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Eating the cutlery, eating tacos.

Tortillas serve as a convenient implement, as they can take the place of a plate or a spoon, reducing serving dishes to a minimum

Janet Long and Luis Alberto Vargas, Food Culture in Mexico, 2005.

The tortilla is a highly complex and symbolic food, which has contributed – and continues to contribute – to Mexico’s national identity, its cultural practices, and its socioeconomic and political landscapes. The quotation, however, suggests that the tortilla also has the function of being edible tableware or cutlery.

This paper explores the potential for the taco, one of the most traditional, emblematic, and popular foods rooted in the individual and collective memory of Mexicans to be emblematic of both national identity and serve a function of replacing the standard tools for eating – the knife, fork and spoon. The taco is a simple dish comprised of a meat or vegetable filling wrapped in a corn flour tortilla Firstly, I introduce a brief account of the relevance of corn and of tortillas in everyday life, and in the socio-political imaginary of Mexicans in order to discuss the way in which the taco is prepared and eaten to reveal tricks, manners, and rituals that are often learned during childhood. The rituals of eating a taco can be read to further reveal social inequalities and class divides. I especially focus on tacos de canasta (basket tacos) to explain how the tortilla functions as cutlery, and follows a protocol similar to other types of cutlery, yet the tortilla is a cutlery that is eaten.1 Finally, I turn my attention to the tacos included in menus of contemporary gourmet and upscale restaurants. Currently, the chefs leading the nouvelle vauge of Mexican cuisine focus on the enhancement, transformation, and re-evaluation of traditional culinary practices – ingredients, and dishes such as tortillas and tacos – with the aim to give customers a modern perspective and renewed interest in local ingredients and regional cuisine. In some cases, however, the etiquette and function of the taco as cutlery is transformed to the point of disappearing completely from the meal. I present three examples where the tortilla is blurred in the preparation, disguised in some other shape, or erased from the dish, thus leaving the filling without a wrapping. As a result, the diner is forced to use a spoon, a fork, and a knife.

From corn and into tacos.

In Food and the Making of Mexican Identity Jeffrey Pilcher states “Mexicans remain a people of corn”.2 The relationship with this cereal goes back to Pre-Columbian civilisations whose diets consisted essentially in the consumption of maize, and whose cosmogonies were based upon the idea that maize was vital to mankind.3 They cultivated corn in the milpa, a sustainable agricultural mode, in which they also grew beans, chilli peppers – together known as the “Mesoamerican triad,”4 – as well as squash, tomatoes, quelites (herbs) and other vegetables that provided a diverse and healthy diet. The Mesoamerican triad and the importance of corn persisted after the Spanish colonisation, and continues to the present day.5

The corn crop is used in its entirety, the husks serve as wrapping for tamales (a sort of steamed or boiled dumplings made of corn dough and filled with meat or vegetables); and the silk corn is used for medicinal purposes. When corn is transformed into masa (a soft dough) it begins its central role in the construction of the tortilla. Creating masa follows the Pre-Columbian practice of nixtamalisation which consists in softening the corn kernels by soaking and then boiling them in alkaline water made out of limestone or ash; a process which enhances the nutritional value by releasing niacin (vitamin B3) that can be absorbed by the human body, and helps to prevent diseases such as pellagra.6 After boiling the kernels, they are thoroughly rinsed before being ground into the final masa which can then be used to make tortillas.7 

Banda Tortilla Copy

Tortillas freshly baked in a tortillería, Mexico city 2015. 

Image courtesy of Óscar Acebal 

These little corn flatbreads are the staple food in most Mexican households; and as a product of corn, they can be seen to have had a great influence on the political, social, economic, and cultural changes occurring throughout the country. Since the arrival of Spaniards in the sixteenth century the dietary habits of Mexicans have changed resulting in a process of mestizaje between Spanish and indigenous gastronomic traditions including table and eating manners. The cultural mestizaje has given rise to constant differences in the acceptance or rejection of the tortilla, manifesting in class segregation. As Pilcher explains, such class divides are the result of the identification of the tortilla as an indigenous foodstuff eaten primarily by the lower classes. The “ambivalence about the indigenous culinary heritage” of the tortilla has caused a point of contention throughout the following centuries especially when Mexicans have tried to define “national cuisine.”8 For example, the appraisal of corn and tortillas changed after the revolutionary movement (1910), which aimed to give equal rights and land distribution to the working class and to the indigenous people.

