Historian tells how the taco became a global food staple

Historians in the News

You can find tacos in outer Mongolia, Amsterdam, Addis Ababa and Australia -- even in outer space (the latter thanks to NASA). They have, in fact, become as ever present as the hamburger.

And that's the rub. They no longer seem Mexican, but American, says Jeffrey Pilcher, a University of Minnesota history professor who will give a talk about "Planet Taco" on Tuesday....

Fifty years ago, Mexican food could be found only in Mexico, California or the Southwest, including small roadside stands where tacos were sold. Los Angeles phone books from 1950 reflect the abundance of these taco spots. These were the very early days of food franchises. (Ray Kroc started the McDonald's chain in 1954.) Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell and a fellow Californian, had an idea. Today we think of tacos as the lowest common denominator of Mexican food -- well, maybe that would, or should, be nachos -- but he was cutting-edge at a time when the rest of America was dining on tuna casserole, mac-and-cheese and cream of tomato soup.

Today foodies may sniff their noses and think "Taco Bell ruined Mexican food," but, Pilcher says, the chain simply franchised it. As for all those arched eyebrows and comments that Tex-Mex isn't real Mexican, well, the taco shell came out of the Mexican community -- the original taco machine was patented by a Mexican -- and it was adapted to local foods in the United States, as so often happens when immigrants meet the hard realities of the American supermarket....

"People will forget that tacos are Mexican just as pizza is from Italy," said Pilcher, who specializes in food history and earned his doctorate while eating his way through Tex-Mex food in Fort Worth, Texas. He has written "Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity."

"The Italians brought with them all kinds of greens. Americans were not great salad eaters before," said Pilcher. "The Mexicans brought us tomatillos, cilantro and chiles.

"We tend to become part of that food, too."...

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