One across (New York Times Mini Crossword) said, ‘Food that can be ordered de asada or al pastor’. Not a clue (sic). Now, I am used to not ‘getting’ a lot of the clues which are based on cultural references in this crossword, that’s part of the fun of solving this puzzle. I don’t expect myself to be knowledgeable about NFL’s top players or about some obscure locational clue – as in today’s crossword ‘It’s license plate says “Famous Potatoes”‘ which, of course, means Idaho. But I had never yet been stumped by a food reference. So, what does a curious foodie do – research. And that is how I come to be writing about Tacos today – you know, folded tortillas which can have an amazing range of fillings, so much that…Well, before overwhelming you with what you can eat, first some of the story of the origins, history and etymology of Taco.
“Its yellow flesh was made of yellow corn and white corn; the arms and legs of man were made with maize dough. The flesh of our ancestors is made with corn” so says Popol Vuh, the Book of the Council, where the origin of the Mayan life is narrated. Almost everything in Mexico starts with corn, says Wichner (2018), and it is believed that the taco was born as the basis of an Olmec diet thanks to the first traces of nixtamalized corn (nixtamalization is a process for the preparation of maize or corn in which it is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, washed, and then hulled).
Dishes analogous to the taco were known to have existed in Pre-Columbian society—for example, the Nahuatl word “tlaxcalli” (a type of corn tortilla), and it is generally agreed that the word taco comes from the Nahuatl word ‘tlahco’ which means “half or in the middle”, referring to the way it is formed.
Like many cultural foods there are effects seen because of colonization and industrialization. Certainly the taco predates the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico and it is said by Bernal Díaz del Castillo that “as a celebration for the arrival of the Spanish caravels and their pigs, the banquets organized by Hernán Cortés for their soldiers, were based on pork dishes with tortillas.” In The True History of the Conquest of the New Spain, we are told that Coyoacán witnessed the first taquiza (taco party) in history.
Nevertheless, most accounts of the origin of the taco refer to the Mexican 18th century silver mines and the use of little bits of paper (tacos) wrapped around a fiery piece of dynamite which were inserted into the rock face before being blown up and the ore extracted (elcamion, The Origins of the Taco). Tacos de minera, or miner’s tacos was one of the first tacos described in a dictionary of the 19th century. Industrialization brought migrants, particularly women, from the countryside to Mexico City, and with them came their regional cooking skills. This was the food, not of the rich, but of popular cuisine (Jeffrey M Pilcher, in Smithsonian Magazine) and as such was considered, until recently, lower class than the food of the European conquisdadors.
However, it forms the backbone of Mexican street cuisine and informs and is informed by further migrations. For instance, in Mexico in the later 19th century there was an influx of migrants from the Middle East and especially Lebanon. They brought with them, Pilcher says, ‘the shawarma, or gyros—vertical rotisseries where they cook lamb, and they put it on little pita breads. But when they start putting [the meat] on tortillas, they’re called tacos arabes: Arab tacos. Again, it’s the second generation, the children of these Lebanese migrants, who change the recipe a little bit and start using pork instead of lamb. And they start adding a little pineapple. Tacos al pastor, which really doesn’t catch on until the 1960s, then becomes a standard Mexican dish that’s everywhere’.
At the same time as the late 19th century migrant influx to Mexico there is a corresponding migration of workers from Mexico to the US. The female operated tamale pushcarts can be traced to the US in the 1880’s, and were presented at food festivals by the Chilli Queens of San Antonio, Los Angeles. The mainstreaming and adaptation in the US of Mexican foods capitalized on what was available locally, so, hamburger instead of pork, the addition of cheese, tomato and lettuce are foods that Mexican-Americans added to their Mexican originating dishes.
In the 1940’s, a decade before Glen Bell of Taco Bell ownership says he ‘invented’ the taco shell, Mexican cookbooks describe how to take a tortilla, fry it, bend it and fill it. It is this hard shell which is the basis of the ‘fast food’ of the Taco Bell franchise in the US. Fried tortillas keep longer, can be made ahead and make preparing food more efficient.
However, as Chef Sanchez of Texas says, ‘I have nothing against hard taco shells, ground beef and yellow shredded cheese but that’s really not Mexican, it’s TexMex. Authentic Mexican tacos use fresh tortillas, flavorful fillings, and a freshly made salsa. Balance is really the key, you want it to be slightly acidic, have some heat, some creaminess, be herbaceous and of course have some delicious protein or vegetables to be the star.”
And so to this week’s recipe: Mushroom Chicharrón Tacos by Joyce Ramirez, who says ‘this recipe calls for pan-searing oyster mushrooms so they become as perfectly crispy and golden as chicharrón (pork rind). Paired with fresh pico de gallo, these mushrooms feel satisfying with their natural umami savoriness. This quick dish tastes like juicy carniceria tacos that balance the richness of fried mushroom with the acidic punch of salsa’.