If you think you know your tacos, you’re probably wrong.
Spend an hour listening to Jeffrey M. Pilcher talk about his new book, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, and you will feel like a taco novice.
Pilcher, a professor at the University of Minnesota, spoke at Doheny Library on Tuesday in conjunction with the Spanish and Portuguese department and the history department.
Pilcher specializes in the history and culture of food from Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean and, as a result, his talks often begin with an exploration of the taco.
“I want to look at the word taco,” Pilcher said. “If we look at the historical development of words we can have a more accurate chronology of the foods.”
It is a common conception, he said, to look at the word “taco” and credit it to the Aztec period. Pilcher then went on to list different words that are similar to “taco,” their meanings and how one might interpret them.
According to Pilcher, the taco was not mentioned as a snack until the late 19th century.
“Tacos go from absolutely invisible in the historical record to everywhere,” Pilcher said. “At this point it’s hard to go anywhere in Mexico City in the working class neighborhoods without tripping over a taco vendor of some kind.”
Pilcher said he believes the word “taco” dates back to the 18th century when it was used in reference to little explosives used to excavate silver ore in Mexican mines.
In reality, Pilcher said, “there’s quite a similarity between a chicken taquito with a good hot sauce and a stick of dynamite.”
And if you think about it, Pilcher said, it is understandable that tacos would be popular among miners.
“You can just imagine miners going down in mines and taking this as a very simple food,” Pilcher said.
Pilcher said oftentimes, when trying to understand where food originated, people attribute food items to famous personalities — like the “Earl of Sandwich.”
The taco, however, is especially important because it is a “working class food.”
“Real workers are preparing and consuming them,” Pilcher said. “We don’t need to make any story up. In fact, the taco shop became a place where people from all over Mexico could gather and meet and develop a community,” Pilcher said.
About half-way through the conversation, Pilcher changed subjects.
“Now let’s take the time to talk about burritos,” Pilcher said.
Pilcher began discussing the history of the word “burrito,” its connection with donkeys and the fact that no one in Mexico really eats burritos.
After discussing the burrito to the same degree as the taco, Pilcher began talking about the taco’s spread around the world.
“The taco appeared in Mexico City and then it spread out over the country,” Pilcher said.
Pilcher noted he does not believe that Mexican-American food is “non-authentic.”
“Just because they’re different from the foods being produced in Mexico doesn’t make them any less Mexican,” Pilcher said.
According to Pilcher, we’re used to focusing on the clash between Mexican traditional authentic food and American corporate fast food. What is lost in between, however, is the Mexican-American culture that is adapting Mexican food into their American lives.
“If we get too hung up about what’s authentic or what’s supposed to be, we’re missing out on the possibilities available to us,” Pilcher said.
Sara Carlson, a sophomore majoring in international relations, was surprised by this aspect of the talk.
“It’s interesting that he thinks Tex-Mex food is real,” Carlson said. “I’ve never heard that before.”
After his talk, an audience member asked a question regarding the impact of food on history. And though Pilcher seemed stumped at first, he amazed the crowd with yet another historical story regarding Mexican food.
In 1838, Mexico was going through a time of great instability, according to Pilcher. Mexico was invaded by the French, who were trying to recover unpaid loans. Soon, however, Mexico found out that one of the debts was that a French pastry chef’s Empanadas had been stolen by Mexican revolutionaries.
“The Mexicans actually dubbed this invasion the ‘pastry war,’” Pilcher said.
In concluding the talk, Pilcher discussed Mexico’s reaction to the “Americanization” of their food. Pilcher said that some Mexicans believe their food has been ruined by being poorly created all over the world. Pilcher also said, however, that Peru wants to be like Mexico.
“Even though Mexico has been misrepresented this whole time, there is still a marketed interest,” he said.
Fitting with the theme, the conversation ended with free tacos for audience members.