Tacos Are The Bomb: The Fascinating History Of Tacos

A taco can mean many things. These days, it is a versatile food. You can have it with any kind of meat, and it’s also light enough to have for breakfast if the mood strikes. There’s something about the delicious food served in a folded tortilla that just wins us over.

Tacos have a fascinating history. One theory is that they’ve been around since the 18th century. Technically, anything you place inside a tortilla can be called a taco. The flatbread used in tacos looks like the Indian roti, but rotis are usually softer and made with wheat, while tacos are generally made with corn flour.

The first recorded mention of a taco came centuries after Spain conquered several regions in America. This came right after Spain’s Golden Age, the Siglo de Oro, which began in the late 1400s and ended sometime in the mid-1600s. That era was a true "golden age" for Spain in terms of politics, military, wealth, and culture. But it has been noted that native people in and around Spain’s American colonies and other conquered territories suffered injustices due to Spain’s massive appetite for gold and glory.

Some believe tacos existed in Mexico long before the Spanish set foot in the Americas, citing anthropological evidence that indigenous people who inhabited the lake region in the Valley of Mexico traditionally ate soft, flat corn tortillas, or what we know as tacos, that had fillings like fish and cooked organs. Skeptics noted that those ancient tacos looked quite different and did not contain the cheese, sour cream, or tomatoes that we associate with the meal these days. On the contrary, as mentioned, the first mention of the word "taco" one finds in Mexican history is from an 1891 novel titled Los bandidos de Río Frío (The Bandits of Río Frio) by Manuel Payno, a Mexican writer, journalist, and politician.

In the 18th century, the word taco implied many different things, like a hammer, a gulp of wine, a short & stockily built human, a ramrod (the thing used in olden days to push the gunpowder into a musket barrel), and even a plug. A Google search will reveal that the word "taco" is actually very versatile: a taco is a wedge (usually a piece of wood or metal with a pointed edge) that is used to plug a hole or anything that obstructs the flow of a liquid. It can also be "a pool stick or the shoe heel for either men or women!" For instance, young women in Puerto Rico refer to their high heels as "las tacas." In the South American nation of Chile, it can mean a scrap of paper, and in Colombia, taco can also mean a traffic jam.

In 19th-century Mexico, in the silver mines some distance from Mexico City, miners used explosives to blow up rocks. They wrapped the gunpowder in a piece of paper like a "taquito" and inserted, or ‘plugged’, the cylinders of dynamite into those rocks and detonated them.

By this time, tacos were fairly popular as a working-class food, which obviously included the miners. When they took a break for lunch, they would eat tortillas that contained meat, beans, or potatoes, which they would roll up into a shape that resembled the dynamite they used to blow up rocks. The tortillas would then be fried well and properly. Eventually, the food that looked like dynamite sticks was christened "tacos de minero," or miner’s tacos. That taco was not like the hard, U-shaped shells we're used to seeing nowadays. The tacos de minero were corn tortillas with a spicy filling.

Over time, the tacos de minero became tacos sudados, or sweaty tacos, which are still popular in Mexico City to this day. Interestingly, these hard-shelled tacos are popular in the Mexican capital but less popular in the rest of the country, which prefers soft-shelled tacos.

Sometime in the early 1900s (a few estimates claim 1905) tacos crossed the border into the United States, and the deep-fried tacos de minero became a part of the diet for Mexican immigrants who toiled on the railroads. They were portable, inexpensive, nutritious, and tasty—the perfect street food. Sometime later, the city of Los Angeles saw Mexican food carts run by women called "chili queens," who introduced the American public to tacos on a daily basis. By the 1920s, a fusion of American tastes and Mexican food began to emerge. The fillings were increasingly beef and chicken, with cheddar cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce finding their way into the taco as a balance for the meat. Funnily enough, taco was not a word used by the Mexicans of that era to describe their food. It was the word they used with Americans. Between themselves, they used other names that varied depending on the part of Mexico they came from.

By the 1940s, tacos had gained wider popularity, and pre-fried hard-shell tacos were all the rage. In 1962, Glen Bell founded the chain Taco Bell, and the rest is history. Not a bad journey for a miner’s lunch that was named after a bomb.