Unwrapping the history of Mexico's real national snack uncovers classism, dynamite, and shifting definitions of culture.
Image from Flickr via Jeremy Brooks
The search for authentic Mexican food—or rather, the struggle to define what that meant—has been going on for two hundred years, and some of the most important battles have been fought outside of Mexico. Notions of authenticity have been contested through interactions between insiders and outsiders, they have changed over time, and they have contributed to broader power relations. The very idea of Mexico was first conceived by Creoles, people of European descent born in the Americas, who imagined a shared past with Aztec monarchs to claim political autonomy within the Spanish empire, but who scorned the native foods made of corn. When independence came in the nineteenth century, attempts to forge a national cuisine were torn between nostalgia for Creole traditions and the allure of European fashions. Foods considered to be Indian were largely ignored, along with yet another variant of Mexican cooking that emerged in the northern territories conquered by Yankee invaders. With the U.S. rise to global power in the twentieth century, this Tex-Mex cooking was industrialized and carried around the world. Mexican elites, confronted with the potential loss of their culinary identity to this powerful neighbor, then sought to ground their national cuisine in the pre-Hispanic past.
The struggle between industrialized Tex-Mex foods and Mexican peasant cuisines is a battle between globalization and national sovereignty. But an exclusive focus on this national rivalry ignores important chapters in the history of Mexican food, notably the food processing corporations that were made in Mexico and the home cooking of Mexican Americans. There is no single “authentic” cuisine, but rather multiple variations of Mexican food.
People have been eating corn tortillas with bits of meat or beans rolled up inside for more than a millennium, but the taco achieved national hegemony only in the twentieth century. Traditionally, every region in Mexico had its own distinctive snack foods, collectively known as anto-jitos (little whimsies), made of corn dough, formed in countless ingenious shapes, and called by a wide variety of local names. The now-ubiquitous label of “taco” is a modern usage, probably deriving from a Spanish root, in contrast to such dishes as tamales and pozole, which have a clear lineage to indigenous languages. European meats, including beef, pork, and chicken, are the most common taco fillings, which would seem to make it part of Mexico’s mestizo, or mixed Spanish-Indian heritage, a central tenet of modern nationalist ideology. Indeed, Salvador Novo’s national history of Mexican food imagined that this process of culinary mixing began with the first taco, a combination of Spanish pork and Indian corn—“carnitas in taco, with hot tortillas”—served to the conquistador Cortés.
However, Novo could only imagine this scene because documentary references to edible tacos are nonexistent for the three centuries of colonial rule. To understand the historical emergence of the taco, it is necessary to step outside the Mexican nation and consider evidence from Europe.
The Spanish word “taco,” like the English “tack,” is common to most Romantic and Germanic languages. The first known reference, from 1607, appeared in French and signified a cloth plug used to hold in place the ball of an arquebus, an early firearm. Eighteenth-century Spanish dictionaries also defined “taco” as a ramrod, a billiard cue, a carpenter’s hammer, and a gulp of wine—a combination recalling the English colloquialism, a “shot” of liquor. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did the Spanish Royal Academy expand the meaning to encompass a snack of food. The specific Mexican version was not acknowledged until well into the twentieth century. 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).
National histories offer little insight on the taco until the late nineteenth century. Cookbooks of the time reflected the elite preference for Spanish and French cuisine over indigenous dishes, although El Cocinero Mexicano (The Mexican Chef, 1831) provided a long list of street foods including quesadillas and chalupas (canoes), enchiladas and their rustic kin chilaquiles, and envueltos. The envuelto (Spanish for “wrap”) comes closest to what would now be called a taco, but crossed with an enchilada, having chile sauce poured over the fried tortilla. Most extravagant were the envueltos de Nana Rosa (Granny Rosa’s wraps), stuffed with pica dillo (chopped meat) and garnished profusely. Mexico’s costumbrista literature of social manners provides additional information about nineteenth-century street foods. The first national novel, José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi’s El Periquillo Sarniento (The mangy parrot, 1816), likewise made no mention of tacos but did describe a lunch cooked by Nana Rosa “consisting of envueltos, chicken stew, adobo [marinated meat], and pulque [a native wine made of fermented maguey] flavored with prickly pears and pineapple.”
In retrospect, it is easy to see the similarity between a chicken taquito with hot sauce and a stick of dynamite.
