The shell that ate the world

September 28, 2012: 8:46 AM ET

How filled tortillas became the perfect global food. A review of Jeffrey M. Pilcher's Planet Taco.

By Ryan Bradley, senior editor

FORTUNE -- A taco can be many things. The first recorded use of the word wasn't even in Spanish, it was in French -- taco stood in for the cloth plug that held the spherical bullet of an arquebus. The year was 1607. By the 18th century, taco had migrated to Spain, where dictionaries listed its possible meanings as a ramrod, a billiard cue, a carpenter's hammer, or a gulp of wine. It wasn't until the next century that the word came to be associated with food, but even then the taco wasn't exactly Mexican.

The history of the taco -- chronicled by history professor Jeffrey M. Pilcher in his new book, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food -- is the story of the most fungible of foods. What makes a taco? A corn or flour tortilla, folded slightly around, well, just about anything. And therein lies the key to its success. Codfish tacos are practically a national dish in Norway, and are popular to eat on Fridays. There's even a word for the practice: Fredagstacoen -- Friday tacos.

The tortilla wrapped taco we know today has always been an explosive global food. It sprang from the silver mines north of Mexico City, which helped build the Spanish Empire. In the late 1800s, Miners used gunpowder wrapped in paper for their work, calling the charges tacos; "In retrospect," Pilcher writes, "it's easy to see the similarity between a chicken taquito with hot sauce and a stick of dynamite." By the 1870s, the Los Angeles city council was fighting against tamale wagons and lunch carts, and San Antonio's leaders worried that Mexican street vendors were upsetting other business traffic. Anyone who has visited a late-night taco truck would find the scene Pilcher describes in 1895 in L.A. familiar: "Alcohol was also associated with the [Mexican] pushcarts, which clustered around the bars." The taco had come to America and was already upsetting the natural order of things.

The taco, like so much Americanized Mexican cuisine, was the people's food. It was cheaper than the Irish and German immigrants' stock, and more delicious. It was associated with unions, anarchy, alcoholism, criminal activity, parties, and finally, fast food. A hot dog vendor named Glen Bell began selling fried taco shells, refried beans, and modified chilidog sauce for 19 cents apiece in 1951. He saw what the McDonald brothers were doing with burgers and copied them, opening his first Taco Bell in Downey, Calif., in 1962. Thus began the taco's long slide into standardization.

But something wonderful happened along the way: Taco Bell never caught on globally like other Yum! Brands (KFC and Pizza Hut in particular) because the taco was already working its shape-shifting magic. It had become a cultural dish without the umbrella corporation. All it needed was a wrap and stuff to fill it.

The first seriously wonderful authentic taco I found in New York City was in the back of a Mexican market in Hell's Kitchen, a small place and strangely decorated (mirrored walls, tinsel, and a laser light disco ball) that had perfect al pastor and beef tongue. Good tacos were hard to find back then. But much has changed. Taco trucks are everywhere now, from Little Rock to Des Moines, and chefs of all stripes are taking on tacos. Alex Stupak, an accomplished pastry chef, opened his Empellón Cocina this year. And around the corner from my Brooklyn apartment, a new kind of taqueria just opened. Kimchi Taco uses a corn tortilla as its base, wrapping it around Korean pickled cabbage, a perfect symbol of completely global food.

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