From what began as a humble, working-class meal, tacos have become big business throughout the United States. Whether you'd rather sample a simple carne asada taco at a street cart or taste a pork belly- or foie gras-filled one at an upscale joint, the taco has become a versatile and ubiquitous meal. Now, students at the University of Kentucky can take a course that covers tacos and their place in the American foodscape.
“Taco Literacy: Public Advocacy and Mexican Food in the US South” is an undergraduate course that will study people’s stories about the role food plays in their lives.
“You can go to the smallest towns in Appalachia and there will always be a Mexican restaurant,” Steven Alvarez, who teaches the class, tells Javier Cabral for Munchies. "It is really interesting to see how Mexican food has evolved socially here. This class allows our students to explore the issues of immigration, inequality, workers, intercultural communication and literacy through the prism of food."
No one’s sure exactly where the taco came from, but its roots probably lie with 18th-century Mexican silver miners. According to Jeffrey M. Pilcher, author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, the word “taco” originally described little charges of paper wrapped around gunpowder that miners used to excavate silver ore. Eventually, the word came to be used for the tortilla-wrapped handfuls of meat and fiery hot sauce, but they didn’t become popular outside of Mexican communities until a little restaurant called Taco Bell exploded during the 1960s, Pilcher told Katy June Friesen for Smithsonian Magazine in 2012.
“The word “taco” in a restaurant name was actually a way of selling Mexican food to non-Mexicans,” Pilcher told Friesen. “What Glen Bell was doing was allowing Americans of other racial and ethnic groups to sample Mexican food without actually going into Mexican neighborhoods.”
Students in Alvarez's class are assigned readings from books like the Tacopedia and Tortillas: A Cultural History, while they conduct restaurant reviews and try to figure out how to make their favorite Mexican dishes at home. But Alvarez also wants his students to engage with the local community, whether by helping local restaurants build better websites or cooking food for people during the recent blizzard that blanketed much of the East Coast, Cabral writes. At the same time, Alvarez—an assistant professor in the university’s Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies department—hopes the class will inspire his students to see writing as a real career choice.
“At the very end of the course, my students will be generators of knowledge, have a portfolio full of multimedia food journalism, and they will be over the fajita stage of Mexican food,” Alvarez tells Cabral.