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A Little Food … The Anatomy (and History) of a Delicious Taco

Living in Mexico these past months has meant a rekindled love affair with salsa, spicy food, and cheese. For all the reasons to love Southeast Asia, and there are many, while traveling the region I often missed the flavors and variety of cheeses I have long loved—travelers in Southeast Asia for any amount of time become painfully aware that it’s a cheese-less journey over there (in part because many in SEA are lactose intolerant, so they have no dairy culture). And so, with my decision to jump continents and live here in Mexico, I have also jumped tastes, flavors, and history too.

The perfect taco: grilled zucchini and green peppers, shredded cabbage, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, chipotle sauce, chili sauce, and a wedge of lime. Heaven.

I traded the curries, soups, and noodles of Thailand for the tortillas, quesadillas, and tacos of Mexico. This new culture means a new history shaping the people I meet and the foods I eat each day. I live next door to the tortilleria in town, a friendly shop offering fresh corn tortillas and deep-fried chips; the soft tortillas are made fresh all day and waft scent through the streets as I pass on my bike.

I pass tortilleria every time I leave my apartment, and I glance in and give an easy wave and smile to the gruff (but sweet) man running the shop; and each time my thoughts move to the food history that makes that shop a cornerstone in this community. Tortillas are the foundation of nearly every dish I eat here, and the history of the corn tortilla dates back hundreds of years—corn itself as a cultivated crop dating back to 3000BC even.

But this daily bundle of joy that I hunt down all over town, the humble taco, must have its own a start point in history. I wanted to know why modern convenience hadn’t yet stomped out the fresh tortilla makers, and why it’s a fruitless journey to locate a crunchy taco shell even though I (and I suspect many of you too … unless it’s really just me …) associate crunchy shells and an almost-spicy cheese sauce with Mexican tacos.

Crispy tortilla chips

Tortillas.

The truth though, is that many of the modern ingredients associated with tacos: the lettuce, tomato, and beef, are thanks to that top US-based dining establishment known as Taco Bell. I kid you not, modern tortillas gained wide-spread favor outside of Mexico thanks to this fast-food chain. Much like the fusion Italian food and flavors into the US, when Mexican migrants came stateside in the early 1900s, they brought their foods, including the taco, but had to adapt to the ingredients available in the US  markets and shops. And in an odd twist of fate, Mexican foods were considered a low-class until Glen Bell founded the fast-food chain, merged traditional flavors with the ingredients and foods accepted by mainstream America, and brought us the modern taco.

But one of the major changes? Since soft corn tortillas are meant to be served within hours of preparation, American fast food dictated that we fry them up so they can sit on a self for months and still taste good. I did a #facepalm when I read that bit.

And that would be why crunchy taco shells don’t pass as a blip on the radar here. Instead, just soft, fresh rounds of tortilla rolled into humble creations—the word taco referring to most anything rolled inside a tortilla (so they say, but yet we also have: enchiladas, chalupas, and quesadillas as distinctly different creations … but that is for another day).

Close up of a taco from Baja Takeria in San Pancho, Mexico.

A taco with salsas and sour cream.
Though it’s a Mexican street food, the taco is a source of pride for some vendors who deliver beautiful works of art to my table.

Truly gorgeous pieces of food that make me happy every time I decide to venture out for food instead of launching into a new cooking a new disaster; I’m determined to share some recipes in the coming weeks since I have a full kitchen here, so I have been testing out easy dishes in an effort not to be a kitchen klutz forever (if you’ve ever seen me dice an onion you know what true anxiety feels like).

However, until I find something I can successfully create, I head to the streets of San Pancho for fresh and pretty tacos from the restaurants and vendors.

Since I’m traveling solo, I have a lot of time to ponder the humble tacos placed before me, and I’ve spent long sessions with Le Google to find out more about when, how and why tortillas transitioned into handy vehicles for propelling veggies, salsa, and cheese (and meat for the carnivores) into my mouth. A history professor with a love of food shares the best explanation on the subject; he says the taco was likely born from necessity in the 1800s by poor silver miners, and spent the next 100 years spreading through tiny towns and street food stalls throughout Mexico. Pilcher’s longer piece in Guenica magazine makes a fascinating long read on the subject and traces the influences of the Spanish on indigenous Mexican foods and when and how they merged over the centuries.

