At 98 years old, former president Jimmy Carter has begun receiving home hospice care, the nonprofit Carter Center announced on February 18. As the longest-living president spends his last days with friends and family, I’m reflecting on Carter’s colorful relationship with Mexican food and Texas.
The importance of the cuisine in Carter’s life was established during his presidential campaign. The politician had recently finished his tenure as governor of Georgia and had risen from having no national recognition to barely any at all. But he caught the attention of the National Taco Council, the San Antonio–based civic organization infamous for its food stunts to raise awareness about community issues and the political power of Latinos. The group saw something familiar in Carter. The Plains, Georgia, native was of humble farming stock and knew the rigors of manual labor.
So, ahead of an October 30, 1976, campaign stop at the Alamo, the National Taco Council made an unusual decision. It would bestow one of its greatest honors on Carter: a ridiculously large portion of Mexican food. Until then, such dishes had been reserved for U.S. presidents, not candidates. The council decided on a 110-pound chalupa piled with 10 pounds of refried beans, ten heads of lettuce, and 5 pounds of Georgia peanuts. Not to be confused with the Taco Bell menu item of the same name, a chalupa is a long, thick masa preparation with or without raised edges to resemble the boat after which it is named.
Congressman Henry B. González’s plan to personally deliver the edible behemoth didn’t work out as arranged. Carter never received the chalupa. According to a San Antonio Express-News report, the dish fell victim to members of the crowd gathered at the Alamo, who “tore huge chunks from the giant chalupa.” Carter went on to win Texas in the presidential election by 3.2 percentage points, gaining the state’s electoral college voters.
To celebrate the victory, San Antonio restaurant owner Osvaldo Rodriguez, of Enchilada Hut, created a breakfast taco in the president-elect’s honor. It was a simple affair: a combination of crushed dried, roasted peanuts mixed with scrambled eggs in a flour tortilla, matter-of-factly christened the Jimmy Carter Taco. Rodriguez’s inspiration for the taco came the morning after the election while the restaurateur read the day’s paper. He purchased peanuts as soon as the supermarket was open, experimented with the ingredients, and handed out samples. Rodriguez, 55 at the time, added the taco to the restaurant’s regular menu soon after.
“One customer has grown a liking for them and comes in every morning asking for four peanut and egg tacos,” Rodriguez was quoted as saying in an Associated Press report published in various Texas newspapers in mid-December of 1976. Still, the Jimmy Carter Taco had its detractors. After seeing it on the menu, some customers thought the taco contained peanut butter and feared it would be too sweet. Rodriguez described the flavor much differently. He told the AP that if he ate the Jimmy Carter Taco without coffee, it tasted like pork.
Such a distinct breakfast taco isn’t unusual for San Antonio. Perhaps no restaurant is a better example of this than Maria’s Café. Established in 1989 by Maria Beza, the South Texas–style diner encourages people to customize their taco orders. The most popular of the lot are listed on the menu. They go by names such as the Puff-chilada, the Minion, the Briska-Bassa, and the Hondo Decker. They’re filled with barbacoa, tripas, beans, cheese, onions, salsa verde, and shredded smoked brisket with “kountry” sausage. These “super tacos,” as they are sometimes called, are limited only by a customer’s imagination and physics. If a Jimmy Carter taco were listed on the menu at Maria’s Café, it would probably include grits, the president’s favorite food. Moreover, I doubt it would raise any eyebrows.
Mexican culture and food followed Carter into his presidency. On February 14, 1977, the White House hosted a state dinner in honor of visiting Mexican president José López Portillo. It was the first state dinner of the administration and included servings of shrimp gumbo, asparagus tips in butter, and a burnt almond ice cream ring with butterscotch sauce. The event went splendidly, with López Portillo’s wife, Carmen Romano, taking a turn at playing the piano.
Things didn’t go as smoothly in February 1979, when Carter visited López Portillo in Mexico. While there, President Carter recounted an unfortunate experience with gastrointestinal distress on a previous trip to the country. “My first running course was from the Palace of Fine Arts to the Majestic Hotel, where I and my family were staying. In the midst of the Folklórico performance, I discovered I was afflicted with Montezuma’s revenge,” Carter reportedly said.
Using the offensive term wasn’t Carter’s first political gaffe. (He told Playboy that he had “looked on a lot of women with lust” and had “committed adultery in my heart many times,” and he told the New York Times Magazine that he didn’t mind if people dropped f-bombs. The statements are tame by contemporary standards.) Nevertheless, Carter’s “Montezuma’s revenge” remark was a heckuva faux pas. Perhaps he could have healed his relationship with one of Mexico City’s iconic tacos al pastor—or a Jimmy Carter Taco.