Origins of the Taco

Taco Bell
Taco Bell

Photograph by Kevork Djansezian.

Mexican-ish food is both hugely popular in the United States and spreading wildly, but that’s raised a lot of concerns about the authenticity (or lack thereof) of various popular dishes. But William Booth argues that this is largely misguided and authentic cuisine has always been a moving target:

“Of course, the idea of the taco is very old. You take a corn tortilla, stick something on it, roll it up and eat it,” said [University of Minnesota historian Jeffrey] Pilcher. “But they didn’t call it a taco.”

Drawings of women rolling corn masa into tortillas can be found in the Florentine Codex, an account of life in Mesoamerica compiled by Spanish friars of the 16th century. It also contains images of Aztecs maybe eating maybe tacos.

The word “taco” appears in Spanish dictionaries dating to the 17th century, but not as foodstuff. To blast ore, Mexican miners would wrap an explosive charge in a wad of paper called a taco. “So with circumstantial evidence, you could see someone calling a tortilla wrapped around beans and chilies a taco—a culinary explosion,” Pilcher said. He found later references to tacos de minero.

The first printed recipe for a taco that Pilcher found comes from a 1904 edition of the Mexico City newspaper Diario del Hogar. It was no taco we would recognize today: It was a crepe made with pastry and rose water. “A kind of meringue,” Pilcher said.

Tacos al pastor apparently date back only to Mexico City in the 1950s—a consequence of Lebanese immigration to Pueblo in the ‘30s. That makes them hardly any more traditional than Taco Bell, founded in 1962.