Taco Talk – in search of the authentic taco

In 1987 at the age of 15, I travelled to El Paso, Texas, on a scholarship to spend a year as a student on a cultural exchange programme. I lived with a Mexican-American family. The school I went to was 95% Latino. I learned Spanish, played in the band, wrote for the yearbook. 

Until this point, I’d never really been anywhere on my own before, never really communicated with anyone whose first language wasn’t English. And I’d never had a taco. 

There’s a feature about me in the school paper a month after I arrived. The last sentence reads, “Of all the foods he has been introduced to in El Paso, the taco is his favourite.” It still is!

My first lesson in tacos was about how to pronounce them. To say it properly, you have to put your tongue behind your teeth, somewhere between /d/ and /l/. If you say it with that aspirated Anglo “tih” sound – you’re doing it wrong. You’ll just sound like a gringo. And the /o/ is flat. Like El Paso. Like taco. Not like the guy from the dictionary.

As an exchange student, I was obliged to get the hang of stuff like this. Cultural differences, obvious disparities, subtle nuances.  

The family I lived with were generous hosts, and Mum Norma was a brilliant cook. I was fortunate to eat home-cooked tacos every other day for the whole year. When dinner wasn’t a taco, it was a bean burrito or a quesadilla or a stack of enchiladas. I was taught how to use a flour tortilla to mop up a plate of frijoles. I was introduced to the wonders of chile con queso made from a block of Velveeta and a can of Ro-tel. 

Every Friday night after the ball game with the band we’d go to Chico’s Tacos and get a boat-shaped bowl of “tacos” that weren’t really tacos, but flautas – flutes – rolled, fried and soused in Chico’s watery salsa, piled high with shredded cheese and served with a side of zingy tomatilla

I still can’t say the word, but at least I know what a taco is. 

Everyone knows what a taco is, right?

In the UK, we can probably trace the emergence of the taco and foods like it to the 1980s when a greater diversity of products started to become available in supermarkets. 

The taco came in on a wave of other seemingly interchangeable foreign flatbreads, like pitta, chapatis and focaccia. Burritos were just bland, Anglicised “wraps”.

Over time, we’ve learned the difference. More than that, the taco is bound up with all sorts of narratives of travel-savvy culinary sophistication and cultural insider knowledge. 

But just as we continue to fail to master the pronunciation, the British version of this Mexican- American gastronomic staple is similarly approximate. Every festival seems to have its own taco truck, but our tacos are still gringo tacos.

The idea of trying to find an authentic taco in the UK feels slightly doomed before the off, even as it seems like tacos have become suddenly ubiquitous in the current “street food” boom.

Street food in the way that we know it in the UK, is altogether different from the concentrations of culinary entrepreneurialism across the world described by Irene Tinker in her study of street food markets in developing countries. Our “street foods” are not “street food” in anything like the same understanding of the term. 

Tinker cites an example in Yoruba, Nigeria, for example, where “Vendors … offered 335 different foods and 74 usual combinations from which customers could choose.” (Tinker 1997: 179)

There is considerably less choice on offer at Platform, Glasgow’s street food market at the old Arches venue under Central Station. Mobile vendors in adapted vehicles sell portable dishes from around the world. Or, around the corner, depending on your take.

In a culinary twist on the phenomenon known as “glocalization”, restaurants and places like Platform educate us in the unfamiliar by including familiar elements in the dining experience. No matter how sophisticated we get in our tastes, no matter how far travelled we are, no matter how exotic or far-flung the food, if you’re dining out in the UK there’s always chips on the menu. You can always get a pint

Ginger & Chilli - preparing a Kati Roll TacoAt Platform, a popular item on Chilli & Ginger’s menu is their Kati Roll Taco – a “folded paratha with curry, rice, lemon pickled onions, Jaipur slaw and a choice of chutneys”…

I give it a miss. It’s authentically, “glocally” something but I’m not sure a curry in a taco is what I’m looking for. 

What am I looking for? What is a taco, anyway? Is it a type of sandwich? Are they crispy or soft? Can any flatbread be a taco? If a curry can be a taco, what else can be a taco? Can a hot dog be a taco? Does it have to be made of corn?

Nobody had heard of the things thirty years ago, but now they’re everywhere.

One thing I realise is there’s no such thing as a “humble” taco. For such a tiny couple of mouthfuls, the taco does a lot of heavy lifting in the global village. In fact, the more you investigate any ingredient, or food type, the more complex it reveals itself to be. The idea that a specific food can be authentically from specifically one place gets quickly tangled in the crossed lines of global trade, colonisation, migration, tourism, genetic modification, refrigeration etc. 

