History of Tacos in America

Posted by Patrick Maness +

In his book Plant Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, Jeffery Pilcher writes of how, in the first years of the 20th century, during a wave of Mexican immigration into the United States, women known as Chili Queens earned a little bit of money by pushing carts through cities like Los Angeles and San Antonio, selling tamales, taqueras and, of course, tacos.

At this time, most Americans thought of this as little more than street food, something eaten by the poor Mexicans who lived in poverty and worked on the railroads or in mines. Besides, the spice was a little too much for a nation largely descended from northern Europeans.

The children of these immigrants grew up, moved up the socio-economic ladder and continued to eat the foods they knew from their childhoods. More Mexican restaurants appeared, and as foods like the taco found a home in the United States, they began to take on a more American personality. Ingredients like ground beef, iceberg lettuce and cheddar cheese became staples in what is a very distinctly American taco.

Who invented tacos as we know them?

In 1952, Glen Bell started selling tacos from a stand he called Taco-Tia. He didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of a major revolution in taco history.

At this time, tacos were still made with soft tortillas, which had to be served within hours of being made or they would go bad. This was a big drag on efficiency. Necessity, ever the mother of invention, prompted one of the biggest changes in what we know as the taco.

Bell would later claim that he came up with the idea to fry tortillas in a U-shaped form, thereby inventing the hard shell. Some would later dispute this claim, but the hard shell, which was easy to stuff, quick to serve and had a long shelf life, was here — and it transformed the American taco.

As you may have guessed, Bell went on to found Taco Bell, opening the first store in 1964. After more than a decade of successfully franchising his stores, he sold the company to PepsiCo in the 1970s.

For a while tacos were synonymous with cheap fast food. Sure, everyone loved them, but they were something of a guilty pleasure.

Authentic and creative

In the past few decades, however, tacos have emerged as a much more dynamic, exciting food than many took them to be. One of the reasons for this is that the Americans wanted to experience authentic Mexican food. Restaurants began offering tacos that had more in common with the regional cuisines in Mexico and less with the crispy indulgences served up in fast-food restaurants.

The taco came to be embraced as a gourmet street food, composed of perfectly marinated meat and featuring a burst of spice and quality veggies. As the blend of creative and authentic flavors continues to redefine this deceptively simple meal, there’s little doubt the taco will retain its importance in the culinary history of America.

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