American Plate - Bite #99: Salsa

Thursday, June 11, 2015
Very few of the Bites that comprise this project exist in a vacuum. Sure, there isn't much to connect Ginger Carrot Soup to the other entries, but most of these foods and drinks link quite naturally to at least one of the others, if not a big group of them. So, since the entry on Tostadas wasn't too long ago, it should come as no surprise that Salsa isn't far behind. With Cinco de Mayo still visible in our rearview mirrors, we're at the high point of the year as far as my salsa consumption.

Talking about it as if it's one homogenous product is a mistake, though. "Salsa" literally translates as "sauce" in Spanish, and obviously, there are about a bazillion kinds of sauces besides chunked up tomatoes with some cilantro in it. Ever enjoyed the smoky richness of a mole sauce? That's salsa. The summery freshness of corn mixed with beans and fruits? Salsa. The pungent mixture of avocados, garlic, and feta? Salsa.

Salsa has endless variations that are constantly being updated, so it's no accident that the aspect of American culture that this Bite represents in the book has to do with shifting demographics. Back in 1992, the New York Times reported that for the first time, people were buying more salsa than ketchup in the United States. There was some debate about the mathematics, given that ketchup and salsa are sold in different forms and quantities, but there was no arguing that Americans spent more than $100 million more dollars on salsa than ketchup. Naturally, this kicked up a lot of jingoistic hand-wringing about 'Murica and dem gosh-durned immigants coming to steal our jerbs.

Buried in that bigotry is the kernel of an interesting debate, though. What, exactly, is American food? My podcast partner and I tackled the idea of Patriotic Food in Episode 7 of Four Courses, but we only had time to barely scratch the surface. To my mind, there's nothing more American than welcoming all the cuisines of the world with open arms, and incorporating the best aspects of other countries' dishes into our own lives. Who could eat better than a country that embraces the fish dishes of Asia, the cheeses of Europe, and the sauces of the southern parts of the Americas? Nobody, that's who.

Let's get back to that general idea of tomato salsa, though. Unlike most Americans, I'm historically not a huge fan of salsa. I never buy it at the grocery store, and generally ignored it on restaurant tables up until just a few years ago. I'm always looking for ways to expand my culinary universe, though, and re-embracing salsa seemed like a natural step. This project certainly helped to kick experimentation with different restaurants' salsa recipes into high gear, too.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the results. Gone is the cheapass, leftover tomato gunk. Restaurants have realized that having a interesting salsa that someone put some actual thought into can give them a stamp of identity that customers latch onto. I've heard more than one recommendation for a place based just on the salsa that lands on the table before a single menu item has been ordered. Just look at the rainbow of colors and various textures of the salsas I've gotten recently in the pic above. Even though it's been popular for a long time, it seems like salsa has only recently gone through a creative resurgence.

And why wouldn't it? Salsa is one of the most adaptable Bites of the entire project. It can be smooth or chunky. Sweet or salty. Refreshingly cool or shockingly spicy. Imitating another country's approach to food is somewhat symbolic of welcoming their citizens into our nest, and that's one of the things I love about the USA. Much like salsa itself, America is an infinite variety of different mixtures, and we're all the better for it.