José Ralat on How Tacos Will Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic
Food journalist José Ralat attracted a lot of attention when he nabbed the enviable job of taco editor for Texas Monthly -- especially when he came out with the controversial opinion that burritos are tacos. This month his new book, American Tacos: A History and Guide, was released.
We arranged to talk before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. I was planning to dig into the fascinating intersection between Mexican cuisine, the Jewish diaspora, and the Spanish Inquisition. It’s worth getting your hands on Ralat’s book just for that fascinating chapter.
But by the time we had our conversation a lot had changed. Ralat was hunkering down at home with his wife, son, and their dog, all his taco-related travel canceled, his book tour postponed.
So our focus changed, too. We talked about taquerias in the age of our pandemic, the effects of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry, and -- almost improbably, but then again maybe not -- the hope and promise he sees in this storied, versatile food. Will tacos save us in the end? They just might. I’m a believer.
Here’s Ralat in his own words.
Why smaller taquerias stand a surprisingly good chance of surviving the economic effects of COVID-19
I’ve spent the last two days talking to Mexican restaurant owners, taqueros, bakers, anything related to Mexican food and food workers, and it is depressing. It’s so depressing. It is life-changing. I had one gentleman who had to furlough his workers and he pared down to his family, which of course he jokes, “well I can't fire them!” But he’s got this little window that he can pass tacos through. He's in a very high normally high-traffic area, so his business has suffered.
But I've had other owners say this is the best possible time to be selling tacos because they’re quick, they’re healthy, they’re affordable, and they’re portable. You can grab and go. And to a certain extent that's true. In this other case, the owner is being positive because he’s been crushing it as far as business goes. And like I said, it is true that tacos are all these things. That’s where tacos come from -- as a quick snack for workers and the urban masses. But now we depend on delivery and curbside pick up because of the pandemic.
One thing that’s really important to note, is that most of Mexican food businesses are family owned or independently owned, from pop ups to medium-sized chains like Taco Deli out of Austin, which has 11 locations across the state. They are privately owned small businesses. Taco Deli is owned by two friends, and one of the guys has family with two young kids and it sucks for these people.
The lucky ones are probably these [smaller] Mexican restaurants because they can adapt their model quickly. [Tacos are] a versatile food that can not only adapt its fillings, but also its business model, or the way it’s passed along the chain.
But that’s not the case for modern Mexican restaurants that depend on a higher price point and have a lot of investor backing and that depend on high price point ingredients. Those are closing and it’s fucking depressing! And this is even before we start talking about how this is my job, how my job is connected to their jobs. When I’m home I very rarely leave my neighborhood. I live within walking distance of several taquerias and can be at others in five minutes of driving, and so, I’ve grown to know the neighborhood taqueiros and Mexican restaurant owners a lot more. And I hurt for them, but I think these guys are at as not such a disadvantage as a place like Comedor in Austin or even Cosme in New York. Unless there’s some sort of bailout, which is highly unlikely, these restaurants are going to be forever changed or forever closed.
Trying to help via social media nationally and ordering takeout locally
I’ve been trying to keep up with all of these changes nationally via Instagram highlights. I’ve been cropping people’s posts and stories reaching out to them and tagging them [see Ralat’s handle @TacoTrail] so that people can access their profiles directly to help support them however they can. I've been doing this nationally just because I can, because I've traveled so much and I follow all these businesses across the nation on that social media platform. But it's hard to keep up, it’s super hard to keep up.
I just don’t know what to do other than keep track of these changes and to financially support them myself. Which I was just talking with my family about. I said, we’re going to eat here, we are going to do delivery today. That’s how we’re going to eat today, get used to it. Maybe tomorrow. But yeah, I’m just trying to keep track of all of it so I can help other people support these places.
And this is regardless of how I feel about the restaurants’ food. It’s not just my favorites. It’s everyone! Places I've never been to. Just go out, get things to go, and get back in your car, don’t even get out of your car, let them come to you, because everyone needs your help right now.
"Hopefully when we come out of this we will value people over products."
Ultimately this depends on the distribution systems, whether they continue to operate as normal, because if they don’t, then everyone’s wiped out. And I don't mean just taquerias and pop ups. I mean everybody, all the restaurants. Because if there’s a significant disruption it will ripple through the entire service industry, and I don’t know how we bounce back from that. We’ll need a bailout. As you’ve probably guessed, a bailout is probably not going to happen because apparently airlines are more important? No one needs to fly. Everyone needs to eat.
Hopefully when we come out of this on the other side we will value people over products [in this case, products as in the food restaurants produce]. That’s what I hope. Because you don’t have products unless you have people, and if you want good products you have to treat people well -- but that gets into economics very well beyond taco economics.
I think this future of tacos is bright once we get past this because people are really going to appreciate not only social interaction, but will come to humanize others in a much better fashion. That’s always been part of my job. My job has always been political, especially now. Before the pandemic it was already political. A lot of these people [in the Mexican food industry] are demonized and scapegoated, and I’m trying to humanize them and show that it’s not just this monolith, it’s this personal, dynamic system. It’s fluid, and it is driven by hardworking folk who adapt as needed.
Adaptation and diversity is the future
The diversity [of tacos] is mind-boggling. As I write in the book, there’s all kinds of developing styles. There are styles that are more codified than others, and it’s all because of social interaction, market volatility, everything that’s being disrupted right now.
Once we get on the other side those things will pick back up again you’re going to see whole new tacos develop. And it will be because we’ve had to reassess our place in the world. And by our, I mean us, as Americans. And I think the silver lining is, once we get past this, things are going to be better--as long as these places continue to operate.
Other places will open, and they’ll try interesting things, and they’ll do what’s natural for them. So even if there’s a significant void created, that void will be filled to some degree.
A lot of people have gone through worse and become more resilient for it.
"Tacos really are a force for good."
My heart breaks for [restaurant workers, especially undocumented workers] because they pay taxes but they don’t benefit. They’re the ones who will be most significantly impacted.
I have a friend who owns a taqueria, and I think he’s the only person left working there. He has started a GoFundMe page for his undocumented workers. He’s the kind of guy who paid thousands of dollars to have a coyote [an underground guide] escort an employee’s daughter across the border so they could be reunited. He’s a real mensch, he’s that kind of guy. That’s money paid to his coyote that he’s never going to get back. He knew that going in, that this money was never going to be paid back and that was OK, because it was more important that his employees be happy, to be safe and to be with their families. He continues to operate as such, but he’s in danger of closing, so that sucks. But his undocumented workers will have some money.
I think that all the workers will be impacted. And because this is an industry that works with very small margins, and lacks a lot of employee services, the cultural impact is going to be significant. Because the impact at the micro level, at the individual level will be so harsh.
When I moved to Texas with my family I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have health insurance. I had an eight-month-old baby. We were lucky enough to have my mother-in-law, who could help us. And we had unemployment insurance. We were really fucking lucky. Not everyone has that. But I think everyone should have the opportunity for a safety net of unemployment benefits, that there should be PTO [paid time off] for these people. And it shouldn’t be up to the individual restaurants, who already operate barely in the black, if at all. Because these are American workers. These are people who put money back into the economy, and we need to take care of them.
And if that means saying goodbye to capitalism, I'm OK with that. [He laughs] Because again, I really hope this causes a paradigm shift where we value people over the product. Even though my job relies heavily on the product it also relies heavily on the person. My job isn’t so much to talk about what’s on the plate, but what led up to what’s on the plate, OK? So I'm talking about the people who don’t just serve the food, but who have spent their entire lives developing these recipes, who give these restaurants their own family recipes at no profit for their own, right? So they need to be protected, they need to be valued. That’s always been part of my job, is showing that these people matter, that they are human, that you should care about them. Knowing their stories makes the food taste better.
It breaks my heart to see empty places and to hear about furloughed workers. It makes me think back to all the times that I've been pissed off because a place was supposed to be open, that wasn’t. You know what, that doesn’t really matter. So what? That’s an occupational hazard. You know what shouldn’t be an occupational hazard? Not being able to feed your family. And I think this is all part of tacos.
Tacos really are a force for good. If we can change things through tacos, there’s hope for us all. And I hope that we can all laugh over tacos when this is done.