Tacos are as ubiquitous around the United States as, well, Taco Bell. (We won’t go here about whether or not a Taco Bell taco is a real taco: that is a discussion we will not join….)
According to Jeffrey M. Pilcher, a University of Minnesota professor of history who has studied the history and politics of Mexican food, the taco’s origin is unknown.
Interviewed in a May 2012 article at Smithsonian.com, Pilcher said he believes the originated in the silver mines of Mexico during the 18th century. Why? Because, according to Pilcher, the word “taco” was used to refer to the small charges miners would use to extract the ore and what we’ve come to know as a taco – albeit one wrapped in a soft tortilla – looks like the charge.<
The first time a taco appears in a dictionary or other reference work was in the later part of the 19th century, Pilcher said. In fact, the first time the word “taco” appears is as tacos de minero, or “miner’s tacos.
Pilcher reports that the first time the taco is mentioned in the U.S. is in a newspaper in 1905, which coincides with the time Mexican immigrants came up to the U.S. to work the railroads and in the mines.
The taco first was thought of as being low-class street food. As American tourists started coming to Texas with the railroads in the 1880s, they came looking for a way to sample the “danger” that was believed to be Mexico without actually having to visit the country, and tacos were one of the things they would try.
As the children of the early Mexican immigrants grew up, they begin to become wealthier and gain civil rights, Pilcher says. And, while they are eating more American-type foods, they also continue to eat Mexican-style food with more “American” ingredients, such as lots of cheese in the taco, hamburger instead of offal meats, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce.
In many ways, the taco became an American staple because of the Taco Bell restaurant chain, Pilcher says. Glen Bell, Taco Bell’s founder, “borrowed everything about the taco from his Mexican neighbors,” according to the article. The taco in a hard shell became a fast-food staple because it was invented by two Mexican restaurant owners in the 1940s, Pilcher says, and Taco Bell’s owner was then able to incorporate it into his restaurant. In addition, that hard taco shell was “crucial” to the taco moving from Mexican-only communities to the community at large, Pilcher adds.
If you’re looking for great tacos, be sure to visit the Mattito’s restaurant nearest you!
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