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)