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Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food Hardcover – October 1, 2012


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (October 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199740062
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199740062
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1.1 x 6.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #160,462 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The Evolution of the Taco

The Original Taco
The origins of the taco are still disputed. Some attribute it to the ancient Aztecs; others say the term came from Spain. I have found evidence linking the word to the silver mines of eighteenth-century Mexico, where it referred to a stick of dynamite! Whatever the source, the taco shop first became common in working-class barrios of Mexico City at the end of the nineteenth century. The most popular versions then were barbacoa (pit-roasted beef or lamb), carnitas (fried pork), tripitas (tripe and assorted organ meats), and tacos de minero (miner’s tacos), which were filled simply with steamed potatoes and salsa and are now called tacos sudados (sweaty tacos).

The Mexican Taco
During the twentieth century, the taco traveled from Mexico City to the provinces, acquiring new flavors such as cochinito pibil (Yucatecan pit-roasted pork) and carne asada (Sonoran grilled beef). Other versions were invented by new immigrants to Mexico. In the 1960s, the children of Lebanese migrants created tacos al pastor by adapting their parents’ vertical rotisserie of shawarma or gyros (originally called tacos árabes or “Arab tacos”) to tasty Mexican pork. Tacos al pastor were part of a 1960s taco renaissance in trendy Mexico City neighborhoods such as Condesa. Fashionable young people ended a night on the town with tacos al carbon (grilled tacos), which replaced plebeian variety meats with more expensive cuts such as bifstek (beef steak) and chuletas (pork chops). Chefs of the nueva cocina mexicana (nouvelle Mexican cuisine), a gourmet movement that started in the 1980s, created their own tacos. Patricia Quintana, for example, served simple guacamole tacos not on corn tortillas but rather on thin rounds of jícama (an apple-flavored indigenous root). Thus, the Mexican taco continues to evolve.

The Mexican American Taco
In contrast to the Mexican taco, the Americanized taco was supposedly invented in the early 1950s by Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell. A hotdog vendor in San Bernardino, California, he claimed inspiration from the McDonald brothers’ fast food hamburger restaurant, which opened there in 1949. Bell began experimenting with tortillas and frying baskets to create the “taco shell,” a U-shaped, pre-fried form that could streamline the production of Mexican food. The problem with this creation myth, whereby Yankee ingenuity transformed a Mexican peasant food, was not only that the Mexican taco was itself a product of modernity. In fact, the original patent for a taco shell had already been awarded to Juvencio Maldonado, a Mexican restaurateur in New York City. Mexican American cookbook author Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert also gave a recipe for taco shells in the 1940s. Clearly the idea was already present in the Mexican American community. Glen Bell built a taco empire not on modern technology—the McDonaldization myth—but rather by selling exotic foods to people who may not have wanted to visit Mexican neighborhoods. Instead of the fast food taco, we should call it the Mexican American taco as a tribute to the hard-working cooks who adapted the Mexican taco to their American lives.

The Multiethnic Taco
Some of the most popular tacos in Southern California today are not Mexican but Korean. Roy Choi’s Kogi Korean BBQ taco trucks have used Twitter to attract long lines of people hungry for short rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas. Choi and other new immigrants chose tacos in order to “Americanize” their cooking, and they were not the first to create multiethnic tacos. The Kosher Burrito was founded in Los Angeles in 1946 by a Jewish man who married a Sonoran woman; it sells pastrami tacos and burritos as a kosher alternative to pork carnitas and chorizo. Taco shops also opened in African American neighborhoods of Watts and South Central Los Angeles in the 1950s, often with catchy names such as Taco Th’ Town. One such place served blacked-eyed peas in a taco shell as “African Tacos.” More recently, Midwestern Americans have welcomed the taco to one of their most beloved institutions, the state fair, where you can now find deep-fried tacos on a stick.

The Scandinavian Taco
The taco is a national dish not only in Mexico and the United States but also in Norway. The globalization of the taco was started in the 1960s by Americans, particularly military personnel stationed abroad and surfers looking for the perfect wave. Having eaten Mexican American food in the Southwest, they could not imagine life without it. But as a result, it was Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex versions that set global stereotypes. In Norway, Fredagstacoen (Friday tacos) have become a domestic ritual, stuffed with the usual Cal-Mex combination of ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and mild salsa as well as such novelties as white cheese, sour cream, cucumber, and canned corn. Mexican travelers are understandably annoyed at such liberties, but they can take heart from the recent spread of tacos al pastor around the world. The taco shell was merely the first course, whetting a global appetite for Mexico’s regional cuisines.

From Booklist

At least north of the border, the taco has become Mexican cuisine’s standard, ubiquitous staple. But just as American pizza displays only the most meager resemblance to its Neapolitan forebear, today’s prefabricated, industrial, portion-controlled, fast-food taco has little to do with the artisanal, freshly made, delicately creased, and inventively stuffed corn tortilla of its native land. As Pilcher discovers, the taco is a relative newcomer to the Mexican diet, the first references appearing only in the late nineteenth century. Moreover, the taco represents only one aspect of a sophisticated cuisine that has evolved into a major influence in world cookery. Nevertheless, tacos now appear in cities all around the globe, and hardly a food court or restaurant row exists anywhere that doesn’t have some sort of taco-based item on a menu. Pilcher’s detailed history rests on meticulous research, as evidenced by the comprehensive bibliography. Glossary of Mexican cooking terms included. --Mark Knoblauch

More About the Author

Jeffrey M. Pilcher is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota. He teaches classes on the history of food and drink in Mexico and around the world.

