Taco Dinner Kit

Black and. white illustration of  and indestructible food: Taco Dinner Kit

“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.

Jiffy Pop

A pan of Jiffy Pop sits next to a campfire in a decorative frame. Popcorn swirls around it.

Popcorn becomes a fad…

Remember Jiffy Pop? I hadn’t thought of it in years, but a reader suggested looking into it so here we are…

Jiffy Pop was invented in 1958, but I really can’t figure out why. I’ve searched all over the internet, but no one provides a reason to invent an expanding disposable popcorn pan for popping popcorn on the stove. You could ALREADY pop popcorn on the stove. In a regular pan! Jiffy Pop just made it take slightly longer. I’m looking for help here, friends. If you have thoughts, shoot ‘em over. (Was it because the nation was enamored with space travel and shiny aluminum, maybe?)

I know some of you might say, “Dudek! It’s for camping!” And I agree that popping Jiffy Pop over a fire is not to be missed. But the original ads showed a mom making it on a stove. No campfire in sight. I’ve also heard a few suggestions that it is “safer,” but is it? Really?

Why ever it was invented, it was a huge hit. People oohed and ahhed and happily shook that pan for 1000 minutes to see the Jiffy Pop pan expand and accommodate those exploding corn kernels. And then all those families enjoyed popcorn that was a little less good that the kind you pop in oil on the stove. (My bias is showing.)

Microwave popcorn was really a nail in the coffin for the popularity of Jiffy Pop. In 1983, Orville Redenbacher introduced his version. It was fast and easy and safe, and clearly the popcorn of the future. But microwave popcorn is its own story, and one we will get to soon enough.

(A note after the fact… Now that I think about it, Jiffy Pop is a little like space ice cream: A product designed to treat you to an interesting, yet slightly disappointing experience. Sorry, kids.)

Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix

The great cornbread debate…

Cornbread is, and has been important in America since the beginning. Native Americans were using corn in a million ways when colonists came here, and the inception of a European-style bread came quickly thereafter. Corn was plentiful, cheaper than wheat, and a good way to fill up bellies. Corn!

As time went on, regional differences emerged. There were people who said that cornbread was a little bit sweet, and people who said that cornbread was not sweet at all. I always heard that this was a Northern/Southern thing. But it is way more complex than that.

With the advent of industrial milling, sweeter white corn was passed over in favor of cheaper, less tasty yellow corn. So families that couldn’t afford the more expensive, but naturally sweet white cornmeal, tended to add sweetener to their cornbread recipes. This brings us to Jiffy mix. Which was invented in the 1930s to help poor families put delicious baked goods on the table. The brand was made to be cheap. And easy. That was the whole point. And, you guessed it, the mix had an awful lot of sugar in it.

This is the part where I say that nothing about food and class is simple. That we absorb our tastes from our families. And that means that your comfort foods lag behind your financial position by at least a generation.

PS: If you want to read an interesting piece about the cornbread divide and race, Kathleen Purvis wrote a great one for the Charlotte Observer a few years back. A lot of these facts were learned from her.

PPS: If you want to get a 12-pack of Jiffy baking mixes for $6!!! go to jiffymix.com (Not a paid endorsement, because I’m not really anybody. I just like Jiffy.)