Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food

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As late as the 1960s, tacos were virtually unknown outside Mexico and the American Southwest. Within fifty years the United States had shipped taco shells everywhere from Alaska to Australia, Morocco to Mongolia. But how did this tasty hand-held food—and Mexican food more broadly—become so ubiquitous?

In Planet Taco, Jeffrey Pilcher traces the historical origins and evolution of Mexico's national cuisine, explores its incarnation as a Mexican American fast-food, shows how surfers became global pioneers of Mexican food, and how Corona beer conquered the world. Pilcher is particularly enlightening on what the history of Mexican food reveals about the uneasy relationship between globalization and authenticity. The burritos and taco shells that many people think of as Mexican were actually created in the United States. But Pilcher argues that the contemporary struggle between globalization and national sovereignty to determine the authenticity of Mexican food goes back hundreds of years. During the nineteenth century, Mexicans searching for a national cuisine were torn between nostalgic "Creole" Hispanic dishes of the past and French haute cuisine, the global food of the day. Indigenous foods were scorned as unfit for civilized tables. Only when Mexican American dishes were appropriated by the fast food industry and carried around the world did Mexican elites rediscover the foods of the ancient Maya and Aztecs and embrace the indigenous roots of their national cuisine.

From a taco cart in Hermosillo, Mexico to the "Chili Queens" of San Antonio and tamale vendors in L.A., Jeffrey Pilcher follows this highly adaptable cuisine, paying special attention to the people too often overlooked in the battle to define authentic Mexican food: Indigenous Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Few will be able to resist chowing down after reading this mostly accessible history of Mexican food. Pilcher (Food in World History), a history professor at the University of Minnesota, makes it clear that "Mexican food, like the Mexican nation, was the product of globalization." Accordingly, he tracks the spread of Mexican cuisine from the kitchens of indigenous Mexicans, to the taco trucks of the American Southwest, to Old El Paso canned goods in Tokyo supermarkets, and beyond. Among Pilcher's many case studies are the intriguing tales of racial tensions surrounding an L.A. taco shop's "African Tacos," which were stuffed with black-eyed peas; and that of Thomas Estes, a young American gym teacher who opened "Europe's first Mexican restaurant," stocked with paraphernalia donated by the Pacífico brewery, in Amsterdam in 1976. Many of Pilcher's anecdotes are entertaining and informative, but the glut of stories too often leaves the author with little time to do justice to each. Nevertheless, folks looking to supplement their favorite meal with some food for thought need look no further. 46 photos.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
"Meticulously researched and comprehensive Pilcher's concluding chapter provides a masterful analysis of the elements that shape and impinge upon the quest for food authenticity in general." —CHOICE

"Many of Pilcher's anecdotes are entertaining and informative...folks looking to supplement their favorite meal with some food for thought need look no further." —Publishers Weekly

"Pilcher's proper emphasis on regional cuisines enables him to rescue the Tex-Mex taco from those elite Mexicans (often based in Mexico City) who reject it as a commercial invention: in fact, Tex-Mex cooking evolved organically in the border region, combining North American ingredients with Mexican sensibilities. Viewing food as a force of history, Pilcher imagines that 'the thin edge of a taco may one day help bring down the militarized border.'" —Foreign Affairs

"For those willing to sign on for the ride, it's a fascinating gold mine of information thoughtfully explained, usefully organized, and thoroughly documented. Eating a taco is eating history, indeed." —MM Pack, The Austin Chronicle

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199740062
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2012
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 592,534
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey M. Pilcher is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity; The Sausage Rebellion: Public Health, Private Enterprise, and Meat in Mexico City; and Food in World History. He also edited the Oxford Handbook of Food History.

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Table of Contents

Introduction A Tale of Two Tacos
Part I Proto-Tacos
Chapter 1. Maize and the Making of Mexico
Chapter 2. Burritos in the Borderlands
Part II National Tacos
Chapter 3. From the Pastry War to Parisian Mole
Chapter 4. The Rise and Fall of the Chili Queens
Chapter 5. Inventing the Mexican American Taco
Part III Global Tacos
Chapter 6. The First Wave of Global Mexican
Chapter 7. The Blue Corn Bonanza
Conclusion The Battle of the Taco Trucks
Select Bibliography

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Interviews & Essays

The Evolution of the Taco

The Original Taco

The origins of the taco are still disputed. Some attribute it to the ancient Aztecs; others say the term came from Spain. I have found evidence linking the word to the silver mines of eighteenth-century Mexico, where it referred to a stick of dynamite! Whatever the source, the taco shop first became common in working-class barrios of Mexico City at the end of the nineteenth century. The most popular versions then were barbacoa (pit-roasted beef or lamb), carnitas (fried pork), tripitas (tripe and assorted organ meats), and tacos de minero (miner's tacos), which were filled simply with steamed potatoes and salsa and are now called tacos sudados (sweaty tacos).

