Jeffrey Pilcher

Most people understand the tacos they eat are no more representative of Mexico than pizza is of Italy. Jeffrey Pilcher, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, explained the globalization and global history of Mexican food in a talk called “Planet Taco” on Thursday. Charles Hale, director of UT’s Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, introduced Pilcher to his audience and said his talk today was a part of a larger series that will officially begin in fall 2011. “Through studying cuisine, we are able to enter into the history of a culture,” Hale said. Pilcher discussed the taco revolution that spread so rampantly because of U.S. companies such as Taco Bell, rather than because of the Mexican population. He also examined the underlying origins of the cuisine itself and its global history, which started with the indigenous people in Mexico, the Mesoamericans and the Spaniards. However, because so many cultures and outside influences have shaped Mexican cuisine from its initial formation, by focusing on the globalization of the taco, we are able to better reflect on its influence on cultures. Pilcher’s “Planet Taco” presentation began by introducing how the globalization of Mexican cuisine has become a recent phenomenon and compared an authentic Mexican taco to that of Taco Bell’s. “The spread of tacos around the world is referred to by sociologists as the process of ‘McDonaldization,’ the corporate process of the rationalization of food and kitchen labor for standardization and efficiency,” Pilcher said. Taco Bell’s founder Glen Bell is credited for initially franchising the taco but, according to Pilcher, was not credited for globalizing the taco itself. Surprisingly, the U.S. military and surfers are responsible for making the taco as popular as it is today. Pilcher said Bell institutionalized the premade taco shell, which allowed the chain to produce tacos much more quickly. UT alumna Amenity Applewhite attended the lecture and said that Mexican food from her home state of New Mexico is surprisingly different from the Tex-Mex so vastly available around UT’s campus. “They use more red and green chilies rather than jalapenos, and it’s over all spicier Mexican food,” Applewhite said. Pilcher said Mexican food takes on a local character in each place it is popular, which explains the difference in New Mexico’s take on Mexican food versus Texas’s approach. Pilcher travels throughout the world trying Mexican food in different countries and cities to acquire material for his Planet Taco presentation. However, he said, the best tacos are found in Mexico.