It is worth mentioning that making tortillas was, furthermore, a task traditionally assigned to the women of the household. Their expertise passed from one generation to the next one, and newly wed brides were tasked with tortilla making to emphasise their role in feeding the family.9 Often, Mexicans have their first encounter with corn tortillas in early childhood, during the weaning, when mothers give small pieces of tortillas to their children, which help to shape their palate. And as the child grows, they learn the social and cultural role of this food. Furthermore, the traditional process of making tortillas was demanding: a woman could spend long hours kneeled down grinding the nixtamal in a metate (a grinding stone), and then torteando (patting) tortillas over a hot comal (griddle) during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This task became less complicated by the end of the nineteenth century with the introduction of mechanical mills and tortilla machines. By 1947 and with the invention of the first automated machine, freshly baked tortillas were mass-produced making them available to purchase fresh everyday and in standardised diameters.10 These machines gave rise to tortillerías (tortilla factories), which spread across the country, especially in urbanised centres.11 

The tortillerías are also crucial in the imaginary of lower and middle-class Mexicans, especially after the decade of the 1950s, when they were established in most neighbourhoods, as was the case in Mexico City.12 Children were often given the task to buy the daily batch of tortillas. I share the memory, as well as some friends, of being sent after school to our local tortillería. In my case, those were the first times I went out on my own. Going to the made me feel independent, but at the same time responsible of delivering three main tasks: first, of paying special attention to the weight marked on the scale, which had to match the amount you were told to buy. Second, to make sure you received the correct change after paying, and to avoid spending it on sweets or snacks on your way back home. Thirdly, to bring the tortillas safely home. Indeed, there was nothing more disappointing than tripping and dropping the them on your way back home – I remember I was scolded once for bringing home broken and dirty tortillas.

Buying the daily tortillas also came with a reward. The smell of tortillas invaded your nose and increased your appetite while you queued in the tortillería. And from early age you learned that after placing your order la/el tortillera/o (the lady/man of the shop) would probably offer you a freshly baked and warm tortilla to eat it. At this point, apart from the responsibilities listed above you had another one: tasting and approving the quality of the merchandise. And you did it by shaping the tortilla into one of the most basic antojito (little cravings, often made with corn) in Mexican cuisine: the taco.13 You placed the tortilla flat over your palm and then added a pinch of salt with your opposite hand. After you carefully rolled it by sliding your hand over it, you ate it on your way back home. Mastering the technique of rolling a taco takes a lot of practice and depends on the kind of filling it will hold: Roll it too slow and you end up with a loose taco that will not hold its content. Doing your own taco del sal (salt taco) increased the feeling of independence and of satisfaction – you no longer needed your parents to roll you a taco. At the same time you learned that eating with tortillas, and in this case a taco, did not required using any cutlery because the tortilla served as such.  

But what is a taco, exactly? Probably not everyone would define it the same way, especially because the image of the taco outside Mexico is often related to the Tex-Mex fast-food sold worldwide by chains like Taco Bell, or ready made meals brands like Old El Paso, which shape the taco as a folded fried tortilla. For Mexicans, however, those examples would not resemble what they know to be  tacos. The simplest definition of the taco is a folded or rolled tortilla which serves as wrapping for other food, such as vegetables, meat, cheese, insects, or even simple a pinch of salt; and which is usually accompanied by a spicy sauce or chillies. Alejandro Escalante mentions that the tortilla, the filling, and the salsa are the “other holy trinity in Mexico”,14 but a taco is also a flavourful mix of textures, an effective and quick solution for calming one’s hunger, and if it is well balanced it also constitutes a nutritious meal.15 

The taco can be simple to prepare as in the case of tacos de la nada (nothing tacos), a simple rolled tortilla, or as the taco del sal; but they can be more elaborate.16 For Mexicans “everything fits in a tortilla”. We make tacos out of everything. The possibilities are vast and vary across the different regions of Mexico where tacos are eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner either at home or bought in one of the many street food stands.17 Different options fit the budget and preferences of all customers. Indeed the taco and tortilla can be either an appetiser or, as is the case for the large majority of the Mexican population, the main meal of the day. 

Historically the taco has been used as cutlery since Pre-Hispanic times, however, just as with the tortilla, the tacos were not always accepted due to their link to lower classes and its indigenous origins. Pilcher notes that they entered Mexico’s national cuisine in the late nineteenth century, but even then wealthy residents considered them as a “potential danger both to health and morality.”18 Following American and European manuals of manners in force at the time, eating with the hands, a necessity for consuming a taco, was perceived as unrefined and unsanitary.

It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that tacos were introduced, consumed, and adopted by the entire Mexican population, including the elite. With increased migration from rural Mexico into city centres booming unemployment forced many migrants to open small street food stands where they sold tacos, or to make money. In conjunction with the growing street food stands García-Garza suggests that the industrialisation of the tortilla, and the gradual acknowledge of tacos as part of Mexico’s cultural heritage aided its popularity.19

Basket tacos: A feast on wheels with a particular etiquette.

The, tacos de canasta (basket taco), can be taken as a prime example of how the taco has a specific etiquette that presents the tortilla and taco as edible cutlery. An ever-presence in the city tacos de canasta are traditionally sold by vendors on bikes moving through the city in search of hungry and greedy individuals who wish to have quick, cheap, and tasty meal. Typical of Mexico City and its rushing pace, they are also known as tacos sudados (sweaty tacos), tacos mineros (miners’ tacos) or tacos dil albañil (construction workers’ tacos). Each of the names, emphasise their socio-cultural origin and the cooking process itself. Pilcher agrees with chronicler Jesús Flores y Escalante that the origin of these tacos can be seen to lie in the miners who migrated to the city from the states of Hidalgo and Guanajuato in the 1920s, hence the name of tacos mineros. Blue-collar workers soon adopted these tacos because they were a convenient and affordable option for eating. Similar to other kinds of tacos, they spread through the capital and became a well-established foodstuff among the lower as well as upper classes.21

Bici33

Tacos on wheels, basket tacos Mexico City, 2015.
Image courtesy of Óscar Acebal.

