Guest Post: The Almost-Forgotten Local Roots of the Old El Paso Food Brand

Today's guest post by Katherine Magruder about the history of the Old El Paso food brand demonstrates the complicated relationship between corporate America, local identities, and foodways.

The Almost-Forgotten Local Roots of the Old El Paso Food Brand

Today, the General Mills “Old El Paso” brand represents a particular style of industrialized Southwestern food engineered for streamlined, low-cost home-cooking. Taco, burrito, and fajita dinner kits, salsas, enchilada sauces (hot, medium, or mild), canned chiles, refried beans, seasoning mixes, taco shells made from corn or wheat flour, and other Old El Paso products are labor-saving ingredients that allow consumers to get dinner together with minimal preparation and cooking time. In 2017, over 85 million US consumers used Old El Paso meal kits and ingredients. Old El Paso’s global popularity is growing: in Europe, Old El Paso commands half the market share of Mexican food brands in grocery stores.

The same factors that contribute to Old El Paso’s massive sales are seen as evidence of the “inauthenticity” of Old El Paso products. Some think that “real” Mexican home-cooking should be labor-intensive, slow-cooked, handmade, static and traditional, and as spicy as the batch of local chiles that went into it.[i] These qualities are purposefully stripped away in Old El Paso meal kits. The hard taco meal kit, for example, includes 12 pre-fried, u-shaped corn tortillas, a mild tomato-based “taco sauce,” and a seasoning mix packet heavy on salt, chili powder, and onion powder. Following the box instructions and buying a protein and desired toppings (e.g. iceberg lettuce, shredded yellow cheese, chopped tomatoes, sour cream) produces an easy and modern dinner in 20 minutes or less.

Old El Paso brand representatives in the US are quick to admit that authenticity is not their objective (outside the US, Old El Paso products are more likely to be framed as traditionally Mexican. Rather, they say their products offer “fun” as well as reliability. Taco shells and meal kits lend themselves well to customization, and General Mills (headquartered in Minneapolis) is keen to show the many different recipes that can be prepared with Old El Paso products. Their “Taco Night” campaign displays recipes for Thai chicken street tacos, cookie dip-stuffed mini taco boats, and taco cheeseburger totchos, to name a few. But more important to its popularity, the Old El Paso taco makes it easy to hit a bullseye on the flavors and textures of the mainstream American palate. The typical iteration of a hard-shell taco filled with seasoned ground beef, cheese, and salsa presents a successful formula found in other popular “American foods” like pepperoni pizza, spaghetti with meat sauce, and cheeseburgers: a carbohydrate base or wrapper plus heavily-seasoned protein, tomato sauce, and mild, melted cheese. A ground beef hard-shell taco is crunchy, fatty, tangy, salty, and (probably) not very spicy - put another way, it’s easy to love.

The hard shell taco, the core product of Old El Paso, is perhaps an easy target for derision from the food elite, but it’s also possible to see why it would garner respect- for its tastiness, nostalgic attachment, or even for its longer roots in Mexican culinary tradition. The practice of frying maize tortillas in pork fat began after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, when Spaniards brought pigs to the New World.[ii] Pre-fried taco shells are often thought to be the creation of American food corporations, and indeed Taco Bell’s founder Glen Bell claimed he invented the mechanical taco shell fryer in 1951. But historian Jeffrey Pilcher has pointed out that Mexican-born Juvencio Maldonado actually filed the first patent for a taco fryer in 1947, which he used to make fried tacos and take-out taco shells for his restaurant in New York City.[iii] Prior to Maldonado’s patent, instructions for preparing tacos dorados fried to a deep golden brown, and topped with lettuce, appear in Ana María Hernández’s 1938 home economics manual, Libro social y familiar para la mujer obrera y campesina mexicana.[iv] Mexican food authority Gustavo Arellano even suggests that crispy shell tacos “blazed the trail for Mexican food in America” and provided a delicious example of Mexican cooking in the mid-20th century US, before Mexican-Americans were substantially dispersed across the country.

