Milwaukee Taco Fest

400 West Canal Street
Milwaukee, WI 53201

History

There is no exact history of when and where tacos came about according to Professor of History at the University of Minnesota and historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher.  He has traveled around the world researching Mexican food his entire life and has a few ideas about the history of tacos.

The origins of the taco are really unknown.  My theory is that it dates from the 18th century and 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.

According to Pilcher, the first taco made an appearance in the United States in 1905, in a newspaper. That’s a time when Mexican migrants are starting to come—working the mines and railroads and other such jobs. In the United States, Mexican food was seen as street food, lower-class food. It was associated with a group of women called the Chili Queens and with tamale pushcarts in Los Angeles. The Chili Queens of San Antonio were street vendors who earned a little extra money by selling food during festivals. When tourists started arriving in the 1880s with the railroad, these occasional sales started to become a nightly event. Tourists came looking for two things in San Antonio—the Alamo and the Chili Queens. Mexico was considered a dangerous place. The Chili Queens were a way of sampling that danger, but not at the risk of being robbed by bandits. The risk was that the food was hot—people described it as “biting like a serpent.” These women were also sexualized and seen as “available.” So the idea was that you would flirt with the Chili Queens. I think that image of [something] exotic, slightly dangerous, but still appealing has really persisted with Mexican food.

He thinks tacos became so mainstream in the United States when the children of Mexican migrants who came to the United States in 1910 or 1920 started to advance economically. They gained civil rights; many of them fought in World War II and claimed citizenship. Their incomes went up and they started eating more diverse things, but they’re still eating Mexican.  A lot of Mexican American tacos are really adaptations of Mexican food to the ingredients that are available through the U.S. food-processing industry. Hamburger instead of offal meat. Cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, tomato—these are all foods that Mexican-Americans start to incorporate into their diet.

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