Canasta Copy

Tacos on wheels, basket tacos Mexico City, 2015.

Image courtesy of Óscar Acebal.

Tacos de canasta are a typically sold in the mornings, and although they are not the healthiest of tacos, they are, as writer Jorge Ibargüengoitia referred, the “Volkswagen of tacos: practical, good, and economical.”22 They are small folded tortillas filled with different stews. Some of them include: pork rinds, refried beans, potatoes and chorizo (spicy sausage), green mole (a spicy sauce), orcochinita pibil (pork pibil, which is a traditional recipe from Yucatán where the meat is marinated and then slow-cooked buried in a pit). The are stacked inside a reed basket – which gives them the name of basket tacos – lined with plastic and covered with butcher’s paper and kitchen cloths. Before closing the basket lid vendors pour in hot oil, and in some cases place onions tinged with pork rinds to give the tacos extra flavour. The hot oil creates steam inside the closed basket, which slowly heats the tacos continuing the cooking process while they make their way in the city.23

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Sweaty tacos, Mexico City, 2015.
Image courtesy of Óscar Acebal.

It is rare to be given any type of cutlery when eating tacos, the only exception is the spoons used for serving the sauces and the garnishes. Tacos are meant to be eaten with the hands, and compared to the precepts in etiquette manuals of the nineteenth century, the use of cutlery for eating tacos is nowadays considered a faux pas, or a pretentious attitude. Moreover, a person can be judged by their taco-eating skills as an experienced taco eater, or as someone new to this practice, like tourists.26 This idea is somewhat reinforced by the popular saying that mentions: “En el modo de agarrar el taco se conoce al que es tragón” (You know a glutton by the way he holds his taco).27 To eat tacos with cutlery is to dismiss the fact that they already function as such, but also risks breaking the tortilla and separating it from the filling, making the eating experience entirely different.

One’s taco-eating technique needs to adapt to the characteristics of the taco that is going to be eaten, and requires good coordination between hands, fingers, head and mouth. For the taco de canasta, for example, one hand takes up the role of plate as it holds the butcher paper with the tacos, while the other brings the taco to the mouth. The fingers serve two main purposes: to hold the taco and to avoid spilling the filling. Furthermore, this slippery taco requires a precise amount of pressure to avoid breaking or tearing the tortilla; as well as pushing the filling to the other end which would ruin the taco’s form. The head sometimes needs to be slightly tilted to one side in order to accommodate the shape and size of the taco into the mouth. In his Breve Historia de La Comida Mexicana Jesus Flores Escalante provides a step-by-step guide and the basic rules of eating tacos in street food stalls. According to his experience one must:

1. Proceed to elaborate or to receive the taco. Take it with the thumb and pinkie finger down, while the ring and index fingers are up so the filling does not slip.

2. Move the body 45 degrees forward to avoid staining clothes and especially shoes (if a tie is used, it is recommended to place it inside the opening of the shirt).

3. Have a lower limb ready to scare the dogs.

4. Learn how to balance the body, in order to hold with the left arm the plate or drink (essential to wolf down the tacos, or to reduce the burning feeling of sauces, chilli peppers, etc.)

5. To know, by heart, the names, dimensions and characteristics of every kind of taco to avoid any misunderstanding with the taquero.

6. Always be aware of ordering your next taco to keep pace with other guzzlers; and at the end of eating, keep an accurate count of how many tacos have been consumed since, at the time of paying, the taquero will always elevate the number or one will forget how many one has eaten.28

It would be useful to add to Flores-Escalante’s description what to do if the stuffing of the taco falls out of its tortilla and drops into the butcher paper wrapping. Most of the people would use a small portion of the tortilla – usually the bit of the taco that lost the filling – to eat the leftovers. Others would probably just use their fingers. In the first case, however, the tortilla functions similar to a tong, or fork, which allows the greedy eater to pick up the leftovers, consuming all traces of the taco. Here, in addition to its primary function of holding and supporting the filling the tortilla emulates the function of other types of cutlery. For example, it can serve as an edible spoon that scoops dishes like stews or moles (this translates as sauce, in which meats and vegetables are smothered). Similarly, the tortilla can also help to tear and hold pieces of meat or vegetables, thus taking up the function of a fork and a knife: one half of the tortilla holds the piece of meat, while the other pulls the meat from the bone into bite-size portions. The tortilla enables the eater to avoid touching the meat keeping their fingers clean and free of sauce or meat juice. At the same time, it provides a more secure way to grab the piece of meat without it slipping out of their hands. Used to grab meat, the tortilla absorbs part of the sauce. This is also the case when the tortilla is used to “saucer  l’assiette” or to clean the plate, mopping up any left overs and leaving nothing to waste.29 The use of tortillas and tacos in this way means that at the end of the meal there is barely any tableware or cutlery to clean –it has all been eaten.

