If not for the pandemic, right about now José Ralat would be on the way home from New York City, where he was scheduled to promote his new book, American Tacos: A History and Guide, with a May 20 event at Hill Country BBQ. Instead, his tour was scrapped altogether and he’s been promoting the book with events on Facebook Live, Instagram, and Zoom. But it’s not lost on Ralat that one of the overarching themes of his book, which surveys the history and evolution of America’s taco landscape, is adaptivity. In American Tacos, Ralat writes that “the evolution of American tacos, like all tacos and beloved dishes, is fueled by regional population shifts, ingredient market availability, and culinary adaptation.” And now, adaptivity and flexibility are exactly what small family-owned taquerias, Mexican restaurants, pop-ups, and taco trucks across the state are leaning on to get through our current public health crisis.
“Hopefully I’ve shown readers that tacos are the most malleable, resilient of food, which has historically depended on different populations living side by side, using what they have,” says Ralat, who in September 2019 was named Texas Monthly’s first taco editor. “Most taquerias and Mexican restaurants are small family-owned operations that can pivot quickly and adapt to customer demands. The pandemic is terrible and full of uncertainty, but I’m hopeful about the taco’s future. The taco always wins.”
While Ralat’s book is built around documenting the development of regional American tacos and the history that set their invention in motion, it also covers what’s emerged as the taco’s cutting edge, from Korean tacos and Indo-Mex tacos to the pricey fare he calls “chef-driven tacos,” which he says are inspired by a renewed interest in ancient artisan techniques developed in Mexico. But the most recent waves of interest in tacos—a modern taco culture ripe with emojis, memes, and even the magazine world’s first taco editor—Ralat says you can track directly back to the financial crisis of 2008.
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“In the great recession, people began looking for cheaper foods and they homed in on tacos,” he says. “And that’s what’s spurred the most recent wave of popularity, this great rise in Mexican food in the twenty-first century. And we’d just about convinced everyone that it was okay to pay twelve dollars for a taco. And then COVID-19 hit. So in a way we’ll have to start over, but we’re already at a better place.”
On The National Podcast of Texas, recorded by phone Thursday, Ralat relays ways Texas taco purveyors are already adapting to our new normal and outlines a radical (or maybe not so radical?) theory that the taco’s ability throughout history to bring people together might just “save Texas.”
Three takeaways from our conversation:
In the introduction to American Tacos: A History and Guide, Ralat declares, “The American idea of the taco is narrow.” He says that for all the evolution and hybrid tacos his book tracks, he’s sticking with that assessment.
“I think that we came really close to tearing down that wall right before COVID-19 came around. But people still use the terms ‘white people tacos’ or ‘hipster tacos,’ and I don’t believe those exist. I think that the taco is a product of its time and place, and as long as the people who make it understand the history and the flavor profiles, the preparations, and have respect for its history, it’s a taco. I think ultimately we’ve widened the scope, but people like to think [authentic tacos are] pork, beef, and chicken, what I call ‘PBC.’ Or they like to think that only their grandmother made real Mexican food. But maybe your grandmother was a terrible cook? Mine was.”
Ralat believes the bulk of taco history boils down to a balance of necessity, tradition, and innovation (and sometimes all three at once).
“People naturally want to innovate. They’re going to take what they have around them and use it with the intent of making something better or taking something to a new place. For example, in Sonora, just south of Arizona, cream cheese is a really popular filling in bacon-wrapped burritos. That’s a recent phenomenon. And we’ve got Mexican sushi. We forget that there’s a long tradition of trade between Asia and western Mexico and that has left an indelible mark on Mexican seafood. I think the balance needs to be kept in mind.”
Ralat says that now that restaurants are reopening for dine-in, he imagines taquerias and Mexican restaurants might not have to do some of the consumer confidence building other restaurants might.
“If you don’t feel safe, don’t go out. But understand that even before all this, restaurants bent over backwards to keep sanitary conditions, especially Mexican restaurants, which have cultural and racial prejudice working against them. When you walk into a Mexican joint, the first thing you see is usually hand sanitizer. The kitchens are always spotless. And now they’re putting plexiglass dividers to separate cashiers from the customer. And everyone’s wearing masks. They’re doing everything they can to make their customers feel safe and wanted. They want your patronage. So they’re going to do everything they can.”
(Excepts have been condensed and edited for clarity.)