dreary Scottish night she found a Tex-Mex restaurant. “The place was packed with Americans,” she said.

After the lecture, I asked Prof. Pilcher where to find Tex-Mex overseas. He recommended two spots: Anahuacalli in Paris, France–“A stone’s throw away from Notre Dame”–and La Bamba Oshini (now called Hermanos) in Osaka, Japan.

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Rachel's Crew

The group in La Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua after serving over 100 patients in 8 hours at a local clinic. From left: Rachel Weigert, Kristine Anderson, Claire Campbell, Allie Ellingson, Janaki Paskaradevan, Michelle Holman.

Forget school and get to work.

That’s what my friend Rachel did last August. As a Biology Major and Spanish Studies Minor at the University of Minnesota, she led a group of fellow pre-med students to Costa Rica and Nicaragua for some valuable hands-on experience. They volunteered for two weeks at local clinics in Varablanca, Ometepe Island, and Masaya.

Their preparation? Minimal. When they arrived, they were given three hours of medical training and a short Spanish lesson.

The facilities were equally modest. The clinics were based out of churches and community centers that Rachel described as little more than “cinder-block buildings with corrugated tin roofs.”

This was no Mayo Clinic. “All we had were the basic medical supplies we brought with us, a few chairs, and some small tables,” she said. “We usually used a makeshift table as an exam table, and did pap smears on a child’s bed at a house.”

Despite the primitive surroundings, the clinics were not disorderly. Local, medically trained staff supervised Rachel’s group at each center.

“[The staff] were great at making everyone feel comfortable,” Rachel said.

I asked her if anything was particularly challenging.

“With the people, no. It was difficult to get used to the new critters, and the fact that I hadn’t brought warm clothes didn’t help—it was pretty chilly up in the mountains of Vara Blanca,” she said.

Although the students worked hard, they also got to play. On days off, the group toured churches and cities, shopped co-ops, swam lagoons and volcanic springs, and zip-lined through the jungle. Some even bungee jumped.

Part of what inspires students to ditch their schooling and volunteer abroad is the chance to test themselves in the field. Rachel forwarded me a few pages from her journal. On August 11th, she wrote:

I just remembered that this was the day that I gave my first injection. It was a diclofenac sodium in the butt for a guy who had severe sciatic nerve pain. I also placed acupuncture needles and removed them. The whole experience was really cool, and I learned a lot about how to give an injection (insert needle, pull up a little to see if there’s blood, inject, remove at a 90 degree angle, and apply pressure.) In the end the patient said that his back felt, “superbueno” which made me feel great.*

Rachel organized the trip through Volunteers for Intercultural and Definitive Adventures (VIDA), a non-profit humanitarian volunteer program that is not affiliated with the University. “There are hundreds of websites where you can find trips similar to this,” she said. “But I searched for months and this was by far the most flexible and affordable. And you didn’t have to speak Spanish to go.”

*Correction: On March 3rd, this quote read “Docusate Sodium,” which is a stool softener. The patient was actually given “Diclofenac Sodium,” an analgesic.

Thirteen students of North Central College, Illinois traveled to Guatemala to learn a little more about that ubiquitous morning brew—coffee. Their project Mission Coffee Can (MCC) will begin airing a video series February 24th that documents the students’ research and experience.

As part of the Students in Free Enterprise competition, MCC’s pitch is to study sustainable business practices in the coffee industry. The students participate in all stages of the coffee bean’s life cycle, from sowing to harvesting, processing to roasting, grinding to brewing. In the end, they’ll know the recipe for a good cup of coffee.

Whether it’s a fix for neurotics, a tonic for sleep-wrecks, or a rite for adherents of the café cult, coffee is custom. Generalizations aside, I’ll add that students and coffee go hand in hand. I confess to my own dependency. Without coffee, both morning and I would remain amiss. There’s no pride in this condition, but I sip solidarity each week on campus where I pass multitudes of others bearing to-go cups.

The coffee industry must be keen on this too, given the proportionate number of cafés on and around campus:

If you savor coffee, a trip south to research the roots, like the MCC project, is a worthy cause. For those interested, the U of M’s Learning Abroad Center offers a similar coffee program in Costa Rica.