“The traditional taco has to be fried,” declared The Brownsville Herald in 1950. It might be surprising that a newspaper from a Texas border town with a large Mexican and Mexican-American population would print such a statement. But it shouldn’t. Although there are stateside references to filled and folded tortillas through the 19th century, the first print references to the taco in the United States goes back to the turn of the 20th century. First, in an 1898 travelogue that was published in the Los Angeles Times a couple of years later, and then in 1914 when Bertha Haffner-Ginger included a recipe in her California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook. In 1922, a taco recipe appeared in the Castelar Crèche Cook Book. Both recipes called for the taco to be fried. As a matter of fact, scads of published material defined a taco as a meat-filled folded tortilla that is fried. It is perhaps the greatest joke played on those who insist a taco starts with a soft corn tortilla. Continue reading
Category Archives: History
My phone buzzed and the nightstand on which it sat carried the vibration. It was Saturday morning and the Do Not Disturb feature on the phone had deactivated. The reason for the buzzing? Notification that my wife—already out of bed—had posted something on my Facebook wall. That something was word that I had become a meme, those viral internet objects of squirrels fighting with lightsabers, clever phrases above an image of Ned Stark, a grumpy cat, and tacos tacos tacos. The form and subject of a meme is almost endless. And there I was wearing a western pearl-snap shirt grinning while squeezing limes on a plate of tacos alongside my brother-in-law at the lunch counter in the back of Mexican grocery in Tampa, Florida. The words “Money can buy me happiness. It’s called tacos.” framing the image. Well, yes. That is true, but neither of us nor the photographer, Jeff Houck, who at the time was a Tampa newspaper food writer, ever imagined we’d be part of a meme.
Miguel Salazar is the man behind the meme’s creation posted to his Instagram account, @officialsomexicano. “I originally had an idea of making a meme on the topic of tacos and I came across another meme that had a similar caption about how money can buy you happiness,” Salazar says. “I gave it a twist and added ‘Money can buy me happiness. It’s called tacos.’ This caption really speaks the truth because any Latino that has tacos is always happy, especially if someone buys them some. In the end no one can resist good tacos. Once I had the caption in mind, I looked for a photo that would be a good fit. I searched Google with the caption ‘man eating taco.’ Many results came up and it was not until I came across your photo that I decided that was my choice. You looked very happy about eating a taco and that was exactly how I wanted the photo to portray my caption Continue reading
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 5, 2016
By now you’ve seen Donald Trump’s Cinco de Mayo tweet (see above). In it, he declares his love for Hispanics while eating a taco salad—taco meat, tomatoes, cheese, whatever Mexican-like ingredients in an edible vessel—in his office. The self-contained very American food he was insincerely enjoying was set atop what looks like an image of his swimsuit-clad ex-wife, Marla Maples. Behind The Donald, we see desk drawers partially open. What a mess! Trump’s tweet came on the heels of his becoming the presumptive Republican nominee for president. You can look at taco salad in one of two ways. First, like the tweet, the taco salad is a pandering product of cultural mutation intended to make the mass consumption of Mexican-ish food and Latinidad palatable to the dominant Anglo culture. Or, as a result of endless cross-cultural culinary innovation, something that occurs when two traditions meet and get down. It’s neither good nor bad. The taco salad just is.
The dish began its slow journey to Trump’s desk in the 1950s when it was known as the Ta-Cup, an invention of Elmer Doolin, the founder of Fritos, as Gustavo Arellano writes in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Ta-Cups were sold at the Fritos restaurant in Disneyland. There was no stopping Fritos and the taco salad.
Not so fast. The edible tortilla-like bowl wasn’t yet the default vessel. One of the earliest references to “taco salad” was a recipe run by the Los Angeles Times. Submitted by a Mrs. Marilyn Jones, it was family favorite during hot weather. The salad utilized corn chips—not a fried tortilla bowl. A recipe serving 40 to 50 people published in the March 11, 1965, “Add a Touch of Old Mexico” installment of The Washington Post’s “Cooking for Crowds” column called for tortilla chips. Continue reading
“This is Taco Country!” Those four words—painted on the burnt orange façade of San Antonio’s legendary breakfast taco haunt, Taco Haven—are carried in every Texan’s heart and stomach. They are as fundamental to the Lone Star State’s identity as Friday Night Lights, “Pancho & Lefty,” and Dr Pepper. This is true across our tortilla-based wonderland from Big Bend to the Piney Woods and South Texas to the Metroplex.
