Last month the editor of OC Weekly, Gustavo Arellano, began readings around the country and got an interview in the New York Times for his new book, "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America." Now comes Jeffrey M. Pilcher, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota who for 20 years "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." (That's from an interview in this month's Smithsonian.) His book, "Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food," is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
Here's how each author gives a capsule summation of taco history. First Pilcher in the Smithsonian story.
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 “taco” 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 minero—miner’s tacos....
The first mention that I have seen [in the U.S.] is in 1905, in a newspaper. That’s a time when Mexican migrants are starting to come—working the mines and railroads and other such jobs. In the United States, Mexican food was seen as street food, lower-class food. It was associated with a group of women called the Chili Queens and with tamale pushcarts in Los Angeles
Ah, but Arellano has an earlier U.S. newspaper reference, from the Los Angeles Times.
Although Mexicans have wrapped tortillas around a foodstuff and called the results a meal since time immemorial, deeming it a "taco" is relatively new; Mexican Spanish etymologists can trace such usage back only to the late 1800s. Its earliest-known mention in American letters came in an 1899 L.Angeles Times piece about life in Mexico City, written by L.A. socialite Olive Percival. She described tacos as "a turnover filled with chopped, highly seasoned meats," but wrote that she didn't dare eat it. Describing Mexicans as "a brave, patient, capable people — in their own land — and hopeless," Percival would be the last known Angeleno to resist the taco's allure.
The taco didn't make another documented appearance in the United States until 1914, when it appeared in the pages of California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, one of the earliest English-language Mexican cookbooks. Another Angeleno authored it: Bertha Haffner-Ginger, whose cooking classes on Mexican food across the country drew hundreds. Her book includes both the oldest known taco recipe in the United States and a picture of it. This ur-taco would be familiar to us even today: a fried, glistening mass, its iconic arc waiting for someone's mouth.
But the taco was still a newcomer to these parts during the 1910s; it had yet to make it onto the menus of Mexican restaurants. That changed forever with the Mexican Revolution, which sent refugees from Mexico's Taco Belt — Jalisco, Guanajuato, Mexico City, Zacatecas, Michoacán and the other states of central Mexico — to Southern California, bringing with them an appetite for tacos. While tacos first made an appearance in the tamale wagons in downtown Los Angeles during the 1920s, the first superstars of the genre were the shredded beef taquitos sold by Aurora Guerrero and her family at Cielito Lindo in Olvera Street, starting in 1934: compact, crunchy beauties that other restaurants quickly copied, thereby setting a taco template that has repeated itself ever since.
I believe an academic conference is needed to get to the bottom of the taco discrepancy. I volunteer to moderate.
Photo via LA Weekly. Caption reads: "Irene Montano's father-in-law taught Taco Bell's founder everything he knew about tacos."