The Mexican Taco

During the twentieth century, the taco traveled from Mexico City to the provinces, acquiring new flavors such as cochinito pibil (Yucatecan pit-roasted pork) and carne asada (Sonoran grilled beef). Other versions were invented by new immigrants to Mexico. In the 1960s, the children of Lebanese migrants created tacos al pastor by adapting their parents' vertical rotisserie of shawarma or gyros (originally called tacos árabes or "Arab tacos") to tasty Mexican pork. Tacos al pastor were part of a 1960s taco renaissance in trendy Mexico City neighborhoods such as Condesa. Fashionable young people ended a night on the town with tacos al carbon (grilled tacos), which replaced plebeian variety meats with more expensive cuts such as bifstek (beef steak) and chuletas (pork chops). Chefs of the nueva cocina mexicana (nouvelle Mexican cuisine), a gourmet movement that started in the 1980s, created their own tacos. Patricia Quintana, for example, served simple guacamole tacos not on corn tortillas but rather on thin rounds of j?cama (an apple-flavored indigenous root). Thus, the Mexican taco continues to evolve.

The Mexican American Taco

In contrast to the Mexican taco, the Americanized taco was supposedly invented in the early 1950s by Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell. A hotdog vendor in San Bernardino, California, he claimed inspiration from the McDonald brothers' fast food hamburger restaurant, which opened there in 1949. Bell began experimenting with tortillas and frying baskets to create the "taco shell," a U-shaped, pre-fried form that could streamline the production of Mexican food. The problem with this creation myth, whereby Yankee ingenuity transformed a Mexican peasant food, was not only that the Mexican taco was itself a product of modernity. In fact, the original patent for a taco shell had already been awarded to Juvencio Maldonado, a Mexican restaurateur in New York City. Mexican American cookbook author Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert also gave a recipe for taco shells in the 1940s. Clearly the idea was already present in the Mexican American community. Glen Bell built a taco empire not on modern technology—the McDonaldization myth—but rather by selling exotic foods to people who may not have wanted to visit Mexican neighborhoods. Instead of the fast food taco, we should call it the Mexican American taco as a tribute to the hard-working cooks who adapted the Mexican taco to their American lives.

The Multiethnic Taco

Some of the most popular tacos in Southern California today are not Mexican but Korean. Roy Choi's Kogi Korean BBQ taco trucks have used Twitter to attract long lines of people hungry for short rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas. Choi and other new immigrants chose tacos in order to "Americanize" their cooking, and they were not the first to create multiethnic tacos. The Kosher Burrito was founded in Los Angeles in 1946 by a Jewish man who married a Sonoran woman; it sells pastrami tacos and burritos as a kosher alternative to pork carnitas and chorizo. Taco shops also opened in African American neighborhoods of Watts and South Central Los Angeles in the 1950s, often with catchy names such as Taco Th' Town. One such place served blacked-eyed peas in a taco shell as "African Tacos." More recently, Midwestern Americans have welcomed the taco to one of their most beloved institutions, the state fair, where you can now find deep-fried tacos on a stick.

The Scandinavian Taco

The taco is a national dish not only in Mexico and the United States but also in Norway. The globalization of the taco was started in the 1960s by Americans, particularly military personnel stationed abroad and surfers looking for the perfect wave. Having eaten Mexican American food in the Southwest, they could not imagine life without it. But as a result, it was Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex versions that set global stereotypes. In Norway, Fredagstacoen (Friday tacos) have become a domestic ritual, stuffed with the usual Cal-Mex combination of ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and mild salsa as well as such novelties as white cheese, sour cream, cucumber, and canned corn. Mexican travelers are understandably annoyed at such liberties, but they can take heart from the recent spread of tacos al pastor around the world. The taco shell was merely the first course, whetting a global appetite for Mexico's regional cuisines.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2013


    I love three things the mosr
    Together they make BACONTACO CATS

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2013

    To doc and tyler

    Hey im a hot sexy blond wanna chat

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2013


    If i lived on plnet taco id eat tacos water salad and maybe coke every day!!!! Im obsessed with tacos and when i have them for dinner i eat usually about 15 or maybe more! PEACE LOVE TACOOOS

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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