Tacos gained widespread attention only in 1891, with the publication of Manuel Payno’s masterpiece, Los bandidos de Río Frío (The bandits of Cold River). In an early scene in the novel, set during the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a group of Indians danced in honor of the national saint, while feasting on “chito [fried goat] with tortillas, drunken salsa, and very good pulque . . . and the children skipping, with tacos of tortillas and avocado in their hand.” Although this culinary meaning of taco had certainly been in popular use for some time, with Payno’s benediction, it quickly received official recognition in Feliz Ramos I. Duarte’s 1895 Diccionario de mejicanismos, which attributed the geographical origin of the term to Mexico City.
To understand how a Spanish word, newly used for a generic snack, became associated with a particular form of rolled tortilla, requires a shift to the silver mines that connected colonial Mexico with the global economy.
Mexican and Peruvian silver formed the lifeblood not just for the Spanish empire, but for world trade in the early modern era. Endless chests of treasure passed successively from the Spanish crown to German and Genoese bankers, Dutch and Portuguese merchants, and finally Indian and Chinese workshops. The fabled Manila galleon also shipped Mexican silver pesos directly across the Pacific from Acapulco. Although the early boomtowns of Zacatecas and Potosí had gone bust by the mid-seventeenth century, the newly installed Bourbon dynasty mobilized technicians and workers from Europe and the Americas to revive the industry in the late-eighteenth century. Real del Monte, the greatest of these new mines, was discovered near the town of Pachuca, sixty miles north of Mexico City. By a linguistic chance, mine workers called their explosive charges of gunpowder wrapped in paper “tacos,” a reference that derived both from the specific usage of a powder charge for a firearm and from the more general meaning of plug, since they prepared the blast by carving a hole in the rock before inserting the explosive taco. In retrospect, it is easy to see the similarity between a chicken taquito with hot sauce and a stick of dynamite.
Understanding Mexican food requires not only global and local perspectives but also ethnic and business histories. The postwar association of Mexican food with the taco shell was determined as much by material considerations as by ethnic stereotypes.
Making tortillas by hand involves skilled labor, even with the assistance of mechanical nixtamal mills and folding presses. Moreover, tortillas, like donuts, are best eaten fresh, preferably within a few hours off the griddle. In Mexico, tortilla factories have been largely a cottage industry, conveniently located on any street corner, and operating sporadically throughout the day for customers who line up before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This just-in-time business model, however, fit poorly in the postwar “Fordist” era of giant factories pursuing economies of scale. Mass production was needed to achieve profits on low-value commodities, and there are few consumer goods cheaper than a corn tortilla. Commercial supplies of fresh tortillas were simply uneconomical in markets without regular demand from knowledgeable consumers, which basically meant everywhere except Mexico, Central America, and a few cities in the United States. By contrast, taco shells could be produced in bulk, wrapped in plastic, stored in warehouses, and shipped around the world, albeit with some breakage. They were also easier to eat than fresh corn tortillas, at least for consumers unpracticed in the deft art of rolling their own tacos.
Octavio Paz famously declared, “the melting pot is a social idea that, when applied to culinary art, produces abominations.”
These considerations of technological efficiency and gendered labor suggest the usefulness of approaching Mexican food from a commodity chain analysis, with its comprehensive perspective on production, distribution, and consumption. Commodity chains have become still more lengthy and contentious in the present era of globalization. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), implemented in 1994, allowed the free entry of subsidized Midwestern maize to Mexico, undermining family farms and forcing many to migrate north in search of work. Then, in 2007, a rush to convert corn into bio-fuel caused sudden inflation in the cost of tortillas to the poorest Mexican consumers. In a tragic irony of global capitalism, the loss of food security in Mexico coincided with the increasing presence of fresh corn tortillas in markets around the world.
The Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously declared, “the melting pot is a social idea that, when applied to culinary art, produces abominations.” In exalting Mexican regional cuisine as authentic and scorning Tex-Mex as a bastard, he denounced the Mexican Americans who blend two cultures in their everyday lives. By contrast, the Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa called for an awareness of people who live between or across the borders that separate nations and races. The term “Tex-Mex,” which has been used to denote any form of inauthentic Mexican food, more properly describes a regional variant of Mexican culture from Texas, with Anglo Saxon and Central European influences, just as Veracruz is a melting pot of Afro-Mexican culture and Sonora has a taste of Chinese. Such a consciousness allows for the recognition of endless varieties of Mexican food. Norteño cooks often make soft tacos with tortillas of wheat flour instead of corn because of regional patterns of agriculture. Ground beef, iceberg lettuce, and cheddar cheese were the most readily available ingredients from the U.S. food processing industry. Contrary to corporate myth, Mexican Americans even invented the taco shell, back when Glen Bell was still boiling weenies. Instead of the fast food taco, it should be called the Mexican American taco, as a tribute to the creativity of hard-working ethnic cooks.
