The history of tacos is somewhat elusive. While we have records of the tools and materials used in many of the foods of Mexico, it is far harder to prove when exactly certain ingredients were combined. People weren’t exactly writing about their diet in diaries. However, we do know the history of tortillas pretty well, and we can assume that where there were tortillas, someone was probably using them like a taco.
The domestication and widespread use of corn can be traced back around 9,000 years ago to southern Mexico. As one of the earliest cultivated vegetables, corn was used all across the region and was quickly adapted into what we would come to know as tortillas.
Though tortillas were eaten for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the Aztecs came along that we had any proof that they were being used for tacos.
It is believed that Aztecs (1428-1521) ate several tortillas with every meal, and there are some records that help support this. But more importantly, this nearly 100 year period is when we got our first written account of the food that would become tacos.
The earliest anthropological record of tacos dates to the 15th or 16th century in the Valley of Mexico. It is believed that the indigenous people of the lake region ate tortillas filled with fish (meaning the first taco could be a fish taco!). There are writings from when the Spanish arrived in 1517 and enjoyed a feast of tacos, so we know that the native peoples had been eating them long enough for it to be a tradition they shared with the conquistadors.
However, some believe the term was first coined in Mexican silver mines, as the term tacos de mineros (miner’s tacos) appears in the late 19th century and is the first example of the modern use of the term.
Whether it was 9,000 years ago or 500 years ago, what is certainly true is that tacos as a dish have constantly evolved and changed. For natives of South America, a taco is always a corn tortilla, it is not fried, and it is rarely served with things like lettuce and cheese. Instead, it is often garnished with onions, guacamole, salsa, or other sauces. Since the origins of the corn tortilla, the taco has been endlessly articulated and adapted to suit environments and populations though.
For instance, flour tortillas are a relatively recent addition to variations on tacos. Most of Mexico was not cultivating wheat until they began interacting with the Americas and trade opened. This is one of the reasons that ‘American tacos’ are more commonly larger and use flour tortillas whereas most Mexican people would shake their heads at such an idea. Even more bizarre to them would be the trend of frying taco shells.
While the fried shell has become common across much of America, it was definitely not invented in Mexico. Like the original taco, it is hard to say when the ‘hard-shell’ tradition of tacos started, but some experts believe it came from none other than Taco Bell founder Glen Bell in the early 1960s. Bell needed a way to mass-produce tacos and frying and storing shells was far more efficient than cooking them on-site. Thus, the American taco was born.
Nowadays, there has been a resurgence in traditional, Mexican tacos, but millions of Americans still know and love fried shell tacos or flour tortilla tacos with lettuce and tomato.
Here at Benny’s Tacos, we don’t take sides. As long as it is delicious, that is all that matters, and we offer a variety of tacos that blend the old and the new. Check out our menu today!