Where do tacos come from? It's complicated.
November 9, 2012 9:32 AM   Subscribe

"Unwrapping the history of Mexico's real national snack uncovers classism, dynamite, and shifting definitions of culture." The history of tacos, the linguistic history of the word "taco", and the tenuous notion of an "authentic taco" have a whole complex of intersecting stories behind them. "The Messy Business of Tacos" is an excerpt from food historian Jeffrey Pilcher's Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food.

Link via Mexico City-based food writer Lesley Téllez. Her blog is awesome in its own right, and her contributions to the field of taco studies include several taco recipes with unusual flavors as well as reports from her quest to eat every possible part of the pig.
posted by clavicle (31 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I have not even read a single article yet and I already know that this is the best possible post.
posted by elizardbits at 9:46 AM on November 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

Samosas yesterday. Tacos today.

MetaFilter, I am in love.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:50 AM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I suddenly feel very guilty about my preference for flour tortillas. Great post!
posted by antonymous at 10:01 AM on November 9, 2012

Oh jeez, this previous fpp is an interview with the same guy! WHATEVER, MORE TACOS.

While I'm here, I'd like to drop a tacological protip for those who are unaware, as I once was: Some Chipotle locations provide, but don't list on the menu, soft corn tortillas for tacos. I learned this in an emergency Chipotle situation and it blew my mind/made my day.
posted by clavicle at 10:29 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Really great article.

I definitely grew up with the Yankee foodie idea that Tex-Mex food was somehow inherently "inauthentic" or "untraditional."

When I moved to Texas it was interesting to realize that, just like with any other food tradition, there's a whole spectrum here. Old-fashioned homestyle Tex-Mex the way your great-grandma from Cameron County would have made it. Quick-and-cheap hypermodern industrialized Tex-Mex. High-class white tablecloth Tex-Mex. Thoroughly gringoified recipes that still go back for generations — and so are still about as "authentic" (whatever that means) as food traditions west of the Mississippi can get.

If you'd asked me before I moved, yeah, I'd have said "Oh god, that stuff is so inauthentic." Which to me now seems like going to Poland and saying "WTF guys, potato is not a traditional gyoza filling" instead of, like, "Hey, cool, nice pierogies."
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:30 AM on November 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

...That said, antonymous, I'll give flour tortillas a pass because they make AMAZING chips. So flaky!
posted by clavicle at 10:36 AM on November 9, 2012

It never occurred to me that the "taco" as we know it is so modern.

We've always got a thick stack of corn tortillas from the hispanic supermarket in the fridge, and anything that can go on one, in one, or between two, we've probably eaten. I might even admit to having eaten a hot dog taco more than once. Maybe.
posted by uncleozzy at 10:36 AM on November 9, 2012

Growing up near the border in Texas, I consumed pretty much 90% Mexican or Tex-Mex food. I lived in South Carolina briefly as an adult, and someone brought over some Mexican food. I was like, yes! I miss it so much!

So they opened the container of what they called enchiladas, and it was actually some incredibly bland (no spice at all) chicken wrapped in flour tortillas, with no sauce. There was something similar on the side they called a chalupa.

Pretty much the only thing they got right in name was the Taco.

My mother makes some bitchin' tacos, both soft and hard shell. Generally I do prefer the flour tortilla on most things but I can't resist her corn tortillas, they're so good!
posted by Malice at 10:36 AM on November 9, 2012

And currently fighting it out with some version of Lesley's roasted carrot tacos to be my dinner tonight: the fried egg taco.
posted by clavicle at 10:50 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The best tacos I have had were in Palenque. They were what I would have called enchiladas, but the menu said tacos. I can still taste them, though (in a good way).
posted by Danf at 10:56 AM on November 9, 2012

oh oh, I remember opening a "can" of Tamales once to find ... a spirited attempted at tamales wrapped in brown paper ...
posted by tilde at 10:56 AM on November 9, 2012

I did an interview with Pilcher a few years ago, if anyone's interested here it is: interview with taco expert. He kindly provided a picture of himself in Mexico.
posted by cell divide at 11:02 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a little place down the road from me called Taqueria El Tapatio. They make the best breakfast tacos. I'm moving at the end of the month and will be so sad it'll be a town over. For $12 you can get six gigantic, delicious breakfast tacos with homemade tortillas and salsa that will feed two people all day long.

