Mexican Street Corn: The Cultural Significance of the Elote Recipe

Both in Mexico, elote is a staple dish of summertime. It’s a traditional recipe, but during modern times, elote has been largely known as street cart food. Fresh corn on the cob is essential for making good elote. Other ingredients include mayonnaise or butter (mayonnaise is the traditional choice), chile powder, cotija cheese, lime juice, and cilantro. This simple street dish has had a large cultural impact. It’s a big of a part of Mexican culture as apple pie is in the United States.

History of Elote

“Elote” translates from Spanish to English as “corn.” Corn, of course, is a staple in much of Mexican cooking; it’s used to make masa, which is then used to make tortillas and other staple foods. Corn dates back to 6600 B.C.E., when the crop was first grown in Honduras. During the 15th century, corn spread across North America. Once a simple street food, elote is now making its way onto fine dining menus across the continent.

American Influence on Elote

American and Mexican American chefs dish up elote on street corners and in restaurants across the country. However, they often put their own spin on the classic recipe. For instance, an Atlanta restaurant turns elote into a spoonable food, serving it in a bowl with rich, warm queso. Social media has also led to changes in the recipe. One TikTok creator suggests grilling the corn for elote much like ribs are grilled. Meanwhile, some people are adding crushed Doritos or Cheetos to the classic recipe.

Cultural Appropriation of Mexican Traditions

Social media is blamed for a lot of societal ills, and that includes cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is when a majority group adopts parts of a minority’s groups cultural traditions in a way that’s exploitative or disrespectful, often while erasing the tradition’s origins. Often, this happens with food. For example, while an Atlanta restaurant was praised for putting elote into a bowl dish, this basic concept wasn’t new: Mexican cooking tradition developed this recipe generations ago. It’s called esquites, and the recipe literally dates back to the Aztecs. TikTok creators also had the idea of putting elote, with many of them referring to it as Mexican street corn salad. It’s not fair to just blame TikTok, though. Recipes for Mexican street corn salad are all over the internet. Few, if any, of these recipes acknowledge the cultural tradition that birthed elote or the fact that esquites is a centuries-old Mexican recipe that’s an important part of the culture’s culinary tradition.

The non-stop cultural appropriation and even erasure of Mexican food traditions caused one TikTok creator to strike back. In a viral video, Daniela Rabalais explained a great “new” dish called “sausage tacos,” involving a sausage inside a “fluffy tortilla”; they’re better known as hot dogs. The video racked up millions of views as she parodied how Americans present the culinary traditions of Black, indigenous, and Latin people as new recipes of their own creation. Rabalais was inspired in part by the influx of elote recipes.

However, the cultural appropriation of Mexican food traditions goes much further. For example, “spa water” started trending, with online creators touting this “new creation” made of blended fruits or vegetables that were then mixed with sweetener, water, and ice. But Mexican families have made this concoction for centuries under its original name, agua fresca. This culinary appropriation goes back a lot farther than the birth of social media, though. Cowboy caviar is a popular American recipe that predates all forms of social media. The first known American to make the dish was Helen Corbitt, who directed food service at the famous Neiman Marcus department store in downtown Dallas. Neiman Marcus first served the dish in the 1940s. But Corbitt’s cowboy caviar is actually a tweaked take on the classic Mexican dish ceviche, proving that cultural appropriation of Mexican recipes has a long history.

This page was last updated by Megan Miller