Tacos: A Brief History
This post is the first in a series that looks at the origins of popular foods and ingredients. I love discovering the cuisine of other cultures and incorporating it into my meals. But I also believe that if I’m going to cook food from another culture, I need to learn about its past. In the case of tacos, I did this in reverse order. I wrote a post about serving leftovers in tacos and used the word “tacofy.” I was trying to be catchy but since publishing that post–name now changed–I’ve felt uneasy that I used such a nonsense term for a food whose history I knew nothing about. So here it is, a brief history of the taco.
With their presence on virtually every casual restaurant and pub menu, tacos have become almost generic, considered in the same category as chicken wings and spinach dip. If asked, most people would probably identify the taco as Mexican. While they wouldn’t be entirely wrong in that guess, they wouldn’t be entirely right either. The taco as we know it is a Mexican invention, but it would not exist without the tortilla, a food with indigneous origins that predates European colonization of the Americas. The story of the taco is so long and involved that historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher literally wrote a book about it. I will not go into such depths here, but will share some of what I learned about this now globalized food, including an area of particular interest to me–the role of women in its development. (For a deep dive into the taco’s history, I recommend Pilcher’s book and the other resources I’ve cited below.)
According to What’s Cooking America, “taco” is a generic word like the English “sandwich.” A taco is simply a “tortilla wrapped around a filling.” But the taco has a much shorter history than the tortilla from which it was derived. Pilcher believes the word “taco” originated in France and Spain, in reference to a cloth plug used to hold ammunition in an early gun called an arquebus. The first use of “taco” to define a small bite of food was seen in Spain in the mid-1800s.
In Mexico, the word “taco” emerged in an unexpected place: the silver mines of the 18th century. Miners would wrap gunpowder in pieces of paper called “tacos” to set the charges used to extract the ore. It was later in the 1800s that “taco” was used to describe food in Mexico. The “miner’s taco” appears to be the earliest known use. The first taco recipe in an English-language cookbook appeared in 1914; it consisted of a tortilla that was filled with meat and chili sauce and deep-fried. (What’s Cooking America) The earliest picture of the taco dates from the 1920s, when a woman was shown selling “sweaty tacos” to a group of paperboys; these tacos were lightly fried and stuffed with potatoes and salsa. (Pilcher, p.7-8)
The invention of the hard taco shell came later, in about the 1940s. Although Taco Bell founder Glen Bell claimed to have invented the fried taco shell, Pilcher notes that Mexican-Americans were responsible for that innovation. (Pilcher, p. 130.) The basis of the taco shell is, of course, the corn tortilla. And that particular food has been around for millennia, dating back to ancient Mesoamerica.
Women are central to the story of both corn and tortillas. According to Pilcher, because of the gendered division of labour in Mesoamerican societies, it was very likely a woman who discovered a needle-in-a-haystack mutation of a plant called teosinte. Unlike its forbear, whose seeds were cased in a hard wooden shell, the mutation had accessible seeds. It was selected for planting, leading to the domestication of corn (or maize) by about 3500 B.C. As the farmers of their communities, women grew the crop. They also prepared tortillas and other corn-based foods like tamales, working “as hard grinding corn on the metate” as men building pyramids. (Pilcher, p. 26)
The tortilla (and taco) owe their existence to a process called nixtamalization, which was also overseen by women. (Ochoa, p. 35) Nixtamalization involved adding lime to corn to change its structure. Its name is derived from the indigenous words for ash lime (“nixtli”) and cooked dough (“tamalli”). In the nixtamalization process, women would soak corn in an alkaline solution, using lime or calcium, to remove its outer layer and make grinding easier. Nixtamalization also unlocked essential nutrients like niacin. (Carranza)
By the time the Spanish arrived in what is now Mexico, the corn tortilla was a staple for the Aztec and Mayan people who lived there. It was likely first used as an edible plate or spoon, but by 2000 B.C. it was used as a wrap for other foods. (History Today).*
After European contact, the tortilla followed a course that is all too familiar to indigenous people. Spanish colonizers elevated wheat, the food they were familiar with, and treated corn as inferior. Wheat bread became a status symbol, beginning what Pilcher describes as a “long-standing disdain” for indigenous culture and foods. As corn spread outward from Mesoamerica in the centuries after the first Spanish contact, it was welcomed by poor farmers who needed a sturdy crop to provide a reliable source of food. But the export of corn did not include the export of indigenous cooking knowledge. Without the nixtamalization process, corn’s nutrients, particularly niacin, were unavailable. Cases of pellagra, a serious and often fatal illness caused by niacin deficiency, became common. That, combined with corn’s association with indigent farmers, gave this vital crop a “plebeian image.” (Pilcher, p. 23-24, 36)
Fast forward to the late 1900s, and maize was seen by Mexican elites as the “foundation” for indigenous people’s “refusal to become civilized.” So strong was the belief in the deficiency of maize, that in the era of Mexican president Porfirio Diaz, which started in 1877 and ended in 1911, governments devised policies to move people away from traditional diets “created by indigenous women over the centuries.” (Ochoa, p. 35)
The denigration of corn followed Mexican migrants who began to move to the Los Angeles area in the early 20th century, in response to the Mexican revolution. As they settled in, they were confronted with a process of assimilation known, for obvious reasons, as “Americanization.” Mexican food, considered backward and lacking in nutrition, was one focus of these efforts at assimilation.