Whatever we can say about the effects of Mexican food gaining popularity in the US,[v] or the value of labor-saving foods (especially for women who historically have borne the brunt of cooking responsibilities),[vi] the pre-fried taco shell and other Old El Paso products ultimately represent a category that stokes sneer: industrial, Americanized ethnic foods. The mainstream popularity and name-recognition of Old El Paso is a source of bemusement for residents of El Paso, the far-west Texas bordertown that forms an international metroplex of over 2 million people with its sister city, Ciudad Juárez. El Pasoans often feel that the region is misrepresented in the press and that outsiders make odd, incorrect assumptions about the region’s way of life - either that the city is full of sleepy cowboy saloons and tumbleweeds like in a Spaghetti Western, or that the region is “in crisis” and infested with drugs and violence in every corner. They are resigned to the idea that everyone has heard of “Old El Paso,” but nobody really knows where El Paso is or what it’s like, or they only pass through town on Interstate-10 enroute to somewhere else.

For both the majority hispanic and non-hispanic populations, having discerning taste in Mexican food is a major component of El Pasoan identity. Preparing generations-old family recipes is a point of pride in home kitchens and for the hundreds of local restaurants serving Mexican food.[vii] Food in the region is a singular mix of Chihuahuan, New Mexican, and Anglo-Texan influences. Chihuahuan rajas con queso, pork and chicken tamales, red chile menudo, chicharrones, and wheat flour gorditas and burritos could easily sit on the same table as New Mexican pork posole, “Christmas-style” red and green enchiladas, sopaipillas, and green chile cheeseburgers. Oven-baked brisket, chicken fried steak, peach salsa, pecan pie, queso made from Rotel and Velveeta, and creamy potato and green chile chowder have their place in the region’s foodways, too. And like any US city, American restaurant chains, soft drinks, and snack foods also figure strongly in local tastes: hotdogs are a common burrito filling (guisados de weenies) and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with nacho cheese sauce are a popular snack, especially at schools and sport events.

In other words, an Old El Paso taco kit does not really reflect El Paso’s cuisine, at least not overtly. That’s not to say the city doesn’t embrace industrial Americanized Mexican foods at all: Old El Paso products are on the shelves at the city’s larger grocery stores, sure, and the Taco Bells in town do good business, too. But the region’s home kitchens and family-owned Mexican restaurants usually tell a different story. How funny it is, then, that the products flying off the shelves bear the name of the city that the world doesn’t seem to understand or care about in the right way, and yet Old El Paso does so little to reflect the region’s culture, right?

The Old El Paso brand does have roots in the El Paso region. In the early-mid twentieth century, three El Paso-area canneries emerged as top competitors in canned Mexican foods: Mountain Pass Canning, Valley Canning, and Ashley’s Mexican Foods. Mountain Pass Canning Company is sometimes noted as the “original” Old El Paso, but the story is a bit more complicated.

In 1912, A.C. Powell moved his family from Marfa, Texas to Deming, New Mexico, where he started a tomato farm.[viii] Powell founded the Mountain Pass Canning Company in Deming in 1916 for tomato packing. He moved the operation to Canutillo, Texas (just northwest of El Paso) in 1925 and eventually expanded to canning green beans, pinto beans, green chilies, sweet potatoes, and other Mesilla Valley produce.[ix] By the late 1940s, Mountain Pass Canning sold several canned Mexican foods like taco and enchilada sauces, following the example set by George Ashley’s restaurant and cannery on the eastside of El Paso.[x] Ashley’s business was booming after getting a military contract in 1938 to provide US servicemen with Mexican food, including their innovative canned tortillas, enchilada sauce, and Spanish rice.[xi]

In the postwar years, US consumer demand for canned Mexican foods rose significantly, and Anglo-owned canneries in the El Paso rushed to supply these appetites. Valley Canning Company in Canutillo, which by the 1930s was run by Sam Gillett, Jr. (originally a New Mexico cotton and dairy farmer), benefited from a contract to sell their canned tortillas, tomatoes, green chilies, and taco and enchilada sauces in US military commissaries overseas.[xii]
El Paso Herald-Post, Nov. 4, 1948, p. 12-B.
Valley products distributed in the Southwest carried the “Valley” label, but for non-locals, Gillett thought that “Valley Canning” was not specific or evocative enough.[xiii] Valley’s products sold outside the region were marked with an “Old El Paso” label.[xiv] From the very beginning of “Old El Paso,” the brand was meant for non-El Pasoans.

