From its beginnings in Mexico to its migration into the United States, the taco has a rich and storied history. And no one can doubt the foodstuff has solidified its spot as one of America’s all-time-favorite foods. Not only are thousands of people willing to sign a petition to get a tiny pixilated taco emoji onto their cell phones, but fans are constantly finding new ways to get creative with the seemingly simple dish.
But the story behind the Americanized taco may not be exactly what you think. Various experts including Gustavo Arellano, the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, and Robb Walsh, author of the Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos, shed some light on the story in a recent article from Atlas Obscura, enlightening us on everything we need to know about the Americanized taco.
Here are some of the big takeaways:
White people didn’t “accidentally” invent the hard-shell taco.
The experts aren’t exactly sure where the food’s origins lie, but it is presumed tacos date back to 18th century Mexican silver mines. From there, the taco made its way across the border into Texas, where the food was incorporated into a handful of different items to adapt to the diverse immigrant community and their different tastes. While many attribute the hard shell taco to Glen Bell of Taco Bell, according to SF Weekly, Anglos from Los Angeles created the first pre-formed taco shell.
The American taco was made possible by chili powder.
In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Jeffrey M. Pilcher of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, explains, “A lot of Mexican American tacos are really adaptations of Mexican food to the ingredients that are available through the U.S. food-processing industry. Hamburger instead of offal meat. Cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, tomato—these are all foods that Mexican-Americans start to incorporate into their diet.” One of those readily available ingredients? Chili powder, which was invented by Texan Willie Gebhardt in 1894. It was this ingredient, along with ground beef, cumin, iceberg lettuce, and cheddar cheese, that made the taco possible.
Glen Bell of Taco Bell is credited for creating the pre-formed taco shell.
According to Arellano, “Glen Bell, of Taco Bell fame, he got the idea for Taco Bell after watching the McDonald brothers get insanely rich in San Bernardino, California.” By using the similar concept of ground beef and cheddar cheese, Bell was able to create the prefabricated taco shell that allowed for the food’s interchangeable parts to be created in advance.
The earliest known recipe for tacos could easily be mistaken for empanadas.
The earliest taco recipe dates back to 1914 in Bertha Haffner-Ginger’s California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook. Her recipe is “made by putting chopped cooked beef and chile sauce in tortilla made of meal and flour; folded, edges sealed together with egg; fried in deep fat, chile sauce served over it,” which Atlas Obscura notes sounds a lot like a recipe for an empanada, given its folded edges.
Northern Mexico is where it’s at if you want a G.O.A.T. beef taco.
People have argued time and time again about which taco shops reign supreme. But if you’re looking to cop the greatest beef taco of your life, you’re going to have to cross the border. According to Arellano, “All of northern Mexico is beef country. Sonora, Baja California, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, that’s where beef is king.” Walsh adds, “putting a whole bunch of ground beef on a flour tortilla is a cowboy tradition.”
Potato tacos are a Lent staple.
Although Walsh tells SF Weekly, “I’ve never seen an authentic Mexican place with crispy tacos. They definitely come from our side of the border,” crispy taco shells do, indeed, exist in Mexico. During Lent, it’s common to make potato tacos that are fried to order, although Atlas Obscura notes that this food is not placed in a prefabricated shell like the anglo version. With Lent fast approaching, why not try out this recipe during the 40-day season.
[via Atlas Obscura]