Women, who were so essential to the development of maize and indigenous and Mexican diets, became the target of campaigns to shift dietary patterns away from Mexican food and toward “American” food. Mexican mothers were assumed to be “ignorant of nutrition and health rules” and the “tortilla-based diet” they provided for their children was deemed inadequate and “not conducive to learning.” To remedy these perceived deficiencies, Americanization workers offered up recipes for non-Mexican alternatives, including sandwiches with nutritionally questionable ingredients like mayonnaise, catsup, and jelly. The ultimate goal was to raise children who could “successfully contribute” to American society. (Ochoa, p. 36) The words of Americanization teacher, quoted by historian George Sanchez, demonstrate the mindset behind the assimilation efforts:
“‘Go after the women’ should become a slogan among Americanization workers, for after all the greatest good is to be obtained by starting the home off right. The children of these foreigners are the advantages to America, not the naturalized foreigners. These are never 100% Americans, but the second generation may be. ‘Go after the women’ and you may save the second generation for America.” (Sanchez, p. 1)
In addition to racist rhetoric and attitudes, Mexican immigrants to the US faced growing repression, culminating in the mass deportation of one million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the 1930s. But efforts to assimilate Mexican food customs ultimately failed. As Ochoa notes, Mexicans “had a deep understanding of basic nutrition and their diets were often far more elaborate than Americanization teachers indicated.” (Ochoa, p. 37)
As the Mexican population in the Los Angeles area continued to grow, so too did the demand for tortillas and other Mexican foods. “Tortillerías” served the need in the 1920s and by the 1930s, the first tortilla making machines were invented. The earliest tortillerías were small and family-owned, but mechanization led to larger businesses taking over. Women, who were so closely connected to the process of making tortillas, were left behind as men and their inventions took over.
Like many other businesses, tortilla production would become consolidated into a few larger companies that would eventually dominate the market and sideline the smaller tortillerías. (Ochoa, p. 38) Pilcher notes the logistics of this change. Handmade tortillas were labour-intensive and best eaten fresh. The shift to mass produced tortillas and hard taco shells meant greater efficiencies and a shelf-stable product that could be shipped to grocery stores all over North America. Yet he also acknowledges the “upheaval” in gendered labour this caused. (Pilcher, p. 13-14)
And now, the mainstream tortilla, in Ochoa’s words, has been disassociated from Mesoamerican history and culture. Indeed, for many people, tortillas are now thought of primarily as flour-based flatbreads, churned out en masse and packaged in plastic for sale at grocery stores, or conflated with the fast food of Taco Bell and its gorditas, stackers, and Dorito-flavoured taco shells. There is little knowledge of the history of assimilation nor the role of indigenous peoples–particularly women–in the creation of this now ubiquitous food.
The marketing of tortillas, tacos, and other Mexican foods has reinforced this erasure. The focus is either romanticized views of the Spanish Mission era–think the mission bell in the Taco Bell logo or names like “Old El Paso”–or stereotypes of Mexicans as “banditos,” seen in the Taco Bell dog of several years ago and the current label for Newman’s Own salsa, which shows Paul Newman in a sombrero with a long moustache alongside the tagline “So good it oughta be outlawed.” (Newman’s Own) None of these images reference indigenous peoples, and none depict Mexicans or their culture fairly either. As Ochoa notes, the tortilla and taco have become mere commodities, exceedingly popular around the world, but with no “roots, history, or cultural context.” (Ochoa, p. 34-43)
But that situation may be changing. Pilcher believes the current trend of culinary tourism and the quest for authenticity in food might lead to a waning of the hard taco shell as the ultimate symbol of Mexican cuisine and a greater awareness and appreciation of soft corn tortillas and their historical origins. (Pilcher, p. 13) Current events would also appear to be moving us in that direction, as people seek out more diverse and authentic voices in food journalism. (See the story of Bon Appetit and other food media for more on that.)
In the end, the history of the taco shows the complexity of food as a cultural artifact, and reminds us that there is always more to the story of the various cuisines we enjoy. Digging deeper gives us valuable insights into the people who created the food and its significance in their lives and culture.
*For the record, the Mesoamerican diet was extremely diverse and highly creative. According to the writings of Spanish priests of the period, the foods of the Aztecs included dishes like tamales with crab sauce and tortillas made with cactus fruit. (Pilcher, p. 21)
Carranza, Elvira Troyo. (2015) Modern Authentic Mexican Cooking. Bloomington: Balboa Press. (Kindle Edition)
Ochoa, Enrique C. (2015) “From Tortillas to Low-carb Wraps: Capitalism and Mexican Food in Los Angeles since the 1920s,” Diálogo: Vol. 18 : No. 1 , Article 5, pp. 33-46. https://via.library.depaul.edu/dialogo/vol18/iss1/5/
Pilcher, Jeffrey M. (2012) Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. London: Oxford University Press. (Kindle Edition)
Sánchez, George. (1984) “‘Go After The Women’”: Americanization and the Mexican Immigrant Woman 1915-1929.” Stanford Center for Chicano Research, Working Paper Series No. 6. https://www.law.berkeley.edu/php-programs/centers/crrj/zotero/loadfile.php?entity_key=A4D6DFZI
Image of corn by Mariia Sultovana | Dreamstime