DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Planet Taco: Mexican Food Goes Global

Tacos. From Alaska to Australia, from Morocco to Mongolia, from Boston to Barcelona to Bangkok and back, they're everywhere. Why they've even been sent to outer space to feed crews on the International  Space Station.

So who or what is responsible for this worldwide explosion in Mexican cuisine? Well, according to Jeffrey Pilcher, historian and author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, the answer might surprise you.

"Clearly tacos are in the zeitgeist, but that happened because of people outside the Mexican community," says Pilcher, who appeared  recently at the Smithsonian Museum of American History to discuss his book at a special talk held in conjunction with the new Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000 exhibition now at the museum.

Pilcher said 2 American groups are mostly responsible for bringing the tastes of Mexico to the rest of the world. The 1st are U.S. military men and women stationed overseas. "That's not surprising since so many of them train in the Southwest and Mexican food is so widespread there," he noted. The 2nd is somewhat more surprising - American surfers. It seems that when the surfers left the California coastline seeking endless summer waves in other parts of the world, they carried more than just their surfboards - they also brought a taste for easy-to-eat Mexican cuisine with them.

Today tacos are at the top of the Mexican food chain. But that development is relatively recent. Pilcher said references to the taco really don't appear in Mexico until the 1890s, which is about the same time they were introduced in the United States.

"People think of tacos as an authentic (Mexican)  food. There's a sense of comfort from thinking that Montezuma ate them. But tacos are as modern in Mexico as they are in the United States," Pilcher contended. "On one hand you do have tradition, but on the other you have modernity."

Pilcher said the word taco actually comes from a French word for "to pack down the powder" in a gun. The 1st tacos were consumed by miners who used packed gunpowder on their jobs, thus the name. "There are a lot of similarities between a good taco with habenero sauce and a stick of dynamite," Pilcher joked. But the concept has exploded to all corners of the planet. "Today there are tacos everywhere. We all need our dose of vitamin T.

The spice and heat associated with Mexican food provides a "sense of danger" that many eaters find attractive, Pilcher said. "New science is showing that chilies stimulate endorphins. Like a drug, eaters seek out hotter and hotter things."

Pilcher said he expects even more Mexican dishes will find their way to other countries. "As people around the world get introduced to basic Mexican cuisine they say 'this is Americanized'. Where can I find something more authentic? It will be interesting to see how these foods will change historically," the author said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If all this talk of tacos has made you hungry for some Mexican food, here is a list of some of the best Mexican eateries in the DC area.

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