Introduction: In this article, to help celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15), Gena Philibert-Ortega presents some taco recipes she found in old newspapers. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
When was the last time you ate a taco? Tacos have been a mainstay in American cuisine since at least the early 20th century. According to Jeffrey M. Pilcher, author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, tacos are first mentioned in U.S. newspapers around 1905 – and he believes their origins can be traced back to 18th century Mexican miners.* Today, a taco is as convenient as a Mexican fast food drive-thru, and is a food made at home by families who have no Hispanic heritage.
As I polled my Facebook friends from around the country, it quickly became very obvious that a taco is different depending on where you live. Like other ethnic foods that are adapted in an area, tacos take on different characteristics and flavors depending on where you live and the ethnic makeup of the area (including tacos taking on the flavors of other countries, even ones from Asia).
Living close to the Mexican border in Southern California, I’m familiar with tacos sold at both Mexican fast food and casual restaurants. Most people are more familiar with tacos that have a hard corn tortilla shell filled with ground beef, iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese and tomatoes, while more traditional street tacos start with a soft, warm corn tortilla and beef, chicken or pork, topped with cilantro, onion and hot sauce.
But there are all kinds of tacos nationwide. My Facebook friends talked about tacos familiar to them that ran the gamut from the corn hard shell or flour tortilla to the puffy fried tortilla, and included meats like ground beef, brisket, shrimp and battered fish. My friends also reported taco fillings that spanned the familiar iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and cheddar cheese combo to the more unique – like mashed potatoes, refried beans, and barbecue sauce.
Hearing about all these variations in tacos made me curious to find out what taco recipes can be found in historical newspapers, so I did a search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to find out.
This 1960 Oregon newspaper article about tacos explains to the reader that:
“A different kind of sandwich idea has crossed the border from our good neighbors to the south, Mexico, and its popularity has spread throughout the Southwest… It is taco [sic], which is a tortilla with a meat, fish, or bean filling folded inside… Mexico’s answer to France’s crepes, Russia’s blintzes and Germany’s filled pancakes.”
The taco recipes in this newspaper article utilize ground beef and chicken.
I should add here that although the above article refers to tacos as a Mexican sandwich, something I’ve heard others do as well, there actually is a Mexican sandwich which is called a “Torta.”
A Texas friend of mine mentioned that she likes tacos that are filled with picadillo. New to me, I learned that picadillo is a meat “hash” that can include meat, onions, and a sweet sauce that may have either sugar, honey or raisons added to it. This 1965 Texas newspaper article’s recipe for tacos includes picadillo with raisins. This recipe recommends using this “Mexican hash” in tacos or enchiladas.
This 1971 Louisiana newspaper article’s taco recipe uses some of the ingredients you might find in a taco bought at a fast food chain restaurant: hard taco shells, ground beef, and shredded lettuce. A recipe for the meat seasoning is provided, but the recipe also mentions you can use packaged taco seasoning. Interestingly enough, lettuce and cheese are referred to as “decorations” in this recipe:
“The decorations for these tacos are shredded iceberg lettuce, grated cheese and avocado. The avocado is a more unusual decoration than the lettuce and cheese – and a delicious one.”
The Convenience of Tacos
As tacos became popular with Americans in the middle of the 20th century, convenience foods like taco seasoning, ready-made taco dinners and frozen tacos made their first appearance. This 1955 California newspaper advertisement for Ashley’s prepared Mexican foods includes taco seasoning, as well as canned enchilada and taco sauce, pinto beans, and a boxed taco dinner that includes tortillas, meat, sauce, and beans. Notice that the brand also sells tortillas in a can.
It would seem that these Mexican packaged meals in a box were probably the way many Americans were introduced to tacos and enchiladas. This 1952 Oregon newspaper article refers to Mexican meals in a box like those in the previous advertisement, and provides ideas for preparing them:
“To make the crisp tacos, fry the tortillas in deep fat just until lightly browned and crisp. Spread with taco filling and keep hot in the oven… Besides being a delicious and unusual dinner especially good for informal summer meals, the Mexican dinner offers an excellent budget menu that is quick and easy to prepare. To complete the dinner serve lettuce and avocado salad and fresh fruit with cheese for dessert.”
Frozen tacos, sometimes called cocktail tacos because of their small size, were yet another prepared Mexican food item that familiarized Americans with “Mexican” food.
Is It Tuesday Taco at Your House?
Do you cook tacos for dinner? What do tacos look like at your house? I’d love to hear about your recipes in the comments section below.
* “Where Did the Taco Come From?” Smithsonian (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/where-did-the-taco-come-from-81228162/: accessed 30 September 2017).