In the early 1950s, Mountain Pass Canning was purchased by Tom Barwise and James Dick, Jr., who in 1952 had sold his successful local grocery and canning business to Safeway Stores. At this point Mountain Pass Canning was introducing even more canned Mexican food products to their line, including including canned beef enchiladas, chili con queso, and tamales.[xv] In 1955, Mountain Pass bought out Gillett and purchased Valley Canning. Mountain Pass Canning Co. was an even more formidable player in the canned foods industry, and now had the advantage of three labels to use for their products. International distribution carried the “Old El Paso” label; “Valley” was used for regional sales; and “Mountain Pass” was used for US sales outside the West Texas/southern New Mexico region. In 1958, Mountain Pass relocated to a larger location in Anthony, Texas.[xvi]

El Paso Herald-Post, Apr. 22, 1955, p. 26.

In 1968, Pet Inc. purchased Mountain Pass Canning, and with it, the Old El Paso label.[xvii] From that point forward, Mountain Pass/Old El Paso was increasingly entrenched in the Big Food world. Old El Paso products performed well for Pet: global distribution expanded in the 1970s,[xviii] and by the late 1980s Old El Paso commanded a quarter of the $200 million dollar annual sales of salsa. Grand Metropolitan acquired Pet, Inc. in 1995, and Old El Paso was assigned to Grand Met’s Pillsbury division. In response to the “salsa wars” of the 1990s with main competitors Pace and Tostitos, Pillsbury poured money into advertising for Old El Paso (the Mountain Pass label had by then been abandoned), producing some commercials that played up the “El Paso” in Old El Paso, and others that framed the products as a fun and easy path to dinner, even for a goofy, Caucasian bachelor. Meanwhile, the Anthony cannery that had been the site of Mountain Pass Canning since 1958 was still processing beans, enchilada sauces, chiles, and other Old El Paso products, and Pillsbury sold the plant to a group of investors in 1997. The cannery, now owned by Santa Fe Ingredients/JELTEX, processed chile products for multiple brands, including Old El Paso.[xix] Pillsbury (by then part of UK liquor giant Diageo PLC) eventually repurchased the Anthony factory, but even bigger changes were fast approaching. General Mills completed its acquisition of Pillsbury in October 2001, and less than six months later, the Anthony Old El Paso plant on Doniphan, just north of Vinton Road[xx] was shut down. By way of explanation, General Mills representatives suggested that the Anthony plant produced ingredients for “scratch cooking,” and taco kits and other ready-made items were now the brand’s focus. At the time, Old El Paso was the largest private employer in Anthony. With the closure, over 250 permanent employees were out of jobs, hundreds more seasonal workers would not be hired again, and many local chile farms lost contracts.[xxi]

The history of Old El Paso contains an uneasy mix of pride for local business and the delicious flavors of the Mesilla Valley, and the melancholy of feeling left behind and misrepresented by corporate America. From its genesis as an alternative label for Valley Canning in the 1930s, the Old El Paso brand has framed Southwestern foods through an outsider’s lens. As Pilcher has shown, there is a long history of Anglo businessmen adapting and profiting from Mexican foods, and the dominant early-mid twentieth century El Paso-area canneries followed this pattern as well.[xxii] But the 2002 closing of the Old El Paso plant in Anthony stung the local community, which mostly identifies as hispanic, despite the enduring power imbalances represented by Americanized Mexican foods like Old El Paso. El Paso’s food culture is not much on the national mainstage, but is sustained by a lively discourse about food punctuated with strong opinions and attachments, restaurant and home-cooking practices that value family recipes, and some fantastic local foods like pecans, chiles, mesquite honey, and asadero and Chihuahua cheese. That agricultural and culinary heritage is somewhere deep in the Old El Paso taco kit, even if it has been transformed so much by the vagaries and commercial interests of American big food that it’s hardly perceptible.