In what is probably the definitive text on the history of Mexican food, ”Planet Taco”, Jeffrey Pilcher reminds us what the historians have been telling us all along, that “Mexican food has been globalised from the very beginning.” (Pilcher 2012: 5)

Taco on Apple iOS 13.1

Even so, in a world where we increasingly communicate in shorthand visuals, foods have come to stand for certain countries. And no matter what you put in them, the taco has come to signify  Mexican food – especially since it was codified by the Emoji Corporation in 2015 – much as the burger stands for American food or “curry” stands for Indian food. 

But you could argue that the taco along with all these emoji foods – like sushi, like pizza – transcends national identity. You won’t find any mention of tacos in the UNESCO inscription of traditional Mexican food. Which is fair enough. Tacos should probably have their own separate inscription. Even in kit from. Especially in kit form.

The emoji taco is a hard shell taco, a 20th century invention borne of a desire to scale up distribution across the American continent. Corn goes off quickly, so fry-baking tortillas into a hard shell prolongs their shelf life, allows them to travel. It’s a product that facilitated the McDonaldsification – or more accurately, the Taco Bell-ification – of the taco. 

Taco kits were an instant hit, partly because the product conformed to a familiar foodway formula: you take some kind of meat protein with a starchy base, sauce, veg/ salad, optional cheese on top. 

In the UK, it’s probably still the case that the name most closely associated with Mexican food is the supermarket megabrand, Old El Paso, which has been supplying kit meals to UK households since the mid 1980s. 

For me, the great thing about Old El Paso is that they don’t pretend their products are authentic. 

The warm desert yellows, the tiled roof of a colonial hacienda on the packaging nudge us towards an innocent, idealised version of the Southwest USA, free of conflict, devoid of banditos or any of the usual cowboy movie cliches. The name harks to a nostalgic past,  to a time maybe when El Paso was part of Mexico. The generic Spanish food names are there – salsa, fajita, enchilada etc – and everything is reassuringly mild. Even the spices come in a “white” sachet. The starch/ protein/ veg/ sauce template is comforting and familiar, with a handy picture on the front for reference. It just needs you to chop a few peppers, some onions, fry a bit of steak or chicken, open a jar or two and you’re there.

The authenticity they’re going for is a kind of heritage authenticity, fostering trust in the brand through storytelling. Their packaging tells us they’ve been in business “since 1938”. Their website tells the backstory of its origins as a canning plant on the outskirts of El Paso. The brand is operated by American food giant General Mills, who know, perhaps, that culinary authenticity is not a strong motivator for their audience, that the heritage value of the Old El Paso brand is a powerful asset in the crowded convenience foods market. 

Tastes change, though. In 2012, a newcomer arrived offering some heavy-concept competition in the Mexican aisle. Gran Luchito was the brainchild of an English foodie who thought there was room on the shelf for something more strongly Mexican flavoured. 

Gran Luchito’s products come in saturated terracottas, vivid cactus-greens and sun-drenched ochres, eschewing Old El Paso’s safe, bland imagery and tired serving suggestions for bold typography, exotic Day of the Dead iconography and exciting new flavour profiles.

They obviously spooked General Mills, because in 2015, Old El Paso rolled out a new range called “Restaurante” and employed an expensive London agency to handle the marketing

The whole thing was geared around culinary authenticity with the strapline “Cook like the locals”. They hired a down-to-earth Yorkshire butcher and a salt-of-the-earth Cornish fishmonger to travel to different bits of actual Mexico to learn how to cook “regional” dishes. The campaign was threaded together with language like “authentic” “traditional” “local” and introduced new concepts like “al pastor” “carne asada” “chicken tinga”.

It flopped. 

Old El Paso pulled the concept after 18 months and reverted to their core generic range of Tex-Mex staples. General Mills didn’t elaborate on the reasons for the sudden recall, but we can perhaps draw our own inferences about the nature of their audience and how much regional authenticity that audience is willing to bear. 

Meanwhile, Gran Luchito goes from strength to strength, opening new markets, developing new products, adding to their reach and range. They manage to offer the kind of “authenticity” on the shelves of the UK’s big supermarkets that Old El Paso can’t get near. Their products are full of regional references, authentic ingredients. They promise “the real flavour of Mexico” with not the slightest hint of the border about them.