However, it is worth noting that despite the fact these practices of “saucer l’assiette” are convenient, they are sometimes recognised as a faux pas if they are performed in public spaces. This is, probably, the result of a lingering influence of nineteenth century European manners that considered eating with the hands an inappropriate behaviour. Nevertheless, this assumption is gradually changing in light of the recent renewned interest in Mexican traditional cuisine.

Contemporary Mexican cuisine and the “re-discovery” of the tortilla.

There has been a resurgence in traditional Mexican cuisine with the tortilla and the taco continuing to be perceived as a national emblem. The revalorization of Mexican cuisine has resulted in the traditional dishes becoming, according to Pilcher, something “desirable.”30 The current trend has been characterised by the rediscovery, preservation and promotion of the dishes and ingredients used in traditional and regional cuisines of Mexico.

The returning popularity of traditional dishes can be traced to the 1980s, a period in which Mexico faced an economic and political crisis. At this time the national bourgeoisie was, according to Pilcher, “painfully unable to shoulder the burden of conspicuous consumption,” thus they were forced to change their habitual dinners in upscale French restaurants for small working-class eateries or fondas which offered traditional food and, in some cases, Pre-Hispanic dishes.31 As a result, Mexican chefs started to create a culinary repertoire that acknowledged Mexican ingredients and traditional recipes whilst using French cooking techniques.

This approach was developed throughout the following two decades, leading to a so-called refinement of Mexican cuisine, and to the creation of a “gourmet infrastructure”32 in which culinary professionals, gastronomic educational institutions, and food critics have become promoters of this “nouvelle vague” of Mexican cuisine, that aims to portray their “desire … to feel connected to a ‘deep Mexico’.”33 Chefs have adapted and reinterpreted traditional and regional recipes, and presented them as gourmet gastronomic experiences as a means to “reclaim their national heritage (and) to cultivate a new image of authentic Mexican (food).”34 Their cooking intends to educate Mexicans and tourists about the origins of Mexican cuisine, to teach them how and why it is necessary to appreciate the quality, freshness, and uniqueness of the ingredients and recipes. However, such discourse tends to ignore the fact that these recipes and ingredients are still used, cooked and eaten at home, in local eateries,or in street food stands throughout Mexico – just without the revered haute cuisine techniques.

One consequence of the contemporary refinement of such dishes, is that an international gastronomic audience is increasingly recognising Mexican cuisine as a complex sum of influences, flavours, techniques, and ingredients that can be to the same standard of European haute cuisine, or avant-garde cuisine such as found in Catalonian cookery.35 Mexican chef Enrique Olvera, owner of Pujol in Mexico City, is recognised as one of the main promoters of the Mexican “nouvelle cuisine”. His practice has been widely covered by the international press and praised in the gastronomic world, crediting him with turning a global spotlight on  Mexican cuisine.36

Ingredients such as quelites (wild greens), verdolagas (purslane), beans, pulque (a fermented drink made from the century plant) or mezcal (distilled alcohol made from agave) have been increasingly re-introduced to the menus of upscale restaurants serving to revaluate traditional cooking. Indeed, star chefs such as Olvera or Vallejo argue these ingredients (familiar to the majority of Mexicans) are underestimated produce.37 These chefs act, according to Pilcher, as “modern-day Humboldt's (who harvest) ‘tempting flavours and exotic ingredients’ for the Armani-suit crowd”, by paying especial attention to the use of locally sourced ingredients in light of their ecological and Fair Trade concerns – and that of their clientele.38

The taco and the tortilla are no exception, as Olvera mentions:39

     everyone has re-evaluated the tortilla.

By the time the taco is cooked and served in up-scale and gourmet restaurants, however, its identification as street food – or even as food of the poor – changes completely. They are refined and carefully planned dishes made from locally sourced ingredients of indigenous origin, and cooked with sophisticated haute cuisine techniques, which aspire to be identified with traditional and regional recipes. Yet, they are only available for those who can afford to pay the prices in up-scale restaurants. This new phenomenon reflects a trend that occurred in the nineteenth century when the taco was introduced to high society. The upper classes of the era adapted traditional recipes employing European cooking techniques as a means to make the dishes “socially acceptable.”40 Returning to the contemporary trend, compared to the tacos that people eat on an everyday basis, gourmet tacos are represented in such a means as the familiar function of the dish as both tableware and cutlery is fundamentally altered. To illustrate this, in this final section I present three examples of contemporary tacos that are no longer simple, practical or economic. In the first case the tortilla is re-presented yet still functions akin to the traditional form of both tableware and cutlery. The second example blurs the physical shape of the tortilla and its function as wrapping. And the third, despite its name, discusses a dish were the tortilla is completely absent, requiring the diner to use a knife, fork and spoon to eat.

