The exact origin of the taco is unknown, but we do have a best guess. What might surprise you is that tacos are a relatively new creation.
The first recorded reference to the word ‘taco’ was in the early 19th century in Mexico. The word “taco” is derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec) language, and has multiple meanings. It can be used to refer to a plug, a wedge, a tool, or to wrap something. The first taco was likely a soft corn tortilla filled with beans, chiles and tomatoes.
Studying the origin of the taco
Believe it or not, there is a taco expert. Granted, many of us consider ourselves expert taco eaters, but Jeffrey M. Pilcher, professor of history at the University of Minnesota, has actually studied the origin of the taco for 20 years.
According to Smithsonian Magazine (cited below), “he has investigated the history, politics, and evolution of Mexican food, including how Mexican silver miners likely invented the taco, how Mexican Americans in the Southwest reinvented it, and how businessman Glen Bell mass-marketed it to Anglo palates via the crunchy Taco Bell shell.”
In case you didn’t catch that, Taco Bell is the creation of a guy named Glen Bell.
Pilcher is the author of an entire book on tacos called Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (Oxford University Press). He also edited The Oxford Handbook of Food History and wrote The Sausage Rebellion: Public Health, Private Enterprise, and Meat in Mexico City, 1890-1917, and Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity.
How did today’s taco come to be?
The term taco made its way to the United States in the late 1800s, when the popularity of Mexican cuisine began to rise. At first, the term was used to refer to the food item itself – the taco – but, in the early 1900s, it began to also be used as a descriptor for other foods, such as burritos, enchiladas, and tostadas.
Taco quickly grew to become an integral part of American culture. Americans embraced the taco as their own, adding their own unique ingredients and flavors, such as beef, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese.
“The first mention that I have seen [in the U.S.] is in 1905, in a newspaper. That’s a time when Mexican migrants are starting to come—working the mines and railroads and other such jobs. In the United States, Mexican food was seen as street food, lower-class food. It was associated with a group of women called the Chili Queens and with tamale pushcarts in Los Angeles. The Chili Queens of San Antonio were street vendors who earned a little extra money by selling food during festivals. When tourists started arriving in the 1880s with the railroad, these occasional sales started to become a nightly event.”