Written by Kon-Tiki Taco
The invention of tacos goes back at least 500 years. Over time, a Mexican dish has gone from hard labor sustenance to gourmet status, with pan-cultural appeal.
In 21st century America, it’s hard to imagine life without tacos. Tacos are on the menu in high-end restaurants and not-so-high-end restaurants and all types of restaurants in between. School cafeterias serve them. There now exist specialized taco catering businesses and taco food trucks. Corporate taco caterers. Wedding taco caterers. Fish taco caterers. Vegan taco caterers. In short, they’re everywhere.
But before tacos became present everywhere – and in a gourmet version with a margarita bar, if you’re lucky – there was a time when even Californians and Texans didn’t know about folded tortillas and tasty fillings. In fact, you can trace the history of tacos to a not-so-distant time when visionary Mexican people first began experimenting with tortillas wrapped around the traditional Indian and, later, peasant diet of rice, beans, vegetables and chili peppers; and later, after the conquest of Mexico, meat.
They may pre-date the Europeans’ arrival in Central America – and perhaps fish tacos were the first form. Anthropologists note that a taco-like food was discovered by explorer Bernal Diaz del Castillo (1492-1584) among indigenous people in the plateau lake district of the State of Mexico.
Del Castillo ended up becoming the governor of Antigua Guatemala. However, there is no record of whether or not he hired taco caterers for diplomatic entertainment during his rule. We are almost certain he didn’t have a mobile margarita bar, either, because those didn’t appear anywhere before the 1930s.
The actual word “taco” may have come later. SmithsonianMag.com, the online magazine of the venerated Smithsonian Institution, cautions that the actual origins of tacos (the food) are murky, but it appears the name is tied to the dynamite used in silver mines during the 1700s. Explosives wrapped in paper were used to blast rocks in the precious metal mines. When the word appeared about 100 years later in print, it was in that context, “the miner’s taco” (taco de minero).
It remained working class food for some time to come, with the European settlers eschewing it for more continental fare. No worries – proud Mexican nationals embraced it as part of their (non-European) Aztec heritage.
Around the 1880s, Mexican immigrants to Texas began selling tacos in Austin, first to festivalgoers and later to tourists who were interested in the tastes of Mexico without the worries of banditos south of the Rio Grande. The ingredients that were used evolved in the first half of the 20th century, depending on agricultural and ethnic-origin factors.
The food carts of Austin were replaced by restaurants and, eventually, overshadowed by a non-Mexican named Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell restaurants. It’s safe to say that millions of people ate their first taco at Taco Bell. The chain may use somewhat banal American ingredients (e.g., iceberg lettuce), but tacos have always been versatile and adaptable to local tastes.
Now taco businesses provide catering at private parties and public events alike and serve a broad variety of tacos (and their cousin, the burritos) with a virtually unlimited number of options for fillings. Their specialized services now include private, corporate and wedding taco catering. And just as tacos fed hungry workers long ago, the nutrients in tacos can be remarkable healthy and satiating to modern diners of any socioeconomic strata.
Will the taco continue to evolve in the future? It’s hard to imaging they won’t. Just as long as the taste continues to burst with texture, flavor and spice, tacos will probably be the preferred fun food for generations to come.