Why is this homely little brown box, with its sign that identifies it
as the "World's First Frozen Margarita Machine," living at the Smithsonian? Here's a story about how some things come to the museum;
moreover, how this particular thing is connected, well, to blenders and
battles, entrepreneurs and enchiladas, and to impresarios and good old
I am a curator who specializes in American foodways (among other things), and a member of the team that
brought Julia Child's kitchen to the National Museum of American
History. In the summer of 2003, in the course of developing a public
program on Tex-Mex food, I got to know a Houston food writer named Robb
Walsh. Robb had just written a wonderful book, The Tex-Mex Cookbook,
a history of the phenomenon he calls an American regional cuisine. In
that book, he told the story of a Dallas restauranteur who invented the
frozen margarita machine. Robb told me that I had to go and get that
machine for the museum. Intrigued, I embarked on the usual investigative
process we go through when we are considering a new acquisition.
First and foremost, I had to determine whether, indeed, this was the "world's first frozen margarita machine." I had to look at a trail of
references to the history of margaritas, which, by the way, has as many
claimants to their invention as there are to hamburgers. I looked at the
patent history for frozen drink makers, checked in on the repeal of
Texas liquor laws for the sale of hard liquor, and ran down press
mentions of this new drink. Then I contacted the "world's first"
developer and took down his story. I made sure that he would really give
us the machine that built his restaurant empire. I decided to go for it
and made my proposal to the collections committee stating why it should
come here. The short version is: The committee approved it, and a press release announcing it brought a wave of attention to this homely little brown box and its new home at the Smithsonian.
Now, here's the long version: the story of brown boxes, frozen
margaritas, Mexican food in America, one man's entrepreneurial coup, and
why Americans are so attached to everything represented by the machine.
Mariano Martinez, a young Texas restauranteur, and his frozen margarita
machine were at the crossroads of a revolution that took well over a
hundred years to unfold. It was the revolution that caused Americans to
adopt several regional versions of Mexican food (and Chinese and Italian
food) as a major culinary underpinning of American food. Today, Mexican
cuisine, in all its modified, regionalized (Cal-Mex, Numex-Mex, Sonoran
Mex), commercialized, and even highly processed varieties, is as
American as, well, as apple pie. In the '70s, the margarita surpassed
the martini as the most popular American cocktail and, in the '80s,
salsa surpassed ketchup as the most-used American condiment. First made
on the California-Mexican border, the margarita became associated with
the service of Mexican food in the United States, though it eventually
spread to Mexico and around the world. Frozen margaritas, made with the
help of blenders, became popular in the '50s.
In 1971, young Mariano Martinez started serving margaritas in his new
restaurant, Mariano's Mexican Cuisine. His customers created a high
demand for the newly popular frozen drink. With their blenders
hard-pressed to produce a consistent mix for the drink they made from
Mariano's father's recipe, his bartenders were in rebellion. Then came
inspiration for the beleaguered boss in the form of a Slurpee machine
at a 7-Eleven, a machine invented in Dallas in 1960 to make carbonated
beverages slushy enough to drink through a straw. But the 7-Eleven
Corporation wouldn't sell him a Slurpee machine. He and a friend, a
chemist named John Hogan, tinkered with the recipe (hint: the secret is
in the amount of sugar) and adapted a soft serve ice cream machine to
make margarita slush, and word of mouth signaled a hit for his fledgling
business. The machine was such a success that, according to Martinez, "it brought bars in Tex-Mex restaurants front and center. People came to
Mariano's for that frozen margarita out of the machine." Mariano
couldn't patent something already patented, so many versions of the
frozen margarita machine subsequently came onto the market. His machine,
however, made Mariano's restaurant a success, leading to other
restaurants (with their own commercial machines pouring out the
margaritas). When Mariano decided to close the old restaurant and move
it to a new location, he decided to retire the machine.
We asked for it. So, after 34 years of blending lime juice, tequila,
ice, and sugar for enthusiastic customers, the world's first frozen
margarita machine was retired to the Smithsonian.
Every Cindo de Mayo revelers all over the United States will
drink gallons of margaritas and Mexican beers. They will listen to
mariachi music, and consume tons of their favorite Mexican American
fusion food, Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, or just "Mexican." They will do all these
things because, in 1862, people in California and citizens of the state
of Puebla in Mexico began celebrating the unlikely victory of Mexican
troops over the invaders from France. Mexican Americans -- in fact,
everybody in the country -- have enjoyed this celebration ever since.
How this victory, not much noticed in Mexico at all, became a vehicle
for margarita, beer, and Mexican American food ingestion, a source of
income for American restaurants and bars, and a bonanza for Mexican
tequila and beer makers, is a long story. That story is, in some ways,
much like the story of how and why millions of non-Catholics drink a lot
of green beer on an Irish Catholic saint's name day. It is, in almost
every way, a story about the complex ingredients in American identity
and the odd and wonderful attachments Americans can have to things like "The World's First Frozen Margarita Machine." Do think of this little
brown box when next you enjoy one, with your nachos, tacos, and salsa.
This post also appears on the Smithsonian's O Say Can You See? blog, an Atlantic partner site.