Customer Reviews

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Enlightening, and interesting from a historical perspective.
Amazon Customer
Very Highly Recommended, especially for foodies who love history.
she treads softly
If you can put in the time to read Planet Taco, it is worth it.
Laura Booksnob

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By she treads softly on October 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover
In Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food author Jeffrey M. Pilcher shows beyond a doubt that: "The history of tacos, like eating tacos, is a messy business." (Location 373) He researches the question: what is authentic Mexican food? What is mainly viewed as Mexican fare globally is actually an Americanized version of the cuisine - and beyond that authentic food is difficult to precisely locate because there are a variety of dishes that all vary by region.

Pilcher researches the globalization of Mexican food, as most of us know it today. Along the way he also shares many interesting stories and historical notes in this very interesting, accessible account. Much of what is viewed as Mexican food is really Tex-Mex. For example, Pilcher shows that:
"Following the movement of three basic ingredients from the Mesoamerican kitchen, corn, chilies, and chocolate, can help to reveal the emergence of material and cultural patterns that later contributed to the global reputation of Mexican food. Already in the early modern era, these foods acquired vastly different images among elite and popular sectors. The importance of social distinctions can readily be seen in the case of yet another New World plant, the tomato." (Location 635-638)

For those interested in the history of a cuisine and how trade influenced the spread of it, Pilcher is thorough. He exams the history of Mexican food and follows it to today. Along the way he discusses how the cuisine was changed and how it spread world wide.

For all the nonfiction fans out there who appreciate documentation and sources as much as I do, Pilcher includes 46 photos as well as a glossary, select bibliography, notes, and an index. (Yes!)

Warning: you will be craving Mexican/ Tex-Mex food while reading.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Laura Booksnob on December 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Planet Taco. A Global History in Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher

Planet Taco is a scholarly look into the history of Mexican food. Pilcher dares to ask the question, What is authentic Mexican food? His research and travels take him into modern day Mexico and the Southwest of the United States. Pilcher examines the Spanish conquistadors influence on Mexican food, as well as the influence of the different indigenous populations, the African slaves, and the influx of the Chinese. Mexico doesn't seem to have a National food because their history is so varied and represented by many cultures. Also the traditional food varies based on regional locations within Mexico and in the surrounding areas.

Planet Taco is exceptionally detailed and packed full of educational information. Included in the book are pictures, maps and recipes. Pilcher details the history of maize and wheat and taught me that people in the region of Mexico viewed those who ate corn tortillas as lower class (these were primarily indigenous peoples) and wheat tortilla eaters tended to be Spanish or upper class. He details the rise of Chili Queens and Blue Corn and the American taco and so much more.

Planet Taco is a great book for those willing to put in the time and a great name for a future Mexican restaurant. I can guarentee that you will learn a lot from reading this book. The writing style is intellectual and studious and some people will feel like they are reading a textbook on Mexican food. If you can put in the time to read Planet Taco, it is worth it. This book would make an excellent companion for those traveling to Mexico for a vacation.

Caution: This book will make you hungry for Mexican food. I had three different Mexican style meals while reading this book. Yum!
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Enlightening, and interesting from a historical perspective. Although it does read like a lengthy, academic, historical read, I still found it to be very enjoyable. If you love to read and love to eat "Mexican Food", you'll like this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Betance on August 18, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I liked this book. I liked the information in this book. But it's not a quick read. I didn't expect it to be so dense. It reads like someone's doctoral dissertation with a pretty cover slapped on the front. A large part of the book is dedicated to simply the pathway maize took around the world more than 500 years ago. For me, it picked up as we enter the 20th century but it's a long way there. I struggled between 3 and 4 stars. I ultimately chose 4 stars because I did learn quite a bit (though I worked for every nugget of information).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Gordon Moog on April 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Fascinating book on Mexican food and how it has been affected by culture and how culture has been effected by food and the ingredients. My only criticism is that, for me, it bogged down in a few places, but is still an interesting topic and worth the time
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By I. Darren on February 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Ask a non-Mexican to name a typical Mexican dish and be possibly prepared for a long pause and a few incorrect guesses. Maybe they will strike lucky and say tacos without really knowing what a taco is. Through this book you can soon become a "pop up expert" about this Mexican fast food and learn just how versatile it may be.
In this fairly weighty work, the author traces the origin and development of the taco over time and considers its metamorphosis into an Mexican-American fast food that many people, in fact, think is a `Southern American' dish in its own right. Prepare to be surprised when you note the author's findings and consider how American influences have helped, or hindered, the dish in the name of globalisation and marketing.
Described as a struggle between industrialised Tex-Mex foods and Mexican peasant cuisines and a battle between globalisation and national sovereignty, Pilcher suggests that things are even more tense due to American influences. Of course, nothing is ever that clear-cut and black and white, as there are even `strident discussions' over the real nature and character of traditional Mexican food, the whys and wherefores to this situation and the various claims and counter-claims that lay behind it. Needless to say, there is not one single `authentic' cuisine but rather multiple variations of Mexican food. A typical Mexican may, should he or she choose to eat an authentic national dish, look bemused at some of the offerings being presented as `true Mexican fare'. Of course, the enthusiastic foreigner might know no difference and munch on in blissful ignorance!
Make no mistake. This is no lightweight tourist or gastronomic guide to Mexican food.
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