Tacos! Evolution of Mexican Food and the Career of Rick Bayless


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The Smithsonian’s Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Latino Center will present two programs related to Mexican American food and the production of food in America, including a look at the bracero (guest worker) farm labor program. The programs are offered in conjunction with the museum’s newest exhibition, “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000,” which features 70 years of Latino food history, from a circa 1940 tortilla press to California vineyard tools.

The exhibition draws on the museum’s bracero farm labor collection and highlights new objects collected to show the influence of immigrants and migrants on the American table, including the diffusion of Mexican-inspired food into all corners of the country.

Mexican specialties for purchase will be featured Feb. 9 and Feb. 23 in the museum’s Stars and Stripes Café.

These programs are part of a major initiative by the museum to create an ongoing program on food and wine in America. The museum envisions taking food and food history to the nation through its ongoing collecting efforts and a series of symposia and intellectual exchanges, online offerings and dynamic public programs.

Taco Nation/Planet Taco: How Mexican American Food Conquered the World
Saturday, Feb. 9; 1:30 – 4 p.m.
Panel Discussion: Warner Bros. Theater, first floor, center Book sale and signing follow after the program, outside the exhibition, “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000,” first floor, east wing .
Note: Taco trucks will be on Constitution Avenue (between 12th and 14th streets) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mexican specialties will be available all day in the museum’s Stars and Stripes Cafe.

This program features a lively discussion with Jeffrey Pilcher, historian and author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food; Gustavo Arellano, syndicated columnist and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America; and Smithsonian curator Rayna Green. Attendees will learn about the popularity of Mexican food in the U.S., from its indigenous origins in Mesoamerica to the present era of global commercialization.

Visitors can enjoy fare from a local taco trucks outside the museum and a book signing will take place following the program inside the museum’s food history exhibition, “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000.”

Feeding America: Labor, Politics and Food
Saturday, Feb. 23; 1:30 – 4 p.m.
Film and roundtable: Warner Bros. Theater, first floor, center Book sale and signing follow after the program, outside the exhibition, “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000,” first floor, east wing.

A screening of Harvest of Loneliness, a documentary about the bracero program, will be followed by a roundtable conversation centered on the issues of agricultural work, politics and economy in the production of food in America. Panelists include authors Matt Garcia, Don Mitchell and Melanie DuPuis. The program will be moderated by museum curator Steve Velazquez. Participants will sign books after the program. Note: Mexican specialties will be available all day in the museum’s Stars and Stripes Café.

The Smithsonian Latino Center is a division of the Smithsonian Institution that ensures that Latino contributions to art, science and the humanities are highlighted, understood and advanced through the development and support of public programs, scholarly research, museum collections and educational opportunities at the Smithsonian Institution and its affiliated organizations across the U.S. and internationally. For information call (202) 633-1240 or http://latino.si.edu/.

Chef Rick Bayless giving a cooking demonstration

One of the foremost experts on Mexican food in America, Rick Bayless (b.1953) specializes in traditional Mexican cuisine with modern interpretations. He is perhaps best known for his PBS series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.”

Bayless, was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, into a family of restaurateurs and grocers specializing in barbecue. He broadened his interests to include regional Mexican cooking as an undergraduate student of Spanish and Latin American culture. After finishing his undergraduate education at the University of Oklahoma, he did doctoral work in Anthropological Linguistics at the University of Michigan and, from 1980 to 1986, lived in Mexico with his wife, Deann, writing his first book Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From The Heart of Mexico.

After hosting the 26-part PBS television series “Cooking Mexican in 1978-1979, ” Bayless dedicated over six years to culinary research in Mexico, culminating in 1987 with the publication of his Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, which Craig Claiborne described as “the greatest contribution to the Mexican table imaginable.” Chef Bayless continues to host his PBS television series, “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” now entering Season 8, produced entirely on the Baja peninsula.

In 1987, Bayless, along with his wife, Deann, opened the Frontera Grill in Chicago, Illinois, specializing in contemporary regional Mexican cuisine. In 1989 they opened Topolobampo, one of America's first fine-dining Mexican restaurants. Some top restaurant critics and other experts consider Topolbampo to be on par with the most elite French restaurants.

Rhone winemaker Michel Chapoutier believes Topolobampo is one of the five greatest restaurants in the world.