People use food to think about others, and popular views of the taco as cheap, hot, and potentially dangerous have reinforced racist images of Mexico as a land of tequila, migrants, and tourist’s diarrhea. Moreover, colonial stereotypes about Mexicans and their food that took shape in the southwestern United States have been transmitted around the world. But it also makes no sense to exchange the Anglo mythology of chili queens and the Taco Bell dog for a Manichean nationalist ideology prescribing romanticized peasant food as an antidote to McDonaldization.
Either conclusion would be far too neat. The history of tacos, like eating tacos, is a messy business.
The origins of the flour tortilla are lost, but the meanings that it had for the people of northern New Spain need not be. From a material perspective, it was a relatively easy way for rural women to prepare wheat without the time and expense of making either risen bread or corn tortillas, as folklorist Arthur Campa has noted. “Wheat tortillas replaced the corn product in Hispanic homes in northern Mexico and most of the Southwest. It was considerably easier and faster for the housewife to prepare the biscuit-like dough and roll it out than go through the long process of making nixtamal,” he explained. “With wheat tortillas she could have bread on the table in a matter of minutes.” Convenience was certainly important for hardworking frontier women, but such a calculation was valid only when both grains were affordable, a late colonial phenomenon at best. Symbolically, wheat and corn held very different meanings; the former as the food of Spanish conquistadors, the latter associated with lower-class Indians. Even today in New Mexico, the choice of tortillas can be a political statement—many status-conscious Hispanic women would not be caught dead making them out of Indian corn. Moreover, these associations vary across the north; flour tortillas may have arrived last in northeastern New Spain, the leading center of Jewish settlement in the colonial period. Home economists found that Mexicans in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas were just making the transition from corn to flour tortillas in the 1930s.
Contrary to corporate myth, Mexican Americans even invented the taco shell, back when Glen Bell [founder of Taco Bell] was still boiling weenies.
Border residents often take great pride in their Hispanic origins, but Indians also made vital contributions to the cuisines of northern Mexico. Despite the priests’ tireless proselytism of wheat bread and wine, pioneer women of Mesoamerican origin were just as successful in spreading corn tortillas and chile pepper stews to the region. Spaniards were also influenced by native cooking practices, for example, during a famine of 1590 in which a Spanish official ordered two oxen to be pit-roasted in an indigenous manner as “barbacoa de mezcal.” Nor were the native inhabitants of the frontier passive in these cultural exchanges. They provided crucial knowledge of local foods to both Spaniards and Mesoamerican Indians alike. While adapting new foods and practices to survive in a landscape irrevocably changed by colonialism, the Pueblos, Rarámuri, Cunca’ac and others succeeded in preserving their cultural integrity.
Even Spaniards lived simply on the colonial frontier, with few luxuries beyond the inevitable cup of chocolate. Wealthy mining towns absorbed the bulk of agricultural surpluses, and most settlers depended on maize for subsistence. Only at the end of the eighteenth century did the wheat flour tortilla emerge as a product of an artistic renaissance in the borderlands. These cooking practices eventually coalesced into distinct regional cuisines through a process of selective historical memory that assigned iconic foods to local identities—dried beef as symbolic of Sonoran vaqueros, lamb adobo emblemizing New Mexican shepherds—even though colonial New Mexicans salted beef and Sonorans also used adobo.
Nor was there an “authentic” Mexican food in pre-Hispanic times. Although the Creoles who first conceived of the idea of Mexico considered themselves to be the heirs of Aztec emperors, they had no desire to inherit Moctezuma’s dinner. The indigenous cuisine of maize, while nutritious, diverse, and sophisticated, was more often associated with poor Indians living in the countryside than with the grandeur of pre-Hispanic civilizations. There were a few exceptions; Creoles eagerly adopted chocolate, the drink of Maize in the Making of Mexico by the ancient nobility, and chiles, with their addictive spicy flavors. But ambivalence about the indigenous culinary heritage continued to frustrate efforts to define a Mexican national cuisine throughout the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, corn and chiles spread widely around the world.
Reprinted and excerpted from Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey M. Pilcher.
Jeffrey M. Pilcher teaches history at the University of Minnesota and is a specialist on food. He is also the author of Food in World History and The Sausage Rebellion: Public Health, Private Enterprise, and Meat in Mexico City, 1890-1917.