Breakfast tacos are my favorite tacos!
posted by Malice at 11:07 AM on November 9, 2012

Great. I'm baking cookies, and now I want tacos. Apparently I'm 5.
posted by ersatzkat at 11:12 AM on November 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

Well, thanks, clavicle. I'll be buying this book.

My dad grew up next door to and spent a great deal of time at his grandparents sprawling southern Michigan farm, and interacted with the migrant workers a good deal, enough so that he his first grown up job based largely on his ability to speak passable Spanish. He also got a taste for Mexican food that he's never been able to shake, and tacos have been my favorite food my entire life. I've literally never had a bad one, and the variations are infinite.

My very favorite, though, were made by my friend's mom when I was a kid. She is a Zapotec Indian, and grew up entirely in that culture and language until she was twelve. Her cooking was then tempered with the availability of ingredients here in the States. As a consequence, her tacos were pretty outside the mainstream, but excellent. She made her own tortillas, out of a mix of mase harina and wheat flour that she combined in a molcajete. She would put tripe and tongue in them sometimes, but always finished the meat with butter. They'd often have chopped herbs where the lettuce would "normally" go. I can replicate them to an extent, but not completely.

Now I'm hungry.
posted by Athene at 11:19 AM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

but always finished the meat with butter.

I don't know what culture this is from specifically but it's common down here in Texas. I always use butter when cooking meat.

Steak is especially good that way.
posted by Malice at 11:45 AM on November 9, 2012

Nor did tacos appear in early Mexican dictionaries, most notably Melchor Ocampo’s vernacular work of 1844, wryly entitled, “Idiotismos Hispano-Mexicanos” (Hispano-Mexican idiocies).

This guy may know a lot about food, but he could stand to learn a little more about language (or just learn to use a dictionary). Idiotismo is a perfectly standard word for (to quote the first definition in the Harper-Collins Spanish Dictionary) "idiom, idiomatic expression." English used to have the same word; to quote the OED:
1. = idiom n. 2. Obs.
1588 J. Harvey Discoursiue Probl. conc. Prophesies 65 Some patcheries bungled up in an uplandish Ideotisme.
1593 G. Harvey Pierces Supererogation 158 When I am better grammered in the Accidents of his proper Idiotisme, and growen into some more acquaintance with his confuting Dictionary.
a1631 J. Donne Serm. (1957) III. 94 It is the language and the Idiotisme of the Church of God, that the resurrection is to be beleeved as an article of faith.
c1689 in Coll. Scarce & Valuable Tracts (1748) II. 433 By this Rule, Clemency and Tyrany should signify the same Thing; which, according to the Idiotism of our Days, are quite contrary.

2. = idiom n. 1. Obs.
1605 J. Dove Confut. Atheisme 46 The same idiotisme and proprietye of speach in both Testaments vsed..doe shewe that they were written by one and the selfe-same spirit.
1683 Dryden Life Plutarch in tr. Plutarch Lives 96 We may have lost somewhat of the Idiotism of that Language in which it [sc. a jest] was spoken.
1731 J. Gill Trinity (1752) ii. 23 In perfect agreement with the idiotism of the Hebrew language.
1807 F. Wrangham Serm. Transl. Script. 21 Stamped with idiotism or with peregrinity.
To rerail: tacos are wonderful.
posted by languagehat at 11:57 AM on November 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

If you finish meat in a giant donut glaze it promotes the Millard reaction.
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 11:59 AM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

We love tacos in my family and I grew up eating ones made with ground beef and the spice mix envelopes. A couple years ago, and I don't know why it took me so long, I decided to look for a homemade version so they wouldn't have that slightly weird chemical taste.

