Where Did the Taco Come From?
Jeffrey M. Pilcher, professor of history at the University of Minnesota, has traveled around the world eating tacos. For the past 20 years, he has investigated the history, politics and evolution of Mexican food, including how Mexican silver miners likely invented the taco, how Mexican Americans in the Southwest reinvented it, and how businessman Glen Bell mass-marketed it to Anglo palates via the crunchy Taco Bell shell. Pilcher is author and editor, respectively, of the forthcoming Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (Oxford University Press) and The Oxford Handbook of Food History. His previous books include The Sausage Rebellion: Public Health, Private Enterprise, and Meat in Mexico City, 1890-1917Â andÂ Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity.
To where have you traced the birth of the taco? And what about the origin of the word itself?
The origins of the taco are really unknown. My theory is that it dates from the 18th century and the silver mines in Mexico, because in those mines the word âtacoâ referred to the little charges they would use to excavate the ore. These were pieces of paper that they would wrap around gunpowder and insert into the holes they carved in the rock face. When you think about it, a chicken taquito with a good hot sauce is really a lot like a stick of dynamite. The first references [to the taco] in any sort of archive or dictionary come from the end of the 19th century. And one of the first types of tacos described is called tacos de mineroâminerâs tacos. So the taco is not necessarily this age-old cultural expression; itâs not a food that goes back to time immemorial.
What role did the taquerĂa play in Mexican history? Who ate there?
For a long time taquerĂas were in the working-class neighborhoods. Industrialization brought migrants from all over the country, and particularly women, to Mexico City because of light industry. Women brought with them their regional cooking skills. Every state, every region, every town has slightly different foods, so Mexico City was a bubbling stew where all these foods were available. People were able to sample a cosmopolitan world of dining that was not for the rich. This Mexican popular cuisine was the origin of what we think about as Mexican food.