On last years tasting menu the restaurant Pujol featured a “fish taco, Valladolid longaniza, (black beans), and hoja santa”. It was presented with the tortilla placed flat over the serving dish with the stuffing of the taco on display topped by hoja santa (sacred lead) – a traditional green herb-leaf with a similar taste to black pepper, eucalyptus, or nutmeg which is used in many dishes in Mexican cuisine. The tortilla covered with hoja santa functioned as part of the plate, over which a portion of huachinango (Veracruz red snapper) covered in longaniza (a sausage similar to chorizo) was placed and decorated with edible flowers of cilantro (coriander). At both ends of the perfectly aligned red snapper were two portions of velvety sieved black re-fried beans.

For this course diners were not given any cutlery, which implied the required etiquette of eating was to use ones hands, akin to the familiar street food taco, however in the restaurant setting the everyday practice took on a different atmosphere and associations. Located in an up-sale neighbourhood, Pujol is one of the best restaurants in the city, visited by food enthusiasts from around the world, businessmen, and those who can afford to pay for the expensive menu. Served in such a setting the taco is here carefully observed, smelled, tasted and even photographed. The waiting staff are ready to answer any inquiries about the ingredients and their origin, the cooking method, warn about the degree of spiciness of each of the accompanying sauces and even instruct the diner that it is indeed fine to use their hands to eat. However, as I personally experienced, in trying to hold the gourmet taco, I suddenly realised that the size of the bean puree droplets and the fish were big enough to make the handling and folding of the tortilla very difficult. As a consequence I started to overthink how best to eat it. I wanted to avoid any social faux pas by spilling the stuffing all over the plate, the table, or my clothes.

The fish taco had great taste. Yet the flavours were familiar. I had already tasted these flavours somewhere else and in a more conventional way. In the gourmet taco the tortilla seemed to function more as a display plate for the accompanying ingredients rather than a flat bread in which to wrap and eat the presented filling. It is further worth noting that in Pujol we were served only one taco out of the three options on the menu. Eating only one taco is not the standard order from taquerías or street food stands where individuals eat a number of the small tasty rolled tortillas. Even if one could order another taco in the high-end restaurant, it, is not recommended as the tasting menu entails a further three or four course. Although the taco of Pujol uses the tortilla and the ingredients of traditional cuisine, the presentation in the high end restaurant does little to follow traditional and familiar etiquettes of taco eating.

Enrique Olvera presented a version of a taco placero (it literally translates as taco from the square) on one of the menus of Pujol. He also featured the dish on the cooking television show Recetas de autor con Enrique Olvera in 2012. Traditionally, this taco includes pork crackling, sliced avocado, coriander and a sauce made of tomatoes and onion. In Olvera’s version the tortilla no longer holds any of the other ingredients. In the cooking show Olvera is seen preparing the components of this taco using contemporary techniques, including the molecular cuisine process of making ‘airs’; in this case one made of tortilla powder. He serves the dish in a see-through glass bowl layering a crumble of the pork crackling, followed by a dollop of guacamole puree, the diced tomato gelatine mixed with finely chopped onion and sliced green chillies, topped with the ‘air’ of tortilla.41 Here, the name of the dish states it is a taco however, with only the ‘air’ giving the tortilla flavour the dish only subtly suggests the familiar taco. As a consequence, the function of the taco as cutlery and container is no longer accomplished. A spoon is required to eat it. The bowl or mason jar in which the layered ingredients are served replaces the function of the tortilla as a wrapping device. In this case and, as Olvera mentions, his intention is to disrupt the perception of this dish “so that people tell you: this is all but a taco placero.” 42 Indeed one could question if this is really a taco, especially considering the popular saying “Sin tortilla no hay taco” (without tortilla there is no taco).

Fish Taco

Pujol´s Fish taco, Valladolid longaniza, black beans, and hoja santa.
Image courtesy of Mariana Meneses Romero, 2014.

Chef Daniel Ovadía, owner of the restaurant Paxia in Mexico City, represents the traditional tacos de pescado al pastor (fish tacos al pastor) in a similar fashion to Olvera’s tortilla ‘air’.43 Ovadía takes the traditional taco al pastor and transforms it into a dish in which the tortilla is completely removed, remaining only by suggestion. First of all, he replaces the pork for fish, which is marinated in the adobo (salsa) characteristic of these traditional tacos. The sliced pineapple, the chopped onion, the guacamole sauce, and the coriander served, as garnishes are not placed on the top of the fish as it is accustomed in taquerias, instead they are thinly sliced and carefully plated to embellish the dish. Contrary to Pujol´s fish taco, in this dish there is no tortilla base to give shape to the taco – the tortilla is only implied. A circle of adobo is perfectly drawn around the ingredients on the plate suggesting the circular shape of the tortilla that would ordinarily form the base for the fish filling. A tortilla does accompany the dish, but served on the side, so that the customer can make its own taco. However, because there is no tortilla already holding the filling in place, it is necessary to use the cutlery placed at the table to transfer filling to tortilla in an elaborate process at the dinner table. The function of the tortilla as cutlery and tableware/container is lost.