I found this ground beef taco recipe online and I've been using it ever since. I use more chili powder than in the recipe and usually use a combination of regular, ancho and chipotle chili powders. I make my own fresh salsa and guacamole and this summer I even grew my own hot peppers for them.

I prefer crunchy corn shells, however inauthentic that might be. At taquerias in San Francisco, I always get the soft corn tortilla tacos that are pretty standard and those are delish too. Now, that I'm in Houston, I've been kind of disappointed with the quality of tacos.

My 3-year-old nephew is a very picky eater but loves tacos. Yesterday, I asked him what did he want for lunch, hotdogs or chicken. He said tacos.
posted by shoesietart at 12:03 PM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am generally of a pro-scientific view, but I would like to reaffirm my assertion that the taco was stolen from the Mayan gods by a Chihuahua and given to humankind for the benefit of all. It has since become one of the great pillars of civilization.
posted by nowhere man at 12:11 PM on November 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Fried ground beef tacos (or as we call 'em, "Grandma tacos," because every Mexican grandma in our neighborhood made them often) are beyond awesome. Good enough that they just nudge out carne asada tacos.
posted by azpenguin at 12:37 PM on November 9, 2012

Thanks, cell divide, this is awesome!

"There are a number of promising young scholars working on tacos in Mexico, and I think the first chair in taco studies will likely be founded there. There is a taco bell distinguished professorship at Washington State University, but it is in business management and therefore doesn’t count."
posted by clavicle at 1:14 PM on November 9, 2012

AND AND AND cell divide's interview touches on the fact that tacos al pastor are an invention of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico. Effectively, shawarma tacos!
posted by clavicle at 1:24 PM on November 9, 2012 [8 favorites]

We had a post about Nate Silver's Burrito Bracket earlier today, and now this? Is this some sort of conspiracy? (I think I know what's for dinner tonight!)
posted by crazy_yeti at 1:50 PM on November 9, 2012

To pile on with languagehat, I'm not sure this article has the etymology right. There's a pre-Columbian dish that's still eaten in Mexico that carries a very similar sounding Aztec-derived name and is similarly composed: behold the tlacoyo.

In any case, the taco itself is incredibly ancient and pre-existed the presence of the word in dictionaries. I guess I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't even a word for it, possibly because it was such a common thing. Meals in Mexico are served with tortillas and the diners are likely to scoop up some of the food into a tortilla, rather like Ethiopian food is eaten with injera or Indian food with naan.
posted by chrchr at 1:51 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Interesting. I'm a little skeptical, though. Tlacoyos are tacos the same way dumplings are sandwiches. Yeah on some level it's all, like, "you put a bunch of masa and a little bit of protein into some kind of special configuration," but they don't actually seem all that similar beyond that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:32 PM on November 9, 2012

> I'm a little skeptical, though. Tlacoyos are tacos the same way dumplings are sandwiches.

I don't think chrchr's point was that taco is from tlacoyo, end of story, but that if you're doing a whole piece on tacos and where they come from and where the word comes from, in considerable detail, it doesn't look too good if you don't mention tlacoyo.
posted by languagehat at 5:05 PM on November 9, 2012

the diners are likely to scoop up some of the food into a tortilla

The book focuses on the emergence of the taco as a unique item sold on its own, under its own name. People dipped bread in things, or used it to scoop up meat for years before the sandwich became its own thing.
posted by cell divide at 5:13 PM on November 9, 2012

languagehat — right, that I'll agree with.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:14 PM on November 9, 2012

behold the tlacoyo.

That's just an oblong Chalupa.
posted by Malice at 8:49 PM on November 9, 2012

That's just an oblong Chalupa.

No no, they're stuffed, whereas a chalupa is a pile of stuff on top of a round thing, though I guess you could make the argument that a huarache is an oblong chalupa. The Wikipedia page on sopes seems to have a good breakdown.

(Re tlacoyos, I will lay money they are discussed elsewhere in the book, just not in the snippet we're reading here.)
posted by clavicle at 9:52 AM on November 10, 2012

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