Which raises an interesting question about who gets to claim their version of Mexican food is authentic… The entrepreneurial tourist? Or is it the people of Mexico and their descendants? 

It’s currently fashionable to dismiss so-called Tex-Mex food as inauthentic. And if you’re taking hard shell tacos to stand for the whole vibrant diversity of Mexican cooking, fair enough. But Tex-Mex is more than just an emoji. 

For me, Tex-Mex food is Mexican food. It’s not the whole story, but nothing ever is. By dismissing it, you erase the journey the food of the Southwest USA has been on over the generations, carried by the people who cook it, from their origins in Chihuahua or Oaxaca or Jalisco or wherever migrating north to the border towns of the US. 

Pilcher again.

“The regional cuisines of Oaxaca and Sonora, as well as their Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex counterparts, are modern artifacts of culinary tourism, in many ways quite distant from the domestic practices from which they emerged. The culinary literature and restaurant menus that serve to codify recipes are similar to and often allied with the ideological work of forging national identities.” (Pilcher 2012: 224)

Right now, Glasgow seems to be having a Mexican moment. The city centre is home to a dozen Mexican restaurants, most of them fairly new. My girlfriend and I try Topolabamba. They too have a professed avowal of the “Tex-Mex”, as their website declares: 

“We’re not talking about those pre­-packed wraps, or Tex­Mex inspired kits – we mean the real deal, amigos – the real deal.” 

The portions are tiny. It’s tapas-style, we’re told – I’m not sure how authentically Mexican that concept is, but it’s on the Old-World/ New-World continuum, so I’m not going to quibble. I remind myself that I’m a “culinary citizen of a glocalized and imaginary culture” and order a pint and some chips while we study the menu.

There’s no refried beans – maybe that’s too Tex-Mex? – but they do have taquitos, little tacos, which is everything I need to hear. 

What arrives is a fitting return to the tacos I ate back in El Paso, at Chico’s: the rolled, fried crispy tacos that aren’t really tacos. They’re a bit dry – no salsa, no tomatilla, no shredded cheese – but they’re perfectly delicious nonetheless. 

Have I just eaten an authentic taco? In Glasgow? Probably. It’s not a Chico’s Taco, but then, that’s not really an authentic taco either

I’m happy the journey has taken me full circle, reignited old memories. I’m happy to forget about food semiotics for a minute and just enjoy the celebration of Mexican culture in whatever form it has found itself here, authentic, glocal or otherwise. I post a message to my El Paso facebook friends, ask them their take on the taco. No-one seems to have very definite ideas. 

Taco’s just a taco.

 El Paso, TX; Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; Rio Grande River.
The border town of El Paso, TX with Juarez, Mexico in the background south of the Rio Grande River. (Photo: Ron Reiring/ Flickr.com)

Slacker

Dir: Richard Linklater (1991)

SlackerI’m still not sure I want to watch this film, even as I slide the box out of its yellowing sleeve. Even as I press play on the DVD remote I’m not sure it has anything to say to me any more. And as the trailers play out (remember trailers?) I’m recalling the last time I tried to watch it and got no further than about 20 minutes into the movie.

Why this film? Why now? As various online articles attest: We get older, Slacker stays the same age.

I saw the film probably in 1992 or 93, a year or so after its US release, at the suggestion of a friend. I don’t think either of us really appreciated the kind of film it would turn out to be. I don’t think we properly knew what a “slacker” was, at least not in the director’s coining of the word, but something about it spoke to us. Generation X was out and had started to catch on as an idea in a tabloidy kind of way, McJobs and all that.

But we didn’t really have slackers in the UK – we had the Protestant work ethic. We had loafers, layabouts and scroungers, the feckless and the workshy, dole-ites, people asking you when you were going to pull your socks up, get your finger out, get a job, get a real job.

I was definitely a slacker. Signing on during the extended summer holidays from uni. Staying up late, waking up whenever. Playing in bands. Playing chess. Wandering the streets of a New Town in decline, secondhand Pentax K-1000 round my neck. Making animated cine films in my attic bedroom. Painting in the greenhouse. Reading the Beatniks. And travelling. Always looking for my next ticket out of a town I was completely at odds with.

We might have had The Jesus and Mary Chain, we might have had Roddy Frame, but if East Kilbride had once been the Town of Tomorrow, it was never going to be Austin. It’s just not big enough, or warm enough. You don’t really get flâneurs in cold, wet climates. We had Rockschool, the Key Youth Centre, the Village Theatre, John Menzies, the entertainment section of the EK News, and the bus into Glasgow.

