The top food history experts in the United States and Mexico agree that the taco – a tortilla with various fillings – has been around Mexico for at least 200 years, even though the first references to what we call a taco today go back only to 1880-1890.
Mexicans have been talking about tacos since the 19th Century
One of the top U.S. specialists on tacos, University of Minnesota Prof. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, has been investigating Mexican food since the 1990s and reached the conclusion that although an exact date for the appearance of the taco has been established, the records of the Spanish ' conquistadors' show that Mexico's indigenous people ate food wrapped in corn tortillas before the arrival of the colonists.
By the beginning of the 19 th Century, Mexican recipe and literary books referred to “wraps” of tortillas stuffed with food, sometimes topped with a sauce. But the first mention of a taco as we know it today came in a 1891 novel by Manuel Payno titled “Los Bandidos de Rio Frio” – The Cold River Bandits.
The origin of the word taco remains uncertain. It may have come from the Nahuatl word TLAHCO, which means in the middle or half. Pilcher said the word may have come from Spanish, where it can mean a socket, a stick or a drink.
Pilcher said miners used the word to describe small charges of dynamite, but also ate “sweated tacos” – oiled tortillas stuffed with food, almost always potatoes, and kept warm in a tightly covered basket.
When the mining industry went into crisis after the war of independence at the beginning of the 19 th Century, many of the miners migrated to Mexico City and brought the tradition now known as “sweated tacos” or “tacos in a basket” – at the time also known as “miners' tacos.”
Those were the first street tacos, which became popular among the Mexican working classes according to photographic archives of the early 20 th Century.
The taco boom as fast food in the United States.
Gustavo Arellano, author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, has said that the taco became popular in the United States after the 1962 start of Taco Bell.
But tacos were popular long before that among Mexicans and American settlers in the huge chunk of the United States that was part of Mexico until 1848, and are favorite parts of Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex cuisine.
Obviously, there are strong Mexican culinary roots in the huge chunk of the United States that was part of Mexico until 1848, as can be seen in Tex-Mex or Cal Mex cuisines. In his book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, Pilcher points out that the first American settlers in the area had their own negative stereotypes of Mexicans so even though they liked their food, they were afraid to go to their neighborhoods to get it.
Enter Glen Bell, who in 1940 owned a hamburger stand in a Mexican neighborhood of San Bernardino, Ca. Bell dined every night at a usually jammed Mexican restaurant across the street – Mitla Cafe, still there – decided to figure out how to make tacos, but faster and in larger quantities.
Realizing that fresh tortillas spoiled quickly, he started making taco shells that last longer and allow workers to serve more tacos more quickly.
But the shell – a fried tortilla in the shape of a U that Bell claimed to have invented in 1950 – is not his creation either. Pilcher said Mexican restaurateurs patented the hard shells many years before, and there are recipe books from the 1940s with indications on how to fry tortillas and U-shape them to make hard taco shells.
What is clear is that it would have been very difficult to spread Mexican food to other ethnic communities without the taco shells.
Two more true facts: The first mention of tacos in the United States came from the Los Angeles restaurant Cielito Lindo in the 1930s, which sold “taquitos” – small tacos filled with meat, rolled and fried. The owner brought her recipe from her hometown, Zacatecas, at central part of Mexico.
And: Food historians say that first food trucks, deployed in Los Angeles in the 1970s, were… taco trucks.