What made the fast-food taco possible?
The fast-food taco is a product of something called the “taco shell,” a tortilla that has been pre-fried into that characteristic U-shape. If you read Glen Bell’s authorized biography, he says he invented the taco shell in the 1950s, and that it was his technological breakthrough. Mexicans were cooking tacos to order—fresh—and Glen Bell, by making then ahead, was able to serve them faster. But when I went into the U.S. patent office records, I found the original patents for making taco shells were awarded in the 1940s to Mexican restaurateurs, not to Glen Bell.
So when do you see evidence of the hard-shell taco first becoming popular?
Already in the 1940s, Mexican cookbooks are describing the way to make these, by taking a tortilla, frying it, and bending it over to form that U-shape. It’s hard to say when people started doing this for the first time, but clearly its being done at least a decade before Glen Bell claims to have invented it.
Did the taco lead the way toward a broader commercialization of Mexican food in general?
The taco shell is crucial for taking Mexican food outside of Mexican communities. Corn tortillas do not keep very well. They’re sort of like doughnuts—if you get a fresh doughnut, it tastes really good. If you get one that’s been setting around for weeks, not so good. If the taco shell is fried beforehand, you can wrap it up in plastic and keep it sitting around until somebody wants to use it.
Has the American-born taco circulated back to Mexico? How has the wave of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. in the last 20 years changed food on both sides of the border?
Lets just say that the Mexicans have been a lot more successful at bringing their Mexican food to the United States than Americans have at bringing their Mexican food to Mexico. Taco Bell has tried on a couple occasions to establish restaurants in Mexico, and they have invariably closed down very quickly. But I think Mexican regional tacos—like tacos al pastor, tacos de barbacoa—are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. I think the reason for that is Americans want something they perceive as being a more authentic variety. They want the “real” thing.
What are some of your favorite taco joints in the U.S. today?
Tacos are street food. Where I like to go in Minneapolis is the Mercado Central, which is a little Mexican market on Lake Street. It’s got a number of vendors who are Mexican, and they make the kind of food they had back in Mexico. To me it’s like a little vacation. You can find these kinds of places all over the country now. There’s a whole world of fancy Mexican food, but every place where there are Mexican migrants you’re going to find some good tacos.