What were my concerns back then? What were my ambitions? I had a curious mind, but an undisciplined intellect. I was doing a version of what I’ve continued to do my whole life, trying to find my place in the world by wandering about and sort of bumping into it.

A line in the film jumps out:

The First Hurdle of the True Warrior:
To those humans in whom I have faith,
I wish suffering, being forsaken, sickness, maltreatment, humiliation.
I wish that they shjould not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust and the misery of the vanquished.
I have no pity for them.
Because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not: that one endures.

The Slacker generation is my generation. I was too young for punk. Punk sent its energy outwards, a seismic shockwave that took years for its ripples to reach the suburbs. It was performative, social, communal. Slacker/ Generation X was an equivalent force for introverts, nerds and misfits filled with self-contempt and self-mistrust.

There’s a community-of-sorts being defined in this film. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the film’s structure, but it feels like the people who form this community are more like individual links in a chain rather than a mass gathering of like-minded souls. A collaboration of coordinated individualism, perhaps. Relationships are almost always, one-to-one, personal, intense.

Watching the film requires a bit of work, it’s not a film you can tune out of easily. There’s no protagonist, no plot, no “stakes”, no denouement. Nothing really happens. It’s like a giant mix tape of eavesdropped campus stoner chat. I take notes. I list the scene transitions, give the characters nicknames. I list the subjects of conversation. I’m not sure I get any closer to the truth of the film than if I’d just sat back and let it happen, but I’m more engaged with it. I breeze past the 20 minute mark.

There’s a lot of conspiracy stuff – Warren Commission, JFK, FBI, moon landings. Pop culture stuff – Smurfs, Scooby Do, Wizard of Oz, Madonna, Elvis. Politically it veers from anarchy into a kind of freelance conservatism. There’s stuff about dreams/ reality, freedom/ slavery, destruction/ creativity, ways of seeing/ ways of being. A lot of ripped jeans and terrible shorts. Meaningful t-shirts. Beers n smokes. Sex n (traffic) violence. Philosophy n prophecy. And walking. A lot of walking.

Where do the film’s philosophical insights take us? I watched Slacker, and later its follow-up-of-sorts Waking Life, hoping some of that sagacity would rub off, that I would incorporate at least some of it into my everyday life, that it would lead me out of my own self-contempt and self-mistrust towards something like an enlightened self-sufficency which would allow me to create great art, or at least create something.

In 25 years, nothing has changed. Still with the self-contempt, still with the self-mistrust. No closer to enlightened self-sufficiency. Still ambling, still looking to bump into my reason for being.

I watch Slacker now as a 44 year old and I want to say to half of the characters, “Quit wasting your time with that shit, man. Read some real books. Get some real skills.” I catch myself shaking my head, thinking, “You’ll learn, kid”. I’ve become the one saying “When are you going to get a real job?”

To the others, I want to say, “I totally get where you’re coming from!” I want to join in their conversations. I realise I’m engaging with these characters as if they’re real. I simultaneously wish I was one of them, while accepting the world they inhabit isn’t just gone – it’s ancient history.

These characters gave rise to the hipster – essentially, a slacker with an iPhone and a job in the digital economy. The Austin they inhabited in 1991 is now a hipster boom town, the Austin of SXSW, the live music capital of the world, unofficial headquarters of corporate creativity that now, ironically, campaigns to hang on to what remains of the place that Linklater’s heightened sense of the local helped to define, that made it attractive to the kinds of homogenising forces that are now levelling out the kinks.

Globalisation in 1991 really only meant Coca Cola. Now it’s the very air we breathe. Every conspiracy is available online to indulge – no need to go ferreting in bookstores. No need to visit the scrapyard to fillet junked cars for parts – just hand your car back to the leasing company and get another. The guy who disappeared leaving a pile of cryptic postcard-length messages – all the mystery lost in a series of tweets.

The film ends with a convertible full of kids with Super8 cameras, riding around in the dawn, making movies. The last scene shows one of the group tossing a camera off a cliff, the resulting whorls and swooshes, one imagines, are the retrieved (and processed and edited) film. Derek Malcolm found this scene “tiresome”. I find it exuberant and joyful and beautiful. It recalls every night staying up till sunrise in the company of fast friends and lifelong alliances. It wordlessly recalls every moment of unselfconscious creation, of earnest conversation, of endless possibility. It’s the blur and the tumult of youth, the “fuck it, why not”, the leap into the void.

