In case you didn’t know, the taco is king in the city. You may be like me and live in a metropolis proud of its world-renowned pizza, but if you poke around you will find many of the locals are more excited about the menu from their local taqueria than where they can find a tasty pizza by the slice. The fact that many neighborhoods in the city have their own distinctive approach to the classic dish only adds to the intrigue and excitement of taco hunting.
The versatility of the taco is another reason for its massive recent popularity. Hard or soft shell is only one aspect of differentiation. Including beans and rice is not only a way to transform the dish from a snack to a meal, but a means to add mouthwatering, signature flavors. While the list of meats used in tacos is extensive, from the American ground beef to fish, barbacoa and beyond, delicious vegetarian tacos are largely accessible as well. The versatility of the taco allows for it to be an extremely healthy experience, a high-calorie snack after hours, or any number of iterations between.
Many places in the world associate tacos with fast food thanks in large part to Taco Bell, a chain established in 1962 that went public in 1970. Today, Taco Bells can be found in every major region of the globe (although it has been largely rejected in Mexico). While Taco Bell did have a lot to do with catering this ethnic food to an Americanized taste pallet, this is only one event to explain why taco is king. A deeper dive into the history of the taco reveals some fascinating anecdotes.
History of the Taco
When it comes to determining the origin of the taco, there are a couple popular theories. One thought is that it was first referenced by Mexican silver miners during the end of the 19th century. Taco de mineros, or miner tacos, were the charges the miners made by wrapping gun powder in paper cartridges. This is the theory held by University of Minnesota professor Jeffery M. Pilcher, a reputed historian of the politics and evolution of Mexican food. Pilcher is the author of such books as Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food and The Oxford Handbook of Food History.
Los Angeles and San Antonio were two of the first hubs in which tacos made cultural appearance, as early as 1905. Pilcher’s research references tamales sold in pushcarts, sold by women affectionately called the ‘Chili Queens.’ A couple decades later, tacos began assimilating to the mainstream by incorporating ingredients more common to the American palette such as ground beef, iceberg lettuce and tomato. And when Glen Bell established Taco Bell, he was selling the Americanized version of a Mexican dish to populations that were largely not Mexican.
Another theory for the origin of the word taco is from the the Nahuatl word thlaco, which references ‘half’ or ‘in the middle.’ Maize was of course a staple of the Olmec (early Mexican civilization) diet which relied on the earliest rendition of nixtamalized corn. By 1908, in the state of Morelos, ‘armored’ tacos were in existence which were tortillas fixed with rice, pork and mole verde. Another stage in Mexican taco history is due to an economic hardship of the 1950s, in which residents of Tlaxcala sold basket tacos to busy people going to work or school. These types of tacos, sold by second generation immigrants to Mexico, retained the ethnic flavor profiles of their ancestors, whether it was shawarma meat from Lebanon or Grecian style taco al pastor.
The extent to which tacos have been assimilated into American culture cannot be understated. Something about the avalanche of savory flavors speaks to our belly and soul. It is just distant enough from the everyday sandwich that it retains an exotic appeal. Without a doubt Americans have given the taco meal a new meaning as it is now a family favorite dish for many thousands of households across the nation — with every family doing it just a bit differently. Most importantly, asking someone to “get tacos” can be a disarmingly casual way of asking someone out on a date!
It is estimated that Americans consume 4.5 billion tacos a year. One has to be curious how on earth did we get to this point. The story of the taco is as fascinating as the concept of the melting pot. In Mexico, its development was connected not only to class but ingenuity. In America, it is as story of assimilation and entrepreneurship on a couple levels. According to Jeffrey Pitcher, Americans are becoming more intrigued by ethnic tacos. This means the tale of the taco is also about things evolving and coming full circle, as the taco gravitates back to its roots.