As is the case with many popular food dishes, it can be a challenge to pinpoint when in history the meals you know and love today came to be. This is true for tacos, the food with a Mexican origin that has since been Americanized and sold all over the world. Although it's difficult to say when the first taco was invented, there is evidence to support that the name of your favorite finger food dates back to the silver mines of Mexico.
According to University of Toronto Professor of Food History Jeffrey M. Pilcher, the term "taco" can probably be credited to silver miners in the 18th century. In a 2012 interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Pilcher said that the word "taco" is what miners would call the charges used to excavate the silver, which were made from "pieces of paper that they would wrap around gunpowder and insert into the holes they carved in the rock face."
Like many cultural foods, the history of tacos is impacted by colonization and industrialization. When the Spanish invaded Mexico, they looked down on the native foods of the area. Corn was seen as being associated with Native deities but wheat was associated with the Christian eucharist. During this time, native food (Mexican food) was seen as being lower class compared to European food.
The first mention of tacos in the United States dates back to 1905 in a newspaper, which Pilcher told Smithsonian makes sense because it was around this time that Mexican migrants started to arrive in the states to work jobs in the mines or on the railroads. This shift led to Mexican food being available as street food, with people turning to street vendors to get their fix.
Once tacos made their way to the streets of the United States, it was only a matter of time until they were widespread and eventually became Americanized. The first Taco Bell was opened by Glen Bell in 1962, and made his version of tacos accessible to Americans who didn't want to go to Mexican neighborhoods to try them. The taco shell, which is typically made from a fried tortilla in a "U" shape, was a game-changer for popularizing tacos. Fried tortillas keep longer than fresh ones, so the shells could be made ahead and make preparing the food a more efficient process.
Although there is some gray area in the history of the taco, Pilcher emphasizes that authentic Mexican food has become more widespread in the United States than Americanized Mexican food has become in Mexico. Some Americans who once needed watered-down versions of Mexican cuisine now turn toward options that seem more authentic—like barbacoa and al pastor—where available.
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