“From silver mine to supermarket.”
Picture it. You arrive home after a hard day at school expecting something boring for dinner. Maybe it’ll be a casserole, or meatloaf, or spaghetti and meat sauce. But no…not today. Some cool adult in your house has procured a Taco Dinner Kit, and your family’s ground meat is about to get rad. Just grab a crunchy yellow shell and start building the dinner of your dreams…
The taco kit enriched many a childhood, but we can’t talk about the kit until we talk about the taco. So let’s tacobout it. (I hate this joke. I just couldn’t avoid it.) Anyway, wrapping something delicious in a tortilla is an ancient idea, but calling it a “taco” probably originated in Mexico’s silver mines. “Taco” was the name given to a small explosive charge made of gunpowder wrapped in paper. In the slang-filled world of mining, workers’ lunches (the aforementioned “something delicious wrapped in a tortilla”) became known as tacos. Voila!
Tacos were a great food for workers because they were so portable, and in the 1880s, Mexican workers were on the move. Jobs were opening up in the United States in agriculture, construction, and on the railroad. As workers came from Mexico to fill those jobs, their tacos came with them. Street carts selling Mexican food popped up in cities like LA and San Antonio, and they were drawing crowds. Then, in 1910, the very first taco recipe appeared in an American cookbook. Enterprising cooks could now make tacos at home.
It was a great time to be cooking Mexican food in the US, because the ingredients you needed were suddenly much easier to find. In 1896, a Texan named William Gebhardt bought a bunch of dried chiles and ran them through a meat grinder, thus inventing Chili Powder. Around that same time, canneries in El Paso started churning out tomatoes, green chiles, and pinto beans. A few decades later, canned enchilada sauce and even canned tortillas arrived on the scene. By the 1930s, the very first taco kits began to appear. Americans rejoiced.
The next era in the history of American tacos comes on the heels of Taco Bell. The founder, Glen Bell, was running a hot dog stand in San Bernardino when he noticed that his neighbor’s business had much longer lines than he did. That neighbor was the Mitla Cafe, and they were serving fried tacos. He started eating there every day and trying to reverse engineer their recipe. In the end, they took pity on him and showed him how to make them. He, predictably, turned around and opened his own taco restaurant in 1951. There was some tweaking and experimenting, and then he opened the first Taco Bell in 1962. By 1967, there were 100 of them. Tacos were now on the menu for everyone. (Side note: That original restaurant he learned fried tacos from? It’s still there! Still run by the same family! That makes me happy.)
A lot of Bell’s success stemmed from the fact that he was pre-making hard taco shells. Corn tortillas are delicious, IF you eat them fresh. They are much less delicious if they’ve been sitting around. However, the crunchy fried corn tortilla shell is very shelf-stable. It was easy to warm and fill. It was fun–if messy to eat. And it paved the way for the modern taco kit, one which did not include canned tortillas.
Those stylish new taco kits were in grocery stores around the country by the 70s. In addition to crunchy taco shells, kits included a packet of spices (heavy on the chili powder) and a pouch of sauce. You could add your own protein, veggies and–shoot, this is sort of where our story began…the taco party of your childhood dreams.
A taco dinner kit is about as far from authentic Mexican food as you can get, but it gets folks cooking and eating together, which is awesome. It also does what all indestructible foods do: grants access to folks who wouldn’t otherwise have it, one crunchy yellow shell at a time.