Why you should care
“Why are you so obsessed with me?” —The Taco
My tongue tap-dances across my palate while I wait. A slight bounce back and forth rocks me closer to the finish line. I close my eyes and imagine the taste of victory: chopped smoked pork with a spicy jalapeño coleslaw and tequila BBQ sauce. The cashier calls, “Next!” Cue Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”
“That’ll be $3.59,” says the cashier.
Hilarious for something that was once 5¢ and full of potatoes.
Tacos have been around for — well, as long as Mexicans have been around. Or at least that’s how taco expert and best-selling author Gustavo Arellano puts it. And while the practice of putting food inside a tortilla goes back to the time of the Aztecs and Mayans, that meal wasn’t called the taco until the late 19th century, when migrants flocked toward opportunity in Mexico City. The taco made a cheap, portable meal for the working class. According to Jeffrey Pilcher, a University of Toronto Scarborough professor and taco historian, a different opportunity rested within flaky, warm tortillas – specifically for women. Women could sell them on the street and make their own incomes. The taco itself proved adaptable, with the fillings varying from region to region.
Meanwhile, another thundering revolution was gaining steam in the U.S.: a cross-continental railroad. A wave of Mexican immigrants headed north to work on it. When Americans channeled their inner Fievel and punched tickets west, they were often greeted by the likes of San Antonio’s “Chili Queens,” with their food-laden carts. For many Americans back then, tacos felt intrepid, every bite whisking away samplers on a mini-vacation. Faster than you can say “barbacoa,” the taco became an A-lister. By the turn of the 19th century, taco carts had popped up on street corners all over the Midwest. City regulators cracked down, trying to forestall the diversion from restaurants. Those laws failed because we, typical Americans, wanted more.
So how did we go from 5¢ tacos to a $100 taco trio at the Four Seasons? The answer starts on the outside — with the prefried, U-shape shells you know and love. No need to roll fresh, hot tortillas anymore! That hard shell carried Mexican food even farther out of Mexican communities. The result was, let’s face it, the illegitimate-child version of the taco, but it did give Americans their first chance to salsa.
Appropriation in hand, America shook the taco from its shell and slapped on a Givenchy dress. Using fancier cuts of meat, and higher-end protein, anything that rolled was called a taco. This new curation pushed street food onto a pedestal of bourgeoisie importance — and onto the menus of date-night restaurants everywhere.
The gentrification of the taco is far from finished, Arellano reckons: Fancier versions will sweep in and perhaps even displace the au courrant and justifiably vaunted kogi version. But before you close this window and head to the nearest Taco Bell to weep into your 99¢ crunchwrap supreme, calm down. Arellano also believes that these taco-elitist price points won’t seep into the mainstream. If anything, the humble taco might just outlive us all.