If you have ever met me before, read any of my past articles or stalked my Instagram account, you would know I'm a pretty huge fan of Mexican food (especially guacamole). Although I'm from Toronto—which is very far from Mexico—all of my favourite restaurants in my city serve Mexican food. I even went to a taco festival this summer—talk about a dream come true!
So what shifts have taken place to establish Mexican food and in particular, the taco as a North American staple? Strangely enough, even though the taco was created back in Mexico hundreds of years ago, its success all links back to Los Angeles. Crazy, I know! Still don't believe me? Heres the ultimate breakdown of the history of the taco and how it became an LA staple
The Birth of the Taco
The taco has been traced as far back as to the 18th century Mexican silver mines. The taco was first eaten as a light meal by miners, and the term originates from these mines as well. The word taco, initially referred to an explosive that was used in the mines to remove the ore from the rock.
I am sure you’re very disappointed that they weren’t using deep fried tortilla shells to carve through the mines, but it is easy to see why the taco was named after this. While the tacos we eat today aren’t explosive (although, my taste buds would beg to differ), they similarly have a thin paper-like shell, holding a fiery filling. The Smithsonian even compares a spicy chicken taquito to a stick of dynamite.
The taco eventually became widely spread throughout working class areas across Mexico, where women would able to create their own regional recipes with alternate ingredients. Basically, the taco back then was the equivalent to what Ramen is to college students today. It was cheap, easy, and it could be prepared in many different ways.
Coming to America
At the beginning of the 20th century, many Mexicans migrated North to California to work on the railway and in other mines. As more and more Mexicans moved across the border, they brought their culture and cuisine with them. Mexican food was originally viewed by Americans as lower-class, but it gained attention through late-night food carts in busy plazas around California—AKA the taco is the ultimate drunk food of the early 1900s.
In order to sell tacos to (sober) Americans, Mexican restaurants needed to assimilate with American culture. Over the decades to come, the California taco was heavily influenced by popular American foods. For example, offal meat (meat prepared from animal organs) was replaced with ground beef, which was used in hamburgers. Other American ingredients, like cheddar cheese and tomatoes, also became classic taco toppings—try saying that one ten times fast.
Commercializing the Taco
We can thank the advertising industry for any cool trend, and in the case of the taco, we can thank Taco Bell. Glen Bell created the perfect business model to sell Mexican food to Americans.
Previously, if Americans wanted to eat Mexican food, they would need to go to lower-income areas, like East LA, in order to find it. Glen Bell purposely built its franchises in middle class areas so that Americans could eat Mexican food without leaving the comfort of their neighbourhoods.
On a human level, this created many issues with segregation by keeping Americans away from lower-income, immigrant neighbourhoods. However, from a business standpoint, this is what made the taco accessible to and popular amongst Americans.
So there you have it, the history of the taco. This Mexican dish became a Los Angeles staple, largely due to its ability to conform to the American food market. With its roots in Mexico and its commercialization in the US, the taco has become not only a huge part of Los Angeles culture, but a massive part of North American culture as a whole.