[i] For a discussion of why the search for and articulation of “authentic Mexican food” by Westerners is a double edged sword, see Meredith Abarca, “Authentic or Not, It’s Original,” Food and Foodways 12, no. 1 (2004): 1-25.
[ii] Jeffrey Pilcher, “Was the Taco Invented in Southern California?” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 8, no. 1 (2008): 26.
[iii] Ibid., 32.
[iv] See Jeffrey Pilcher, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 97.
[v] For a more critical position, Amy Bentley has argued that the relatively recent mainstreaming of Southwestern food in the US was, in part, a form of culinary neutrality and cultural domination in response to historic and heightened hostilities toward Mexico and Mexican immigrants at the end of the 20th century. See, Amy Bentley, “From Culinary Other to Mainstream America: Meanings and Uses of Southwestern Cuisine,” in Culinary Tourism, ed. Lucy Long (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2004): 209-225.
[vi] See for example, Lauren Wynne, “‘I Hate it’: Tortilla-Making, Class, and Women’s Tastes in Rural Yucatán, Mexico,” Food, Culture & Society 18, no. 3 (2015): 379-397.
[vii] Meredith Abarca, “Charlas Culinarias: Mexican Women Speak from their Public Kitchens,” Food and Foodways 15, no. 3-4 (2007): 183-212.
[viii] El Paso Herald (El Paso, TX), Mar. 30, 1912, p. 4.
[ix] “Canning Plant Has Profitable Season,” El Paso Herald-Post (El Paso, TX), Dec. 6, 1934, p. 10. Mountain Pass Canning processed some non-local produce as well, such as garbanzo beans, lima beans, and peas, which were generally shipped in from California.
[x] El Paso Herald-Post (El Paso, TX), Oct. 14, 1949, p. 41.
[xi] Gustavo Arellano, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (New York: Scribner, 2012), 185-187.
[xii] “E.P. Plants Take Top Place in Canning Mexican Food,” El Paso Herald Post (El Paso, TX), Apr. 4, 1953, p. 43.
[xiii]“El Paso Takes Top Place in Canning of Mexican Food: Products Distributed in US, Foreign Markets,” El Paso Herald Post (El Paso, TX), Apr. 23, 1955, p. 24.
[xiv] The trademark application record for “Old El Paso” suggests that the label was first used in commerce in 1938, although “Old El Paso” only turned up in my archival search in the late 1940s.
[xv] El Paso Herald Post, (El Paso, TX), Apr. 22, 1955, p. 26. EP Herald Post, April 3, 1953, p 43.
[xvi] “Cannery Doubles Capacity; Buys Bumper Valley Crops,” El Paso Herald-Post (El Paso, TX), Oct. 3, 1959, p. 10.
[xvii] “Canning Firm to Merge,” El Paso Herald-Post (El Paso, TX), Jul. 3, 1968, B1.
[xviii] “‘Old El Paso’ Sent Throughout World” Mexican Food Known as ‘Mountain Pass’ Here,” El Paso Herald-Post (El Paso, TX), Jan 23, 1973, B1.
[xix] Kent Ian Paterson, “Fire on the Furrow: Salsa Wars and Other Battles on the New Chile Frontier,” in Mexican-American Cuisine, ed. Ilan Stevens (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2011), 32.
[xx] Thank you to Trevor Vargas for scouting out this detail for me.
[xxi] For more insight into the Old El Paso plant closure, see: Kent Paterson, “Closing of Old El Paso plant highlights NAFTA impact on Mexican food industry,” Albuquerque Business First (Albuquerque, NM), Apr. 8, 2002.
[xxii] Pilcher, Planet Taco.

Katherine Magruder is a PhD candidate at New York University in the department of Nutrition and Food Studies. Katherine researches the history of food broadcasting in the United States and France, focusing in particular on farmers' and rural radio networks; the use of fictional characters to deliver state and corporate propaganda related to food; and air rights ownership and listening across borders. She has taught undergraduate courses on critical food studies and modern European history at NYU, Barnard, the New School, and Sterling College. Katherine is the assistant managing editor of Food, Culture and Society and membership manager for the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS).