Dry Heat: Are Tacos More American Than Apple Pie?

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Tacos – More American than apple pie?

   We have all heard the phrase “As American as Apple Pie”, usually describing something many consider to be indicative of “American” life, culture, or ideals such as baseball, 4th of July fireworks or rock and roll. So, just how American is apple pie?

  The original apple pie came from England and was made from unsweetened apples surrounded by an inedible crust or shell. The crust was usually a couple of inches thick and hard and was used to hold and preserve the fruit but not for eating. When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, the only type of apple growing naturally in America was the crabapple, which was too bitter to be used in pie. The first orchards in New England appeared years later but most of the fruit was used for cider.         

  The pie as we know it now was influenced by the French who introduced butter to the thinner crust and the Dutch who added sugar to the recipe.  Recipes for Dutch apple pie and similar pies appear in German, Italian and French recipe books dated before America was colonized. It can be argued that apple pie did not originate in the United States and therefore is not American. Contrary to myth, no pumpkin, pecan or an apple pie was eaten at the first Thanksgiving.

  Now tacos are a different story. Corn (Maize) was native to Mesoamerica including Mexico as well as Native American tribes in North America. It was not only a food staple for indigenous peoples like the Mayans and Aztecs but part of their religions and cultures.  The Mayans believed that the gods made humans from a mixture of yellow and white corn. Maize and corn tortillas are thousands of years old and common sense says tacos, which is nothing more than a corn tortilla wrapped around a filling, should be just as old although an exact date of their origin has not been discovered.

   By the time that Spaniard explorers reached the Americas in the 1400s, the indigenous Mesoamericans already had a sophisticated and flavorful cuisine based on native fruits, wild game, cultivated beans and corn, chilies, squash, and domesticated turkeys. Other native fruits and vegetables that were native to Mexico before the arrival of Europeans were cacao (chocolate), pumpkin, peanuts, tomatoes, jicama, avocado, tomatillos, sweet potatoes and papaya . When Hernan Cortez and his Conquistadores arrived in 1519, the flat corn cakes were known as tlaxcalli in the native Nahuatl language. The Spanish called them tortillas. The Spaniards would introduce beef, pork and wheat flour to the native cuisine.   

  There are several theories as to the origin of the taco. One is that it is definitely pre-Hispanic. Anthropologists have found evidence that an indigenous people, living in the lake region of the Valley of Mexico, traditionally ate tacos filled with small fish. It is also believed that the word “taco” may be derived from the Nahuatl word tlahco which meant “half” or “in the middle” as the filling would be placed in the middle of the tortilla. 

  Another historian, Jeffrey M. Pilcher believes that the taco started in the silver mines in Mexico in the 18th century. He believes that is when the word taco was first used to describe an explosive charge made of gun powder wrapped in paper shaped similar to the food taco and used to blast the ore. He came to his conclusion because it may have been the first time the word taco was used and that the first type of taco was known as “tacos de minero” or miner’s tacos. The word taco first appeared in an archive or dictionary in the 19th century. Professor Pilcher also admits that this is his theory and the true origin of the taco is unknown.

  As the Spanish moved north to what we now know as the United States in the 1500s, the corn tortilla and probably the taco traveled with them.  Explorers like Coronado took members of indigenous tribes with them into what is now New Mexico where some settled with the Pueblo tribes who were also familiar with corn and corn tortillas. The Mexican indigenous tribe were agricultural people and brought seeds and seedlings with them including apples where they planted apple trees some 50 years before the Pilgrims.

  By all accounts it appears that tacos were native to the Americas and arrived in the United States before apple pie and are definitely more popular than apple pie (4.5 billion tacos were eaten last year). A very good case could be made for tacos being more American than apple pie.

  But just like America being a nation of immigrants, tacos have been influenced by the culture and cuisine of other ethnic groups. The Spaniards contributed beef and pork as fillings and the flour tortilla version of the taco, Lebanese immigrants gave us tacos al pastor, Mexican restaurants in the United States developed the hard shell taco in the 1940s and Taco Bell helped spread the popularity of the taco around the country.  Now we have Korean tacos, Navajo tacos, and even spaghetti tacos. Yes America, tacos are as American as apple pie and then some! 

Author’s Note:

  I have been given the opportunity to express my opinion and viewpoints on politics, national, state, and local issues as well as life in general. I hope to inform you as well as entertain you, make you smile or make you mad. I will use humor, sarcasm and occasionally anger to express my views. My intention is to hold politicians accountable sometimes bringing some heat on them and if my views make you angry or hot, remember that like my humor, it is a dry heat. These opinions are entirely my own and do not reflect the views of Copper Area News Publishers. 


John Hernandez (720 Posts)

John Hernandez lives in Oracle. He is retired and enjoys writing and traveling. He is active in the Oracle Historical Society. He covers numerous public events, researches historical features and writes business/artist profiles.

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