Gordita, or «What is real food?»

Taco Bell gorditas are real, just not traditional

(This post was published originally on Everything2)

Bozon writes (emphasis mine):

Whatever food product you get from Taco Bell which may be called a gordita is not really a gordita.

No, no, no. Let’s go back.

In mathematics the notions of «real number» and «imaginary number» confuse people into thinking the former is somehow more tangible than the latter. This is one of the most unfortunate cases of technical terminology clashing with everyday language. So most mathematicians will tell you there’s two things, one of which is named «The set of Real Numbers» and the other is named «The set of Imaginary Numbers», but in colloquial use, both are equally real—or equally imaginary, if you prefer.

Let’s restate that: no matter how you define something to be «real» or «not-real», both Real numbers and Imaginary numbers will surely fall in the same category. The only exception is the mathematical definition, which isn’t contested at all.1

I’ve never been to a Taco Bell, but let’s imagine I do, for the sake of experiment. I ask the cashier for a gordita, what is most likely the next step? I imagine they will relay the order to the kitchen, tell me how much I owe for the food, take my payment and give me a gordita.

At no point in this interaction we need to define what a gordita is. Despite being a non-English word, it’s sufficiently used among the English-speaking population of America to be understood, even if we have differences in pronunciation. It’s an item on Taco Bell’s menu so that I can easily communicate what I want and they can easily give me that. I am given a tangible group of atoms that I can see, touch and taste.

I am given something that exists, by most any definition of existence. Hence, the gordita I get at Taco Bell is a real gordita and not a product of my imagination. The gordita I get is a real gordita, and not a fever dream, nor an imagination of physically impossible things. Taco Bell gorditas are real.

What Taco Bell gorditas are not is traditional.

Taco Bell prepares food in a certain way, for a certain public, with certain ingredients and with certain standards. As a franchised restaurant, they are expected to have a uniform menu across all their stores so that customers in one location can expect almost the same product no matter where they are.

Taco Bell—like all other franchised establishments—can achieve this only through a precise way of cooking their meals, often written down in manuals so that most anyone who reads them can achieve more or less the same result. This also requires very regular ingredients across stores, and so they need to preprocess some of them to ensure a regular quality.

And regular quality is what they need if they need to comply with government regulations, regarding food safety, pricing and health.2 Franchised restaurants are supposed to be a business in good standing with the authorities, lest they incur penalties from both the legal side and the business side.

Taco Bell customers, then, are free to go and ask for a gordita if that’s what they desire. I doubt there’s many customers who eat Taco Bell gorditas if they don’t actually like them.3 Their particular combination of ingredients must be appealing to some, or else they wouldn’t sell it for years and years.

None of the millions of people who have eaten a Taco Bell gordita have been handed a platonic thought. They might have received a raw gordita, a spoiled gordita, a cold gordita or a smaller-than-standard gordita. But all of them received a real gordita.

What Taco Bell gorditas are not is traditional, and by this I mean only that they have evolved quite a bit from their origin. That is a highly subjective sentence.

What do I mean with «evolved»? Well, it means they have changed in form, ingredients and preparation. I use the word «evolution» and not «deviation» because I don’t mean to imply an evolved food is somehow worse or inferior. I also use «evolution» in much the same way a biologist would, just to indicate adaptation to a new environment and not necessarily being better than its ancestry.

What do I mean with «their origin»? This one is even trickier, because it could imply there’s a single origin to gorditas, when there is not. Or maybe there is, but not in the way most would think. Here in (central) Mexico we have something called gorditas, but it’s not a single «standard» thing. Moreover, some things that we could say are «traditional» gorditas are themselves evolved from their origin!4

So, what then is a «traditional» gordita?

It’s easy to think of food as a single more-or-less the same thing. In our hyper-connected world, we can see a picture taken on the other side of the world, depicting food we’ve never seen, made with ingredients we’ve never heard of and accompanied with a recipe on how to make them.

