How timeless, how authentic, how . . . 1950s?
As the binational foodie wars wage — who invented what and when, and why have the gringos annexed it (again)? — the curious eater is now blessed with not one but two new books about the rise of the taco as the international rock star of consumables.
Here we learn that the Crunchy Taco Supreme from a Taco Bell in Arkansas and the tacos arabes on pita bread, served up at Taqueria el Greco in Mexico City, may be closer cousins than we think.
“The idea that the taco is somehow deeply authentic isn’t supported by the facts. The taco is kind of like chop suey and pepperoni pizza. Tacos are a product of modernity. And this is true not only in the United States but in Mexico,” said Jeffrey M. Pilcher, history professor and author of “Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food.”
Gustavo Arellano, syndicated columnist behind “¡Ask a Mexican!,” eats off the same plate in his new book, “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” in which he embraces the wandering taco as a shape-shifter, a mongrel not sapped but strengthened by its appropriation north of the border.
“The taco is the longest-lasting soul survivor, endlessly customized,” said Arellano, who also rhapsodizes on Major League Baseball cheese nachos and a bacon-wrapped, bean-stuffed frank called the Sonoran hot dog.
“The idea that all authentic Mexican foods date to the Aztecs and everything else is McDonald’s isn’t true,” said Pilcher, who argues that Mexican food in Mexico is an amalgamation of cultures, foreign and domestic, as regional ingredients and cooking styles continue to bend and blend.
Arellano chides food nazis, Chicano leftists and celebrity chefs such as Rick Bayless who see Mexican food with a tunnel vision that separates everything into “authentic” (pure, true, indigenous Mexican cuisine) and “Americanized” (neocolonial, globalized glop).
“It’s nonsense,” Arellano said. “It’s not supported by historical record.”
Both authors stress that there are really just two kinds of tacos: good ones and bad ones.
“Of course, the idea of the taco is very old. You take a corn tortilla, stick something on it, roll it up and eat it,” said Pilcher. “But they didn’t call it a taco.”
Drawings of women rolling corn masa into tortillas can be found in the Florentine Codex, an account of life in Mesoamerica compiled by Spanish friars of the 16th century. It also contains images of Aztecs maybe eating maybe tacos.