Review: QUESO!

QUESO!: Regional Recipes for the World's Favorite Chile-Cheese DipQUESO!: Regional Recipes for the World's Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip
by Lisa Fain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I feel like I should like this book more than I do, and I've been sitting on this review for awhile but I need to post it and get it out of my system: this is a good book, but it's not quite the book I wanted.

I thought I was picking up a cookbook... and I was... kinda. There are a lot of chile con queso recipes here, there's no doubt about that. There's only pictures of about half the recipes, which is never a bonus in my book because I want pictures of *all* the recipes. On the one hand, these are queso recipes so the pictures aren't going to vary a whole lot from each other until we hit the more complicated fare. On the other hand, there *is* more complicated fare deeper in--queso with pork and corn and mushrooms, and vegan queso--and yes, I want pictures of those. The pictures which are on the page aren't labeled (or weren't in the Advance Review Copy I received) which means that every 3-4 recipes there's 1-2 pictures and you have to try to match the pictures to the recipes. For a book that I want to browse through when I have a hankering to throw cheese in a pan, that feels like more work than I'd wanted.

This is also a touch of a history book... sorta. The author grew up in Texas (as did I) and was raised on the Velveeta-and-Rotel recipe that white Americans grew up on in the American South back in the day. Then she started branching out and researching the roots of the recipe and visiting different Texas towns to gather regional samples. She's looked into fondues and rarebits and other melted cheese dishes. All of this research has gone into little 2-3 page "histories" before each section of queso recipes, along with little paragraphs of historical context with each recipe.

I love food history so I feel like I should like these parts more than I do. There's a distressing shallowness to a lot of the history, like there's a deeper story and we're just getting a couple condensed sentences that would go on a Wikipedia stub until someone fleshed the material out properly. And the history we do get feels very much like a white outsider peering in--and sometimes in the wrong directions. From the very beginning, the author explains that her trek-for-queso took her from El Paso to Corpus Christi to Austin to Houston to San Antonio. I would've expected at least one jaunt over to Mexico while she "drove along the Texas-Mexico border". The first section of queso recipes features recipes from Los Angeles, Boston, San Antonio, El Paso, Arkansas ("Arkansas Cheese Dip"), Lubbock (a Velveeta-based recipe), and Lady Bird Johnson's Washington Post recipe.

Those feel like very unusual choices to set the stage for a book that is trying to be a history of queso. I feel almost like I'm reading a gentrification of queso--the Arkansas Cheese Dip is called "the term preferred by folks in Arkansas". Do you mean white folks in Arkansas? Because you can say "white folks". I'm assuming Spanish-speaking Arkansans still just called it chili con queso. (Though they probably didn't make it with "1 pound yellow American cheese" and ketchup, so maybe "Arkansas Cheese Dip" is the better term after all.)

I dunno, I feel like I'm being mean. As a coffee table book for Christmas, I think this is perfectly adequate. As an addition to your cookbooks to flip through when you want cheese to nosh on, I think it works. If you're interested in the history of chili con queso in America as adopted as part of the American culture, I think this is an interesting read. If you go into the book with that mindset, I think you won't be disappointed.

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through NetGalley.

~ Ana Mardoll


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