“I wish I was full of tacos instead of emotions.”
“Ways to my heart: buy me tacos, make me tacos, be tacos.”
“You cannot make everyone happy; you are not a taco.”
Americans love tacos. In fact, experts estimate Americans consume 4.5 billion tacos every year, with at least half the population eating Taco Bell at least once a month. Our love for tacos has spilled into the pop culture marketplace, with taco-inspired memes and sayings gracing everything from t-shirts to window decals. There are taco songs, taco cartoons–they even have their own day of the week in Taco Tuesday.
Tacos even have their own national holiday: October 4 is National Taco Day.
Pretty impressive for something that started out as a little stick of dynamite.
That’s right. The Spanish word “taco” literally means “plug” or “wad” and was first used in reference to the Mexican silver mines of the 18th century. For the miners, a “taco” was paper wrapped gunpowder and stuffed into holes carved into the rock face in order to extricate ore. In short, a taco was a stick of dynamite–tacos de minero or “miner’s tacos.”
The origin of what we think of as tacos is a little less clear. Some believe tacos arrived in Mexico along with the Spanish in the 16th century, while other historians claim there is evidence to suggest that natives were eating fish wrapped in tortilla-like bread long before the Conquistadors.
Whatever the case, tacos of all varieties crossed the border into the United States with the influx of Mexican migrants in the early 20th century. At the time, it was viewed as lower-class street food, though tinged with the exotic, due in a small part to the spices and in larger part to the women who sold them, such as the famous “Chili Queens” of San Antonio, whose mix of foreign beauty and unique flavors drove a tourist boom to the heart of the city.
As the popularity of the dish spread northward from the border states, a hot dog stand owner named Glen Bell took notice. Seeing the success of a neighboring restaurant named Mitla Cafe, which sold hard-shell tacos, Bell approached the owners, curious about this new–and seemingly profitable–dish. Taking this newfound knowledge, he opened his own taco stand–called Taco Tia–in southern California in the early 1950’s which sold not only tacos, but burgers and hot dogs, too.
To say this new venture was successful is an understatement. Branching out from his humble stand, the first Taco Bell restaurant opened in Downey, California in 1962. Two years later, the first franchise opened and, by 1967, 100 Taco Bells were operating in the United States.
The taco boom had begun. And it hasn’t slowed down since. Today there are over 7,000 Taco Bell restaurants across the world, in addition the the hundreds of thousands of other taco shops, taco trucks, and taco stands, all serving to fulfill our never-satisfied appetites. Whether you stuff them with fish, beef, pork, or chicken; top them with lettuce, pico de gallo, pineapple, or chiles; hard shell or soft; cheese or no cheese–you can be sure there’s no wrong way to celebrate National Taco Day.
Except with a stick of dynamite. Don’t do that.