The taco has a very humble beginning. Some believe it was around well before the sixteenth century Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico. According to Unocasa, “indigenous cultures viewed corn as the foundation of humanity or the seed of life.” They perfected the process of nixtamalizing – treating corn with lime and water, then drying, grounding, and producing flour. The nixtamalized corn was used for breads and tortillas.
The infamous Montezuma was known to use corn tortillas to scoop out his food. Perhaps that made it easier to fight Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortéz?
How did this humble food lead to Americans consuming nearly 4.5 billion tacos each year?
The Spanish looked down on corn – they associated it with native gods and pagan rituals. Wheat was used for the Christian Eucharist and for Europeans who believed they were superior to the natives.
Dr. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, noted food historian, author, and University of Toronto professor, maintains that tacos emerged directly from Mexican silver mines like the one below.
According to Katy June Friesen in the Smithsonian Magazine, Mexican silver miners “likely invented the taco [and] Mexican-Americans in the southwest reinvented it.”
In eighteenth century Mexican silver mines a “taco” was a small explosive made of paper filled with gunpowder. The charges were put into drilled holes to excavate the silver. Friesen writes, “when you think about it, a chicken taquito with a good hot sauce is really like a stick of dynamite.”
No surprise that one of the first edible tacos was called tacos de minero – miner’s tacos.
Then things changed. The taco got its green card.
By the late 19th century, many Mexicans migrated north of the border looking for better lives. Most found work in mines or railroad construction. Los Angeles soon boasted a large Mexican population. The streets were filled with “chili queens” – women street vendors who sold tacos from carts.
This “fast food” caught on. A small restaurant owner watched McDonald’s and Burger King grow. His name was Glen Bell and he would change the fast food industry forever (yes, he is the “Bell” in Taco Bell). Bell switched from serving burgers to tacos.
Bell saw that Americans preferred tacos served in a fried, hard, u-shaped shell instead of soft tortillas. The hard shells lasted longer and could be prepared faster. Bell owned a taco stand called Taco Tia. In 1962 he started Taco Bell, introducing Mexican Fast Food.
Today there are almost eight thousand Taco Bells in thirty-one countries. Ninety-four percent of them are franchises. Taco Bell has forty-six million customers and an annual revenue of over thirteen billion dollars. Some of its biggest competitors are Chipotle, Taco John’s, Del Taco, and thousands of popular Mexican restaurants that serve the not-so-humble-anymore tacos.
Tacos now have many different fillings from vegan to steak, roast pork to pineapple, onion, and cilantro. According to HowStuffWorks, you can “fill a taco with anything.” There are some out-of-the-box fillings like fried avocado and spaghetti-and-meatballs. Check out breakfast tacos (such as sausage & egg topped with potatoes). Grab some dessert tacos with fillings from churros and strawberry cheesecake to ice cream.
The next time you eat a taco think of the world’s largest one at three-hundred-thirty-five feet long or the world’s most expensive at twenty-five thousand dollars. Plan for next year’s National Taco Day (October 4), find a good taco truck, or think about how half of the U.S population goes to a Taco Bell once every eleven days. Celebrate Taco Tuesday with explosive flavors and cheaper prices.
Go for it, amigo.