In these final examples the name “taco” remains in association with the represented dish even if the chefs remove the tortilla entirely, removing in turn their function as cutlery and wrapping. These gourmet tacos are, if we follow Ibargüengoitia’s suggestion, the “Rolls-Royce” of tacos. Contrary to the tacos sold in the street or in taquerias, these are created to “épatée le bourgeois” (to astonish or to shock the bourgeois) simulating the flavours of traditional Mexican cuisine and proving that tacos can be sophisticated.44 They further suit the expectations and budget of those on the higher scale of the income pyramid, (their price surpasses the minimum wage of an average worker in Mexico City). Their presentation, service, and eating etiquette responds to the clientele which they are served to; hence, in these cases, the tortilla no longer needs to function as tableware, or cutlery as has been discussed in relation to the tacos de canasta. In the high end restaurant the diner is not eating standing up at a street food stand whilst rushing between jobs, or work and home, the eating process can be more elaborate and time consuming.

In each gourmet taco discussed there is a shared tendency to cover up or disguise the tortilla. Whether that is by covering it with another ingredient (as with hoja santa), transforming it into an ‘air’, or by eradicating it from the plate. The presence of the tortilla serves only to ensure that the dish is recognised as a taco. The blurring of the tortilla results in a dish, which is emphasised as a haute cuisine version of the traditional and popular Mexican taco. This practice demonstrates that the Mexican contemporary gourmet infrastructure still relies on the reinterpretation of street food dishes like tacos and the re-evaluation of traditional ingredients of Mexican cuisine in a similar fashion to last century´s trends, although the primary difference here, lies in the globalization of the restaurants diners who are hunger for novelty food, astonishing visual presentations, and new tastes.45 Most importantly, it shows that the ambivalence of the culinary indigenous heritage linked to lower class still persists. The tortilla is cleverly camouflaged in each gourmet dish as part of the effort to create a more ‘refined’ recipe. This issue is particularly conflictive as it can be perceived to contradict the efforts of the new wave of Mexican chefs, who claim themselves as promoters, defenders, and educators of traditional cooking – especially since, in 2010 UNESCO included Mexico’s traditional regional cuisines, the agricultural mode of the milpa, and maize in its list of intangible patrimony.46 The risk of acknowledging these gourmet tacos only as culinary novelty results in the enhancement of the prestige of these chefs and the marginalisation of street tacos and its lower-class origins, but also in the loss of the tortilla and the taco as the edible cutlery of Mexicans.

Taco1

Tortillas freshly baked in a tortillería Mexico City, 2015.

Image courtesy of Óscar Acebal.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

It is worth noting that the use of food as cutlery, especially in shape of flatbreads, is a common practice in other world cuisines, for example the 

Indian chapati or the Ethiopian injera. See Harry Kloman,Harry Kloman, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A. iUniverse, 2010.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Que Vivan Los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Dialogos: University of New Mexico Press, 1998, p.6.

Go to footnote reference 3.

The Popol-Vuh, the sacred book of Mayans, for example tells the story of how men were created from corncobs and corn dough. See Adrián Recinos, ed., Popol Vuh: Las Antiguas Historias Del Quiché, vol. 11, Colección Popular (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1960).

Go to footnote reference 4.

Janet Long and Luis Alberto Vargas, Food Culture in Mexico. London: Greenwood Press, 2005, p.32.

Go to footnote reference 5.

Pilcher, p.12. See also Gabriela Mendez Cota, ‘The Genetic Contamination of Mexican Nationalism: Biotechnology and Cultural Politics’ (PhD. Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2013); Long and Vargas, Food Culture in Mexico; Bruno Aceves, ed., Pueblo de Maíz. La Cocina Ancestral de México, Patrimonio Cultural y Turismo. Cuadernos (CONACULTA, 2005), p.19.

Go to footnote reference 6.

Déborah Holtz and Juan Carlos Mena, Tacopedia. New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 2015, pp.33–37,; Pilcher, Que Vivan Los Tamales!; Jeffrey M Pilcher, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp.8–9.

Go to footnote reference 7.

Tortillas can also be made out of wheat, as in the northern states of Mexico or across the border in the United States. See Pilcher, Planet Taco and Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia .

Go to footnote reference 8.

Pilcher explains that while some individuals cherished and happily ate tortillas, others rejected them precisely because of their indigenous origin. This situation is notorious especially in the period previous to the Mexican Revolution, when the Porfirian elite preferred to adopt a European diet or the culture of wheat and bread. However as Pilcher notes, they embraced indigenous ingredients and transformed them to fit a narrative, which helped to identify Mexico´s national cuisine while mimicking European trends and manners. See Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.45.

Go to footnote reference 9.

Pilcher further notes that this is “the most stereotypically feminine task in Mexican society, and one that no self-respecting man would ever be seen undertaking”. This stereotyping changing in the contemporary gastronomic scene, where male chefs proudly make and “re-invent” the tortilla. Ibid., p.93; See also Pilcher, Que Vivan Los Tamales!, p.15; Ivonne Vizcarra, Entre El Taco Mazahua y El Mundo–la Comida de Las Relaciones de Poder, Resistencia e Identidades, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México: Instituto Literario, 2002; Meredith E. Abarca Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working-Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2006.

