Tacos: you know 'em, you love 'em, and the whole damn country is awash with cuisine-bending variations. But despite all the food trucks, fast food chains, and takeout spots, we realized we actually know very little about the dish.
So we got in touch with Jeffery Pilcher, Ph.D., author and professor of Mexican and Latin American Culture. He's spent the past two decades researching the history and political climate surrounding the evolution of Mexican cuisine, so it's safe to say that the guy knows his way around a taco stand.
“I started out as a Mexican historian and was fortunate enough to be doing my dissertation just as food history started to emerge,” says Pilcher. “My book Planet Taco emerged from my attempt to make sense of why foods that seem to be very old were in fact reinvented quite recently.” Case in point: despite the whole culinary fusion thing that saw food trucks and taco joints bringing new flavors to the dish (Kogi in LA, with their now-famous Korean short rib tacos, is probably the most notable), tacos have been an everyman's food since the 19th century.
It turns out, the term “taco” originally referred to the explosive powder charges used in Mexican silver mines in the late 1800s. Miners would wrap gunpowder in silver paper to make a cigar-style explosive, and their nickname for the charges caught on. Then, “the miners started calling their lunches tacos as well, since tortillas wrapped around potatoes or other simple stuffings with hot sauce resembled the little sticks of dynamite,” Pilcher says.
But tacos may have never made it out of the mines, were it not for the modernization of Mexican industries and a push to include women in the workforce.
“Tacos were a working class food served in the bustling barrios of Mexico City at a time when female migrants were coming from the countryside to work in small industries like tobacco rolling and textiles, which were popular in the capital,” says Pilcher. “Those who couldn’t get well-paying factory jobs sold their regional specialties in the streets in the form of the taco.” And just like that, the first taco stands were born.
So the taco has been around for well over a hundred years – a fact Pilcher attributes to our collective obsession with seeking out authentic street food from different cultures around the globe.
He says, though, that “authenticity is a tricky concept, since food is constantly changing. The taco shells that we now associate with fast food were originally invented by Mexican Americans adapting their food to life in the United States. But we are seeing a lot more tacos in the US that are like the street foods of Mexico, largely because there are so many migrants in the US bringing their foods – just like those unemployed miners who first brought tacos to Mexico City.”
Traditional taco fillings are still major menu staples: carne asada with chili sauce, carnitas with pineapple, chorizo, and white fish with shredded cabbage and guacamole. But there are lots of other Mexican variations you may not see on modern stateside menus, like...
Barbacoa: a whole lamb or goat that's been slowly steamed in maguey leaves
Buche: pork stomach
Cabeza: steamed steer head meat
Chapuline: grilled grasshoppers
Whatever kind you're eating, from the old-school traditional types to the boundary-pushing modern variants, the formula is essentially the same: protein, a garnish or three, and a tortilla to keep everything together. They're easy to make, easy to eat, and taste damn good – which is probably why we’ve continued to love them even as the cultural conditions that gave rise to them have come and gone.