I ran across an image in my Facebook feed recently, posted by one of the pages I started following way back in the early 2010s, when the simple act of “following” random pages for things you liked seemed like the highest form of social media comedy.
It was innocuous enough; a split photograph featuring a hard-shell, crunchy fast food taco, covered in shredded iceberg and sour cream. Below it, was what we tend to think of as a more “authentic” taco (more on this in a minute), with soft tortillas folded around grilled meat, with a scatter of chopped onions and cilantro.
The inscription read something like “This isn’t a taco…THIS is a taco.” The point was the same as any Facebook meme, I suppose; to spur conversation among followers (which social media consultants call “engagement,” so they can charge more per hour and thus buy more foosball tables and bright orange paint for their conference rooms), and to make one group of people feel superior to another group of people, since they presumably know what “real” tacos are, unlike the Crunchwrap-munching commonfolk.
My immediate reaction was, “Um, those are BOTH tacos.” And then I decided to come here and devote a thousand more words to the subject, to the benefit of no one. Join me, won’t you?
Let me establish my taco-eating credentials, for a moment. I spent a few of my formative years in Southern California, being raised by a blonde, blue-eyed California girl who knew her way around a taco as well as almost anyone on the planet. She’s who taught me to make my own fresh salsas, and she was the first person to buy me a tamale from the ancient women at the flea market. She had been raised among what is arguably some of the best Mexican food on the planet.
But when it came time for “taco night” at our house? She fried up store-bought tortillas into shattery crescents, filled them with a mixture of ground beef and onions, topped them with shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, black olives, and a veritable RIVER of sour cream and bottled taco sauce. They were ridiculously delicious, and as fast as she could make them, we devoured every single one.
Fast forward 20 years, and I’m living in a tiny fishing village on the Gulf coast of Mexico. That’s where I started eating some of the other best tacos I’ve ever had in my life, in a place where families gather in town squares late into the evening, drinking cheap watery beer, laughing, and pounding huge platters of simple tacos. That’s the first place I had tacos al pastor, a life-changing moment ushered into place by a sabre-wielding mustachioed taquerio, carving thin slices of spinning pork directly onto fresh, soft tortillas that someone’s grandmother had made that morning, before deftly shearing off a chunk of charred pineapple and smiling at me conspiratorially as I ladled quick-pickled habaneros over the whole thing. This was where I started to not just love, but respect tacos, appreciate them as these little perfect pouches of simple, incredible, balanced ingredients that I could eat in two bites, platefuls at a time.
There are a lot of people who will be quick to tell you that the tacos my mom made (or the tacos at your local Tex-Mex place, or the tacos at the drive thru) aren’t “real” tacos, and then smugly explain that they are “Americanized” or “inauthentic,” that term used to describe any food item that strays from its original, strict preparation.
I don’t understand why we continue to tolerate this attitude.
Look, at this point, we all have the internet. We have cross-cultural cookbooks, with capable chefs cooking outside of their realm of natural-born expertise. We’ve all watched Andrew Zimmern eat one of those boiled fetal chickens out of an egg in the Philippines, and we’ve all at least metaphorically heeded Anthony Bourdain’s urging to get off the tour bus, and “be a traveler, not a tourist.” I’d argue that there’s not a single one of us, in today’s food-obsessed culture, that is unaware that Mexicans South of the border aren’t eating anything remotely similar to Taco Bell’s “Naked Chicken Chalupa.” This entry-level food knowledge and snobbery isn’t impressing anyone, anymore, and is only perpetrated by one group of people trying in vain to make another group of people feel small.
So here’s the thing. The tacos my mom made me (and your mom probably made you, and which you probably make for your kids) and the “authentic” meat-and-tortilla tacos you see in Mexico or on your favorite taco truck, are all still tacos. If you grew up in the suburbs, or the Northeast, or the Midwest, you probably ate crunchy-shelled tacos, and have all of the positive memories and associations with that food. If you grew up in California, Arizona, Texas, or Mexico, you probably ate the more “authentic” variety of tacos, and ALSO get the warm-and-fuzzies every time you eat one as an adult.
But they’re all still tacos.
If one of the pleasures of food is supposed to be not just the way it tastes, but the feeling it evokes, the warm memories it brings rushing to the front of your mind, the fondness you had for the person you were when you last ate the thing, and the comforting thoughts of the person who made it for you, either taco will do the trick. Either taco will be ridiculously delicious, and either taco will make you call your mom afterward.
Holding one up to elitist, dismissive ridicule, while “educating” those around you about your vast knowledge of what is or is not “authentic,” is obnoxious.
What’s truly authentic, in this era of high-information, no-geography cooking and eating, is staying true to the things you love. And if what you love comes with a layer of low-fat sour cream applied with a caulking gun onto a mass-produced taco shell made thousands-per-second in a factory somewhere? Own that shit, and don’t let anyone tell you that what you’re eating is second-best, naive, or somehow makes you a less sophisticated eater.