A pretty arrangement of salsas for the tacos and Mexican dishes. A pretty pot of medium spicy salsa in Mexico.

Close up of a taco from Baja Takeria in San Pancho, Mexico.

I feel more connected to the food and people when I understand the origins of some of their food culture. It’s one thing to go every day and sample these creations, but I love knowing what chances of history and globalization brought this dish to fruition.

In short, it was humble beginnings for tacos, a food I assumed was born alongside the tortilla, and my own country played a role. Which takes us to now, and my efforts these past two months to consume many, many tacos. My town here is tiny, and that means there are few places left that I haven’t sampled, but with new salsas and toppings at the ready, the Mexican taco experience is different each time. More Mexican foods and culture in coming weeks, and hopefully a few good recipes too!

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16 Responses to A Little Food … The Anatomy (and History) of a Delicious Taco

  1. ConfusedJulia April 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    I’m currently eating my body weight in tacos as I travel around Mexico, so I can fully appreciate your love for them and alos your great photography.

    • ShannonOD April 6, 2013 at 11:51 am #

      Thanks Julia! I keep telling myself I might get sick of them, but you can load the taco up with so many different salsas that it just never gets old. Enjoy your Mexico travels, I’m hunkered down on the west coast, but hope to do some traveling throughout soon! :)

  2. Chelsea Rae Schmidt April 5, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    I love learning the history of the different foods I encounter. My university thesis was actually on tracing the connection between ancient Egypt and India through the trade of pepper. Down here in Colombia we have arepas, kind of a cross between a Mexican tortilla and a Mexican gordita. Unfortunately, they don’t top theirs with the deliciousness of taco meat and spices.

    • ShannonOD April 6, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

      Wow, that is so granular that you must have uncovered a lot of nuances in the history of pepper as you traced the journey — did you go to those regions for research? The arepas are something I look forward to trying when I make it down there, so far I have only had them at a restaurant in NYC. Also have you read legalnomads.com? She is also quite keen on the tracing history of single foods, you guys would get along :)

  3. Paul April 6, 2013 at 7:18 am #

    Those tacos look absolutely amazing. Props for the great write-up and the even better pictures!

    • ShannonOD April 6, 2013 at 11:50 am #

      Thank you Paul! They were as tasty as they look! :)

  4. Lindsay Hogg April 7, 2013 at 8:19 am #

    tacos are my favourite food ever and this post just made me realize that i’m having them for lunch. thank you

    • ShannonOD April 10, 2013 at 2:12 am #

      Happy to be of service — did you end up having one Lindsay?! :)

  5. Heidi Mussler April 10, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    Oh, wow. I knew I wanted to go to Mexico for the tacos, but now I want to go right this minute. Great photos – the tacos look amazing! I do make my own flour tortillas – we can’t eat those packaged ones anymore – but I want to learn how to make the delicious soft corn tortillas. Thanks for the history lesson!

    • ShannonOD April 10, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

      You make your own!? I suspect it’s not terribly hard with the flour ones, but handmade has me suitably impressed Heidi — I bet they taste so much better that way. :)

  6. bon April 13, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    Im a meat eater but this taco almost converted me . What an amazing life you live

    • ShannonOD April 13, 2013 at 10:52 am #

      Muwhahaha, my evil plan to convert is working! I kid, sometimes a veggie dish can be so good you don’t miss the meat — this was one of them. :)

  7. thetraveltester April 14, 2013 at 6:09 am #

    That is so interesting to read, didn’t know the history of the taco. Pictures are great, made me hungry too :) I’ve added your post to my new series of inspirational lifestyle & travel stories, I love how you explained the true origin of this dish!

    • ShannonOD April 14, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

      Thank you! I love knowing how the different components of food ended up in that arrangement on your plate — why each condiment or topping? I was fascinated when I started looking at the taco! :)

  8. Tim & Nat ✈ April 20, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

    Who doesn’t love a delicious taco? yummm…

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