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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

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