Tag Archives: books

An Interview With Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Taco Historian

Pilcher Photo 1

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. Continue reading

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under interviews, Lengua Sessions

Introducing Taco Trail’s Newest Contributor, Nick Zukin

Taco Trail contributor, Nick Zukin

When I received Nick Zukin’s email invitation to join him on a taco crawl along Maple Avenue in Dallas, I had no idea who he was. After reading the email, I knew I could learn some things about tacos and eat damn good tacos if I accepted the offer from the Portland, Oregon, resident. Since then, Nick has been a kindred spirit and my taco reference book mule. On his way back to Portland from Mexico, Nick has passed along essential reading material.

But Nick is more than a taco enthusiast and trafficker of the printed word. He’s also a food writer, restaurateur, cookbook author, tireless debater, tour guide, friend and, now, a Taco Trail contributor.

Let’s get to know him before moving on to his first post.

Taco Trail: You’re involved in myriad aspects of the food and restaurant world. How did you go from writer to owning and operating your own restaurants, a deli and Mi Mero Mole, a taqueria—even writing a cookbook, Artisan Jewish Deli at Home?

Nick Zukin: I get bored easy. That’s basically it.  I was a computer programmer who got tired of sitting behind a computer screen all day and decided to make my hobby my career instead.  I knew it’d mean a pay cut and longer hours, but for me it’s more about building something. Writing a cookbook, writing reviews, researching obscure Mexican antojitos—those are all things I’d do anyway just because.  There’s not much pay in food writing, as you know, but it’s nice to know that my reviews made a difference for the bottom line of restaurants where people care enough to put out a good product. And my mom gets to have a book on her shelf with my name on it.

TT: When and where does your passion for and knowledge of Mexican cuisine, specifically tacos, come from?

NZ: My mom is from Arizona and my dad from California. I grew up eating Mexican food several nights a week. When we went out to eat, it was either Mexican or pizza. My first cooking memory is my dad showing me how to fry tortillas for crispy taco shells. In college, Mexican was about the only food I could afford to go out and eat that didn’t come from a drive-thru, but even then I wanted to find the best. And then when I started traveling, Mexico being relatively cheap and close and having food that I loved was an obvious destination. It just snowballed from there, especially once I started food blogging, buying Spanish-language Mexican cookbooks, and chatting with people more knowledgeable than me on the internet. I still keep in touch with people I met online and shared a love of Mexican food with, like Steve Sando, Cristina Potters, Sharon Peters, Ruth Alegria, and Nick Gilman. All of us are professional Mexican food nerds of one kind or another now.

TT: How has it changed your view of Mexican food?

NZ: I guess my view has just broadened.  There’s just so much more to the landscape of Mexican food than I could have realized as a 5 year old learning to fry tortillas. I think it can be difficult for an American under the age of 40 to really understand the diversity and regionality of Mexican food because the regionality of American food has disappeared so much. Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under interviews, Lengua Sessions, Mexico City, Portland