I’m not only referring to the fried envelopes whose broken shards litter much of our cultural landscape. No, I mean all the tacos: jaralillos de res, carne asada tacos smothered under a salty tarp of queso fundido at Tacos El Toro Bronco in El Paso; the ground beef-nestling airships that are Ray’s Drive Inn’s puffy tacos; the slivers of paprika-lacquered pork served across Oak Cliff; Brownsville’s many Sunday barbacoa huts; the big-city gals that love dressing up; the just-this-side-of-familiar menu at new regional restaurants; and, yes, breakfast tacos.
As part of the promotion for its 120 Tacos to Eat Before You Die issue, Texas Monthly is hosted an online reader poll to determine which Texas city has the best tacos. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the editorial package, but the poll we’re addressing is all fan voting.) Ultimately, Austin won the top spot with 42 percent of the votes. The Rio Grande Valley scored a 25 percent, and Dallas, took third place with 15 percent.*
That the capital city is in first place doesn’t come as a surprise. Austin has an incredible PR machine fueled by its perceived coolness compared to other Texas cities. Austin has barbecue. Austin has SXSW. It has breakfast tacos. And, with the assistance of New York food writers who have visited Austin during a big festival or lived in the city for a spell, it’s fooled many into believing breakfast tacos are Austin-style. Let’s take as an example an article run last week by Eater Austin claiming Austin as the home of breakfast tacos. The piece by Matthew Sedacca came off as a rush job and evidence of an editorial disconnect. That same day, Eater LA published Meghan McCarron’s excellent profile of Los Angeles breakfast state mecca HomeState. In her piece, McCarron writes “Austin, Texas, is not the home of the breakfast taco, but it is the place where they became an iconic dish. … It took self-conscious, self-mythologizing Austin to turn them into a thing.” While Sedacca at least acknowledged that Texas breakfast tacos have origins across the state, he mentioned only one other city, Corpus Christi. That the city cited wasn’t San Antonio—where breakfast tacos and tacos in general are so ingrained in residents’ DNA that they’re taken for granted until Austin asserts its PR supremacy—ignited a firestorm and a tongue-in-cheek petition to have Sedacca exiled from the Lone Star State. I chuckled at the absurdity of it all. Allow me to explain why. Continue reading
If Mexico City, and by extension Mexico, were to have an iconic taco, it would be the taco al pastor. This bantam assembly of marinated pork shaved from a trompo (a vertical rotisserie) on a corn tortilla with pineapple, cilantro, onions and salsa is the object of lust for many taco enthusiasts. Spikes of heat, patches of char, citrus pep here and there: What’s not to like? It’s also considered the most authentic of tacos but it is not the first taco and was not adapted from some ancient Aztec recipe. Rather, the taco al pastor appeared in the capital in the mid-20th century, a product of native and immigrant culinary mash-up. It’s also not the only style of taco with meat from a vertical spit. It’s not even the first such dish in Mexico—several of which, including tacos al pastor, are outlined below.
Four hundred years after the Spanish came ashore on the Mexican mainland, initiating the birth of what would become Mexican food with pork, lard, beef and other comestibles, another group of non-indigenous peoples transformed Mexican food. This mass of people, immigrants from the Middle East, specifically Lebanon and Iran, into the city and state of Puebla, brought with them shawarma, lamb cooked on a vertical rotisserie, and their own flatbread, pita. The Mexican adaptation of shawarma popped up in the 1930s at Tacos Árabes Bagdad and Antigua Taqueria La Oriental, but took the form of pork (itself a Spanish import) served on a small pita-like tortilla called pan árabe. Continue reading