We may grow old; Slacker may stay the same age. But like the best of all art, its message is timeless.

Memos from Paradise

Eddie Daniels
(GRP Records, 1988)

Memos from ParadiseEddie Daniels is a virtuoso crossover jazz-classical clarinettist on the GRP label. I can’t remember who the other dudes are that have their initials in the company name, but I know that one of them is Dave Grusin, who made his name in the movies, providing scores to big Hollywood productions. His name became synonymous in the 80s with a kind of easy listening smooth jazz with high production polish and blockbuster marketing. Kind of the opposite in every way to the ECM label.

I was introduced to Eddie Daniels’s music by a guy who used to come round the Bel Air High School band rehearsal room selling reeds and mouthpieces, slings and lyres, various musical instrument consumables. I got chatting to him, he was curious about how a Scottish kid got to be playing clarinet in a high school marching band way out in the desert heat of El Paso. He came every week and we got friendly. I wish I could remember the name of the place, and the guy’s name too. Let’s call him Bob of Bob’s Music. Anyway, Bob knew I was interested in jazz and invited me down to his store, somewhere off the I-10.

I used to go walking in El Paso. I was probably the only person who did. There were good reasons why not many people walked in El Paso – the heat was ferocious, savagely intense, particularly around the time I’d arrived which was late summer. The city blocks were enormous and the city was so spread out in the suburbs it took much, much longer to get places than you’d expect it to. Like, hours. You’d have to stop by the 7-11 to grab a Big Gulp every couple of blocks just to keep yourself hydrated – and to cool off in the air-conditioning. And anyway, everyone drove. Even kids my age drove; some, like my American brother, Fel, even drove their own cars.

I set out on one of these walks with the aim of popping in to Bob’s Music. He’d promised he’d show me around, show me the workshops where they did their repairs, that kind of thing. Which is exactly what he did, true to his word. The place was enormous – everything was enormous in Texas – and I can recall a massive backroom full of workbenches, people busily making or fixing things. Out front was a standard music shop, probably about fifteen times larger than either McCormack’s or Biggar’s that I’d grown up with in Glasgow. It sold everything you’d expect it to: instruments of all kinds from marching band to rock band, LPs, CDs, tapes, pins, posters, mugs, books and sheet music.

Towards the end of the tour, Bob asked me if, as a clarinet player, I’d ever heard of Eddie Daniels. I admitted my ignorance, which was great because Bob was eager to enlighten. He gushed about this guy Eddie Daniels who had a new album out. Bob put the LP on the listening booth, and gave me a set of headphones. The album was called “Breakthrough”, Daniels’s first on the GRP label. It was astonishing. Back home, thanks to the amazing resources of East Kilbride Central Library’s extensive collection of LPs, I had got into jazz via clarinet players Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw – they played big band swing, but this was altogether something else. All the signs were that this was a classical record: The London Philharmonia Orchestra were credited on the front cover, the first track had an impressive classical music sounding Italian name (“Solfeggietto/ Metamorphosis”) and one of the pieces was by Bach.

BreakthroughThe first track sets the pulse racing from the first beat of the baton. After an exciting intro, intense blocks of chords building up in the strings, the clarinet blasts through – like that image on the cover – with long, sinewy lines that ran from ear to ear looping round and round and up and down like water in the brain. Or electricity. Rollercoastery. And it was fast as fuck. Fast, but not fierce. It was something solid in the ear, but not hard on it. It sounded like sculpted wood. It was a demonstration of such unworldly technical facility – such speed! – that I could only boggle and drool and think, I want to play like that

And then. And THEN, everything just melts.

Those crazy arpeggio ladders he was scaling up and down turned inside out, disappeared, becoming something almost like smoke. It was intoxicating. I bought the album there and then.

“Memos from Paradise”, the follow-up album and the reason for this post, I bought months later on tape. One side, he’s with a string quartet, rather than the full orchestra; on the other, it’s straight up plugged in jazz-bop-pop. I only really listened to the string side which was mellower and more melodic; sadly, all that rewinding has obviously done for the tape, which sort of falls apart as I listen to it now. Listening back to the bits that I can, I am returned to that bedroom in El Paso, listening deeply, learning about the world, learning about music and jazz and love. Eddie Daniels still has the ability to put a spell on me, still makes me want to play like him.