Go to footnote reference 10.

Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia , p.42; Diana Kennedy, The Essential Cuisines of Mexico. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2014, p.67.

Go to footnote reference 11.

Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.13.

Go to footnote reference 12.

Long and Vargas, Food Culture in Mexico, p.79.

Go to footnote reference 13.

The simplicity of a tortilla is not comparable to its versatility and variety. Proof of this can be seen in the array of antojitos which derive from this single disk of masa. Often identified as carriers of Vitamin “T” – for tortilla – antojitos include tacos, tlayudas, tamales, tlacoyos, enchiladas, sopes, picadas, chalupas, panuchos, and flauta (tortilla soup), amongst many others. See Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia, pp.275–285; Long and Vargas, Food Culture in Mexico, p.38 and Kennedy, The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.

Go to footnote reference 14.

Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia, p.17.

Go to footnote reference 15.

Domingo Garza-García, ‘Prácticas Alimenticias Y Clasificación Social ¿Los Tacos Son Un Alimento “popular”?’, Civitas 10, no. 3 (2010): p.42.

Go to footnote reference 16.

This taco is one of the most basic types and, given the simplicity of its ingredients, has been known as the taco of the poor. Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia and Long and Vargas, Food Culture in Mexico.

Go to footnote reference 17.

There are, for example, tacos for meat lovers like the tacos de carnitas (pulled pork), or the tacos de bistec (beef tacos). Other tacos are only sold for breakfast and lunch, like tacos de barbacoa (steamed lamb). Or those popular at night, especially among those finishing a night-out, and for whom tacos al pastor (shepherd’s tacos) are a quick night snack and a tasty relief for an upcoming hangover. These tacos, however, are a middle-eastern influenced similar to kebabs because the meat is cooked in a vertical grill; although, in Mexico the lamb of the kebab is replaced by pork marinated in achiote (annatto seeds) paste, and garnished with coriander, chopped onion and thin slices of pineapple. For a more complete analysis of the different varieties of tacos in Mexico, their differences and recommended vendors, it is worth looking at Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning the recent project of Mexican chef Eduardo Placencia entitled ¨1000 tacos¨. The project aims to photograph, taste, identify the ingredients and classify by region one thousand tacos in one year (2015). See Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia; ‘Delicias Prehispanicas’, [online] accessed 2 May 2015, http://deliciasprehispanicas.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/me-comere-1000-tacos-en-2015-chef-lalo.html.

Go to footnote reference 18.

In the early 20th century, during the regimen of dictator Porfirio Díaz, tacos were still considered the food of the poor. Díaz was greatly influenced by the French lifestyle and followed Parisian trends, some of which he tried to emulate in the food, fashion and architecture of the era. Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.81.

Go to footnote reference 19.

Scholars agree that the taco became a national emblem, which helped to reinforce Mexican’s cultural and national identity by the early 20th century. Following the Mexican Revolution in 1910 the taco’s consumption became generalized, and the meal gradually lost its status as a low-class food. See Garza-García, ‘Prácticas Alimenticias Y Clasificación Social ¿Los Tacos Son Un Alimento “popular”?’; Pilcher, Planet Taco and Long and Vargas, Food Culture in Mexico.

Go to footnote reference 20.

Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.8; Jesús Flores y Escalante, Breve Historia de La Comida Mexicana, Mexico City: Grijalbo, 2003, p.274 and Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia, p.133.

Go to footnote reference 21.

This is probably the reason why they also adopted the name of tacos de albañil (bricklayer tacos). Moreover, it is important to note that construction workers were often Indians migrating to urban centres and, as Long argues, they soon become part of the proletarian urban sector in Mexico City., However, they are not often recognised under this name today. It is more common to hear people referring to this particular taco as tacos de canasta or tacos sudados. See Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.8 and Long and Vargas, Food Culture in Mexico, p.87.

Go to footnote reference 22.

Jorge Ibargüengoitia, Instrucciones Para Vivir En México. Mexico City: Planeta, 2003, p.63. (My translation)

Go to footnote reference 23.

Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia, pp.134–35.

Go to footnote reference 24.

Some vendors have expanded their businesses and transport their tacos in vans, which they also park near workplaces and schools.

Go to footnote reference 25.

Interview with Jaime Jasso, basket taco maker covering Coyoacán by bicycle by Alejandro Escalante, available in Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia, p.137.

Go to footnote reference 26.

Long mentions that street food stands often provide plastic plates, forks, and spoons, as well as paper napkins but that “if the food being served is tacos, they may be served on large squares of butcher paper that absorb the dripping sauce and hot oil and can be tossed into the garbage pail after eating. Tacos are eaten by holding them between the thumb and fingers, so no cutlery is needed.” See Long and Vargas, Food Culture in Mexico, p.125.

Go to footnote reference 27.

Holtz and Mena propose this phrase reflects “the attitude and style displayed by someone  undertaking a task shows how experienced they are at it.” See Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia, p.156.