Bayless is one of the founding members of Chefs Collaborative, in support of environmentally sound agricultural practices and is active in Share Our Strength, the nation's largest hunger advocacy organization. Bayless is a restaurant consultant and teaches authentic Mexican cooking throughout the United States. He is a visiting staff member at the Culinary Institute of America and leads cooking and cultural tours to Mexico.


Shrimp tacos Shrimp tacos

The taco is composed of a corn or wheat tortilla folded or rolled around a filling. A taco can be made with a variety of fillings, including beef, pork, chicken, seafood, vegetables and cheese, allowing for great versatility and variety. A taco is generally eaten without utensils and is often accompanied by garnishes such as salsa, avocado or guacamole, cilantro, tomatoes, minced meat, onions and lettuce.

According to the Real Academia Española, publisher of Diccionario de la Lengua Española, the word taco describes a typical Mexican dish of a maize tortilla folded around food ("Tortilla de maíz enrollada con algún alimento dentro, típica de México"). The original sense of the word is of a "plug" or "wad" used to fill a hole ("Pedazo de madera, metal u otra materia, corto y grueso, que se encaja en algún hueco"). The Online Etymological Dictionary defines taco as a "tortilla filled with spiced meat" and describes its etymology as derived from Mexican Spanish, "light lunch," literally, "plug, wadding." The sense development from "plug" may have taken place among Mexican silver miners, who used explosive charges in plug form consisting of a paper wrapper and gunpowder filling.

The taco predates the arrival of Europeans in Mexico. There is anthropological evidence that the indigenous people living in the lake region of the Valley of Mexico traditionally ate tacos filled with small fish. Writing at the time of the Spanish conquistadors, Bernal Díaz del Castillo documented the first taco feast enjoyed by Europeans, a meal which Hernán Cortés arranged for his captains in Coyoacán. It is not clear why the Spanish used their word, "taco", to describe this indigenous food.

Hard shell taco Hard-shell taco, made with a prefabricated shell

Beginning from the early part of the twentieth century, various styles of tacos have become popular in the United States and Canada. An early appearance of a description of the taco in the United States in English was in a 1914 cookbook, California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook, by Bertha Haffner Ginger. The style that has become most common is the hard-shell, U-shaped version described in a cookbook, The good life: New Mexican food, authored by Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca Gilbert and published in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1949. These have been sold by restaurants and by fast food chains.

Even non-Mexican oriented fast food restaurants have sold tacos. Mass production of this type of taco was encouraged by the invention of devices to hold the tortillas in the U-shape as they were deep-fried. A patent for such a device was issued to New York restaurateur Juvenico Maldonado in 1950, based on his patent filing of 1947 (U.S. Patent No. 2,506,305). Such tacos are crisp-fried corn tortillas filled with seasoned ground beef, cheese, lettuce, and sometimes tomato, onion, salsa, sour cream, and avocado or guacamole.

Visit your local library for these resources:

Planet Taco - A Global History of Mexican Food
Jeffrey M.Pilcher, (2012).

Taco USA : How Mexican Food Conquered America
Gustavo Arellano, (2012).

Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico
Rick Bayless; Deann Groen Bayless, (1987)

Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant Flavors of a World-Class Cuisine
Rick Bayless; JeanMarie Brownson; Deann Groen Bayless, (1996).

Salsas That Cook : Using Classic Salsas To Enliven Our Favorite Dishes
Rick Bayless; JeanMarie Brownson; Deann Groen Bayless, (1998).

Mexico: One Plate at a Time (book)
Rick Bayless; JeanMarie Brownson; Deann Groen Bayless, (2000).

Mexico: One Plate at a Time (television series) (2003–present)

Rick and Lanie's Excellent Kitchen Adventures
Rick Bayless; Lanie Bayless, (2004)

Mexican Everyday
Rick Bayless; Deann Groen Bayless, (2005)

Fiesta at Rick's: Fabulous Food for Great Times with Friends
Rick Bayless; Deann Groen Bayless, (2010)

Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles, and Snacks
Rick Bayless; Deann Groen Bayless, (2012)



Barbacoa taco

Chef Rick Bayless, of Chicago's Frontera Grill, giving a cooking demonstration at Macy's in downtown San Francisco.
Photo taken by me, Joshua M. Thompson.

Hard-shell taco with meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions.
National Cancer Institute: Renee Comet (photographer).

Grilled shrimp tacos
photo by Jon Sullivan.

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