For the past 20 years, Jeffery Pilcher has investigated the history, politics, and evolution of Mexican food, including how Mexican silver miners likely invented the taco, how Mexican Americans in the Southwest reinvented it, and how businessman Glen Bell mass-marketed it to Anglo palates via the crunchy Taco Bell shell.
The origins of the taco are really unknown. Pilcher’s theory is that it dates from the 18th century in the silver mines in Mexico because in those mines the word “taco” referred to the little charges they would use to excavate the ore. These were pieces of paper that they would wrap around gunpowder and insert into the holes they carved in the rock face. When you think about it, a chicken taquito with a good hot sauce is really a lot like a stick of dynamite. The first references to the taco in any sort of archive or dictionary come from the end of the 19th century. And one of the first types of tacos described is called tacos de minero—miner’s tacos. So the taco is not necessarily this age-old cultural expression; it’s not a food that goes back to time immemorial.
Jeffrey M. Pilcher, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, is author and editor, respectively, of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (Oxford University Press) and The Oxford Handbook of Food History. His previous books include The Sausage Rebellion: Public Health, Private Enterprise, and Meat in Mexico City, 1890-1917 and ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity.
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