Lots of food have thus traveled the world and cemented themselves in our communal conscience. We, the internet-connected people can conceive of a latte even if we don’t drink coffee, and our individual mental images are very similar to one another. These days, whenever a new dish is discovered—or rediscovered—it can go around the world in a matter of hours. The 2020 phenomenon of the «Dalgona coffee» is a good example: something that had existed for decades was somehow rediscovered, reimagined, reengineered, remixed and replicated around the world in a few weeks.

But that is a recent phenomenon. Having a more-or-less consistent recipe for a dish is something new. For most of history, food was very much restricted by geography, available ingredients and seasonality. Two people in the same city could make the same dish and it would still come out differently, subjected to the quality of ingredients, differences in cooking implements, and personal experience. There was no knob to turn down your fire, the most you could do was move coals around or move your kitchenware away from—or towards—the hottest part of the fire.

Food then evolved in a slower way: day by day, person by person, neighborhood by neighborhood. Just like language, one would see immensely long chains of small changes that add up to large variations in the extremes. But locally there was little variation: two vendors in the same street would sell something—say, gorditas—with virtually no differences between them.

When we talk about traditional gorditas—or traditional food in general—we tend to think of food that has more or less followed that pattern and hasn’t changed «a lot» in «long periods of time». We tend to think of non-traditional food as those that have evolved rapidly, adapted to very different environments than the ones in the past. We think of traditional food as the ones that follow the pre-industrial constraints. All of these are valid views and merit discussion.

But talking about food as being «real» or «not real» is missing the point entirely. Moreover, is casting this cultural evolution and their many children as a simplistic or non-existent process, claiming that some of its members are somehow more worthy or inherently better than others.

Food is real. Gorditas might be more similar to what is consumed in Mexico or not, but they all are real. Some gorditas have adapted to being served in another country for people who expect very similar products across several stores. Some gorditas have adapted to serving people next to a metro station.

All of them are real. you might like one better than the other, you might argue one is a product of rampant capitalism and the other follows the noble and ancient art of cooking for others. You might have a deeper connection to one or the other, but that has nothing to do with whether they are inherently better or worse.

Please, be careful not to conflate tradition with moral superiority. Traditional food is amoral: there’s no inherent good to desire in traditional food, nor inherent evil to denounce in nontraditional food.

Gorditas might be closer or farther from some origin. But they all are real.

A gordita (pl. gorditas) is a traditional food in Mexico, generally made out of a ball of corn-based dough (masa) with some kind of ingredient inside it, flattened and cooked.

This immensely vague description might not be very helpful, and that is because—you guessed it—there’s no single thing that we call «gordita» across this country, much less the rest of the world.

Are gorditas hand-patted? Most times, but not always.

Are gorditas smaller than standard corn tortillas? Some are, some are not and let’s not forget that tortillas have no standard size.5

Are gorditas somewhere between 1/4–3/8 in thick? Some are, some are not.

Are gorditas deep-fried? Some are, some are griddled without oil, some have incorporated lard in the dough and so are close to being pan-fried and some are baked.

Are gorditas sliced to be filled? Some are, some have nothing but corn inside, some are topped, and some should never be sliced and must be eaten with great care to avoid spilling, like these cajeta-filled ones (by the way, gorditas aren’t always a salty dish, some can be sweet).

  1. And even so, it’s tricky. Generally speaking, R and I are defined as two sets, but it’s not that easy to say they’re completely separate things.↩︎

  2. In theory, at least. Whether they actually do comply with these regulations is another matter entirely.↩︎

  3. Of course, not everyone has food safety. Some people do eat what they can out of necessity rather than personal choice. This is not the case I’m talking about today.↩︎

  4. For instance, the «most traditional» gorditas have pork or longaniza inside, but none of those ingredients are native to this land.↩︎

  5. Of course, tortilla-making machines do have a standard size. But tortillas in general do not.↩︎

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