Jeffrey Pilcher has a thing for tacos and Mexican food. So much so that he has dedicated much of his research to tacos and Mexican food on both sides of the border. He came to popular attention with his 2012 book, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, a sequel of sorts to ¡Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity, a tracing of the development of Mexican nationalism through a history of its food from the domestication of corn to the 20th century.
Pilcher, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, took the time to answer a lengthy set of interview questions from Taco Trail HQ, providing answers both light-hearted and rigorous. We cover taquerias outside of North America, favorite salsas, the future of tacos, the need for a beer after eating more than one’s fill in tacos and loads more.
Taco Trail: If pre-Hispanic peoples have been filling tortillas for more than a millennium, why is it important to distinguish that food from the taco?
Jeffrey Pilcher: Food is not just nutrition. It is also culture. Just think about what maize means to Mexicans and compare that with most folks in the United States. We know that ancient Mexican civilizations worshiped maize and ate tamales as a form of communion. They believed that if they did not make sacrifices to their gods, the maize fields would not grow and people would starve. These are deep and important meanings, but they are very different from the taco shops that first appeared in Mexico City about 1900. Historical context is essential for understanding what was important in people’s lives, and I think the taco tells us a lot about working-class people in modern Mexico.
TT: What’s the inspiration for your study of the taco?
JP: Precisely that it gives us such a good opportunity to study the lives of ordinary people.
TT: What are the marks of a great taqueria and a great taco?
JP: Freshness. Fresh tortillas. Meat just off the grill. A really good salsa (that smooth guacamole is my favorite). A squeeze of lime. A Mexican beer. It’s all about freshness. And having a lively scene, with people waiting in line for tacos, is how the taco vendors can serve fresh food and still make a profit. TT: You do a lot of traveling. If you stumble upon a Mexican restaurant in, let’s say, Stockholm, the home of La Neta, do you stop in for a bite to eat?
JP: I ate so much Mexican food around the world, and while it was interesting anthropologically, it wasn’t always good Mexican. I’ve gotten to the point where I would rather eat Swedish food in Stockholm. I understand that the Swedes want to get their tacos too, but I would rather wait until I get home.
TT: Much of your work focuses on the nationalization of regional Mexican foods. Is Mexico bound to be like the United States, where much of the regionality of its foods has disappeared? Is that inevitable with globalization and enough wealth where Mexicans don’t have to eat locally and seasonally?
JP: Eating locally and seasonally is getting to be a luxury in our global food system, and not everybody can afford to do it. But many Mexicans have a tremendous attachment to the land and to the food that it produces. I hope that people can afford to keep those attachments. You don’t need fancy cuts of meat or anything exotic to eat well. Some really good tortillas made from fresh nixtamal, a plate of frijoles negros, some good salsa—that can taste better than a filet mignon.
TT: What are some Mexican dishes in danger of becoming extinct that you hope make a comeback?
JP: There are really two problems here: ecological problems and cultural problems. Ecologically, when foods like gusanos or fajitas get popular, the price goes up and the people who used to be able to eat them can no longer afford them. So that’s a problem to keep in mind. But there are also dishes that were just considered unfashionable, like quelites or huauzontles or verdolagas. Fortunately, those dishes are becoming more available, even in markets in Minnesota. But maybe that means there are people in Mexico who are not able to get them. So the two problems are connected. It’s all about understanding who has access to what foods and how to bring democracy and justice to the food system.
TT: Recently, Mexico surpassed the United States as the most obese nation. What historical changes to the cuisine have contributed to this, do you suspect, and are there lessons to be learned from the history of the cuisine that can help reverse this trend—or current trends that might make Mexican food healthier without diminishing its tastiness?
JP: Mexicans have adopted the worst elements of the U.S. fast food diet. People drink more Coke per capita in Mexico than in the United States For a long time, junk foods were seen by poor people as an opportunity to taste modernity. Now traditional foods like whole grains are recognized as being healthier, and I think attitudes will start to change. A recent study showed that levels of childhood obesity in the United States are beginning to level off and decline, even among the working classes. I find this a very hopeful sign that we are recognizing that those “poverty foods” were not so bad after all.
TT: Innovation and versatility are key to the taco’s endurance. In the United States, these characteristics can make for a safe entry point to tacos. We have Korean-Mexican tacos, gourmet tacos, breakfast tacos and the hard shell taco–what you call the Mexican-American taco, for example. Innovation is the reason cited by Taco Bell’s CEO, Greg Creed, when asked about the chain’s wildly popular Doritos Locos Tacos. Taco Bell also offers healthful options and the Power Protein menu. Is there a point where things go too far? Just because you can put something in a tortilla does that make it a taco?
JP: I suppose you can put anything you want in a tortilla and call it a taco, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to taste good. There are some standard tacos that we order all the time like barbacoa, al pastor, carnitas, lengua because they’re good. Maybe some of these new innovations will work too. I kind of like Korean BBQ tacos. But a lot of nouvelle concoctions are forgettable. I’m not a stickler for authenticity. Tacos al pastor don’t go back to the Aztecs or Maya. They were invented by second-generation Lebanese Mexicans in the 1960s. Not so long ago, they were nouvelle. But they stuck around because they work. I think taste is the real question.
TT: What aspects of the taco, what types of tacos do you think are ripe for study?
JP: Regional foods. There is still so much to learn about how Mexican food varies from one place to the next. Domingo Garcia Garza wrote a wonderful essay about tacos in Monterrey. We need more such studies.
TT: What advice would you give anyone interested in studying tacos and/or Mexican food?
JP: Create an archive. Find an old cookbook or do some oral history interviews with cooks or document a traditional festival or restaurant, but save the notes and post them on the web. We know so little about food in the past because nobody thought it was important enough to document. Future historians are counting on our generation to create the materials for studying what is such an interesting and important moment in the history of food.
TT: What one Spanish-language history of Mexican food would you recommend?
JP: I am currently reading Jose Luis Juarez Lopez’s Engranaje culinario: La cocina mexicana en el siglo XIX, which is fascinating.
TT: What’s next in your study of Mexican food, tacos and food history?
JP: After all those tacos, I think I need a beer.
TT: What would be your taco of choice for a last meal?
JP: The thing about tacos is you always want another one, so I’d rather not think about a last meal.