Go to footnote reference 28.

Flores y Escalante, Breve Historia de La Comida Mexicana, p.272. (My translation). Another guide to eating a taco is provided in Tacopedia and is similar to that of Escalante; however, in the latter it is stated that the pinkie finger should be raised as a way to show class when holding tacos. Yet, this gesture is sometimes referred as snobby or pretentious, similar to when drinking tea or coffee. See Holtz and Mena, Tacopedia, p.156.

Go to footnote reference 29.

This French term refers to soaking up the sauce from a plate, usually with a piece of bread. See Collins English French Dictionary, ‘Saucer’, , accessed 12 December 2015, http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/french-english/saucer.

Go to footnote reference 30.

Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.187.

Go to footnote reference 31.

Ibid., p.191 and p.194; Long and Vargas, Food Culture in Mexico, p.127.

Go to footnote reference 32.

Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.200.

Go to footnote reference 33.

Ibid, p.21.

Go to footnote reference 34.

Ibid, p.190.

Go to footnote reference 35.

In 2015 three restaurants in Mexico City were awarded a place in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list sponsored by Pellegrino: Pujol was 16th place, Quintonil 35th place, and Biko 37th place. See William Reed Business Media, ‘The World´s 50 Best’, The World´s 50 Best, accessed 11 January 2015, http://www.theworlds50best.com/list/1-50-winners.

Go to footnote reference 36.

Jorge Vallejo, chef and owner of Quintonil (Mexico City) worked in Pujol before opening his own restaurant with his wife. He acknowledges Olvera as a great influence for his own cooking in an interview and mentions him as “the leader of this movement for Mexican cuisine.”  Interview by Gabe Ulla, ‘Jorge Vallejo on the New Generation of Mexican Chefs’, Eater, 14 August 2012, http://www.eater.com/2012/8/14/6555365/jorge-vallejo-on-the-new-generation-of-mexican-chefs. See also Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.200.

Go to footnote reference 37.

Several interviews and critiques around contemporary Mexican cuisine, restaurants, and chefs often posit that the latter “embrace forgotten ingredients (such as) the grains and herbs of (t)his region.” Although, probably what these critics do not know, is that such ingredients are only forgotten or not known by the local (high-class) clientele and foreign tourists who frequent the restaurant. See Geeta Bansal, ‘Chef Jorge Vallejo: Redefining Mexican Cuisine, Part 1’, The Daily Meal. All Things Food & Drink, [online] accessed 18 August 2015, http://www.thedailymeal.com/eat/chef-jorge-vallejo-redefining-mexican-cuisine-part-1?page=1.

Go to footnote reference 38.

Vanessa Fonseca, ‘Nuevo Latino: Rebranding Latin American Cuisine’, Consumption Markets & Culture 8, no. 2 (June 2005): 99 and Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.198.

Go to footnote reference 39.

Alexa West, ‘Enrique Olvera: “Everyone Is Re-Evaluating the Tortilla”’, Finedininglovers, [online] accessed 19 May 2015, https://www.finedininglovers.com/blog/50-best-restaurants-news/enrique-olvera-tortillas/.

Go to footnote reference 40.

Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.96.

Go to footnote reference 41.

In the book published for the 10th anniversary of Pujol, Enrique Olvera presents the same recipe but plated in a mason jar. See Enrique Olvera, Uno: Diez Años de Pujol. Mexico City: Taller Enrique Olvera, 2010.

Go to footnote reference 42.

"Recetas de Autor Con Enrique Olvera - Quesadilla Y Taco de Chicharrón", Recetas de Autor Con Enrique Olvera El Gourmet, 2012, [online] http://elgourmet.com/receta/qu...

Go to footnote reference 43.

Paxia, ‘Paxia, Menú de Degustación.’, [online] accessed 21 December 2015, http://paxia.mx

Go to footnote reference 44.

Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.197; Elizabeth Knowles, ‘épater Les Bourgeois’, The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 2006. Enclyclopedia.com. [online] accessed December 29, 2015, http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O214-paterlesbourgeois.html.

Go to footnote reference 45.

Pilcher, Planet Taco, p.217.

Go to footnote reference 46.

The proposal aimed to protect the biodiversity of maize as well as the cultural and social practices surrounding its cultivation by emphasizing the notion that Mexican cuisine is a mix of global and local influences. But most importantly, it highlights the direct impact of corn in the development of Mexico. See Aceves, "Patrimonio Cultural Y Turismo". Cuadernos 10: Pueblo de Maíz. La Cocina Ancestral de México.

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Mariana Meneses Romero

Mariana Meneses Romero is a doctoral candidate in Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths University of London. Her research – supported by the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology and by Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo – focuses on the relationship between food and contemporary art as a critical discourse of hospitality. Mariana was UK Research Associate for the Delfina Foundation residency program “The Politics of Food” (2014). She previously taught B.A. courses at Goldsmiths and at CESSA Universidad. She also worked as freelance curator, and her research interests include food studies, bioart, philosophy, and feminism