I have been in Mexico for the past five days for vacation. During the trip, I read Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, by Jeffrey Pilcher. Before I met my wife Claudia, my exposure to Mexican food was limited to an occasional burrito or taco when I went to see our offices in Texas. Now I have tried dried worms and grasshoppers with ample helpings of guacamole (I was convinced this was hazing by my prospective in-laws on an early trip to see her family in Mexico), chilaquiles, pollo con mole, churros and tres leches cake. The contributions of Mexican food to the global palate are immense, from tomatoes to corn. There are more tortillas sold in the U.S. than loaves of bread, more bottles of salsa than ketchup. Here are a few of the interesting facts on Mexican cuisine.
Origin of the Word Taco
It was a cloth plug used to keep in place the ball in an early firearm from the 1600s. It was also a phrase used by miners in Mexico to describe the dynamite package that was put into a hole to blast out the silver ore. The word came into popular use in 1891, when it was included in a novel, The Bandits of Cold River (Los Bandidos de Río Frío), with children dancing around with tacos during the Festival of Guadalupe.
Food as Political Statement
The Pastry War of 1838 saw the French invade Mexico to collect unpaid debts; Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory in that war. The French influence returned with Emperor Maximilian in 1864, imposed by the victorious French army, with the introduction of baguettes and wheat flour replacing the traditional corn meal of Mexico. Tacos appeared in the 1890s as a means of popular protest, against the then-President Díaz, who had adopted French cuisine for his administration. The Mexican Revolution in 1910 brought back traditional food.
The Starting Point for Maize, Chocolate and Chiles
The first corn was developed in Mexico in 7000 BC, along the border with Guatemala. Corn and bean stew dates to 1500, from the time of the Olmec tribe on the West Coast of Mexico, the ideal blend of starch and protein. Corn eventually made its way to Portugal, Austria, and Germany, offering an excellent feedstock for cattle. Chiles went to Asia on the silver galleons that sailed once a year from Acapulco to Manila, and from there to India and China. Chocolate was first consumed by Cortez at the royal court of Montezuma, then taken by priests and merchants to Spain. It became a major component of trans-Atlantic trade as it needed to be grown in the warmer southern climes of Latin America.
Catholic Missions as Agriculture Barons
The string of Spanish missions spreading Catholicism into the northern reaches of Mexico (including part of what is now the U.S.) had an economic purpose as well. The Missions were the leading agricultural producers in the North, using native people as labor. The Spanish crown insisted that the missions be self-supporting; the crops were sold to the cities and towns to pay for the vestments of the priests.
The First Great Cookbook — Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano
Written in 1898 by Encarnación Pinedo, it was an 800-recipe defense of Mexican creole cooking. Pinedo was born in California in 1848 to a wealthy Mexican family whose lands were systematically looted by Americans. Eight of her relatives were lynched in the process. Her cookbook was more than mole poblano de guajolote and chilaquiles tapatíos. Her introduction has the purple prose, “Not a single Englishman can cook, as their foods and style of seasoning are the most insipid and tasteless that one can imagine.”
The Chili Queens of San Antonio
The original food entrepreneurs bringing Mexican cuisine to the U.S. were women, who started offering their product in the town square of San Antonio in the late 1890s. The Queens offered chili con carne, tamales and tortillas by gaslight. A visiting journalist, Edward King, described his eating experience, “Various savory compounds swimming in fiery pepper, which bite like a serpent…an event in your gastronomic experience.” It was a hard life for the Chile Queens; the death rate of Mexicans in San Antonio ‘s West Side was five times higher than white and twice as high as Blacks.
Waves of Immigration Tied to Agricultural Policy
The Green Revolution in the 50s prompted massive consolidation of farmland in Mexico, dispossessing small freeholder farmers and forcing them to find jobs either in cities or in the U.S. A further dispossession happened in the wake of NAFTA in the early 90s, when American corn exports overwhelmed domestic producers, again causing mass unemployment in the farm sector in Mexico.
The Mexican haute cuisine of the 80s was a by-product of the 60s counterculture of aging Baby Boomers linked to traditional peasant foods such as gusanos and grasshoppers. Chef Fortino Reyes Cortines ran Fonda Don Chon in a rundown area of Mexico City. Author Jeff Pilcher describes the scene, “Intellectuals flocked to Don Chon for the frisson of danger and sophistication. Politicians could appear at once populist and sophisticated.” Among the ingredients were salamanders, iguana, possum, and wild boar…it was ethnic exoticism.”
In 2010, UNESCO recognized Mexican cuisine as an “intangible patrimony of humanity.” The UN agency had never received a petition like this before, always for dance or music. Mexico has an opportunity to exercise its soft power through food and drink. In fact, 70 percent of U.S. restaurants are now Mexican, Italian or Chinese, with huge spikes in tequila, mezcal and now sotol consumption in bars and eateries. The history and influence behind a culture’s food and cuisine, like its music or art, can have a profound impact on society, connect people around the world, and provide a deeper understanding about their values and who they are.
Richard Edelman is CEO of Edelman.