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The Effect of Tacos on Man-in-the-Moon Magazines

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Kevin Drum poses a question of vital importance. To start with, he quotes the following passage from Herman Wouk’s 1950s novel Youngblood Hawke:
Soon the lawyer sat in the living room in his shirtsleeves at Jeanne’s insistence, his tie off, eating tacos from a tray. He needed a shave, and his hair was unkempt. Hawke noticed that the bristles on his face were reddish rather than blond. He looked more tired than Hawke had ever seen him, but the food and the beer brought him to quickly. “Why, these things are marvellous! What do you call them, Jeanne, tacos? I’ve never eaten anything like this. Delicious! Is there a restaurant in town where I can order these?” She said, pleased, “Well, if you can find a lowbrow enough Mexican joint they’ll probably have tacos, but I wouldn’t endorse the contents, Gus. Better ask me, when you feel like having them again. They’re easy to make.”
Kevin, a Californian to the core, then asks: “Really? In New York City, circa 1952, tacos were so uncommon as to be practically unknown? Who knew?”

I’m far too young to have any real insights into this question, but I immediately thought of the Complete New Yorker. The results turned out to be pretty interesting. According to the CNY, the earliest mention of the word “taco” was in 1974. There are actually two hits from 1974. In the later of the two, a cartoon by Barney Tobey (July 15, 1974), the gag turns on the “exotic” nature of the taco, although the context implies that the term was at least somewhat known to New Yorker readers.

More interesting is the first hit, two months earlier (May 13, 1974). It’s a TOTT by Anthony Hiss about something called the “Taco Trolley.” The first paragraph supplies the telltale tone:
The taco is a tasty, crispy tortilla filled with beef, lettuce, shredded cheese, and special sauce. It is a wildly popular fast-food item in California and places like that. In fact, the taco is one of the reasons people visit California.
Ha! I love it—“places like that.” Difficult to see anyone getting away with that today. And that dryly dismissive third sentence seems a precursor to Woody Allen’s joke from Annie Hall that “the only cultural advantage” that Los Angeles can claim is that “you can make a right turn on a red light.”

I think it’s safe to assume that, July cartoon or no July cartoon, the New Yorker editors thought it wiser to explain exactly what a taco is and where it comes from. So it wasn’t exactly everyday lingo.

(The comment thread to Kevin’s post is fascinating, constituting a kind of thumbnail cultural history of the taco in the United States. It’s truly the blogosphere at its finest. My findings here merely confirm the observations of many of the commenters there.)

—Martin Schneider


Strange that the New Yorker assumes that people who don’t know what “taco” means do know what a tortilla is. I wonder what contexts they encountered tortillas in.

Probably in school, in lessons on Friendly Foreign Lands or Our Neighbors to the South. Growing up in NYC, I knew the word “tortilla” long before I ever heard the word “taco.”

Swift LorisAugust 24, 2007

“I wonder what contexts they encountered tortillas in.”

John Steinbeck. “Tortilla Flats.” published in 1935.

The 1974 passage refers to “the taco” as crispy. This implies taco knowledge mainly from a fast food chain perspective. Glen Bell (the eventual founder of Taco Bell) invented the pre-fried hard shell around 1954. Before then tacos were either soft or deep fried with the filling already in them.

Youngblook Hawk is copyright 1962 so it is not really a 50s novel though it may have been set then. Given that Jeanne said that tacos were easy to prepare and could be gotten in lowbrow (traditional?) Mexican joints, I would assume that Wouk was referring to soft tacos.

I don’t know if New York yet realizes that the fast food taco is not a real taco, but Wouks characters probably had the real thing.

I reckon “lowbrow” is the key. Or, uknown to whom? In other words, maybe The Complete New Yorker isn’t the ideal place to look for evidence of taco awareness. Maybe it, its readers and its writers weren’t the sort of people who would know tacos?

One point that might bias your search results is that The Complete New Yorker is indexed by keywords from their filing system, not by using the complete text of the magazine — check for yourself, if you like. So if “taco” is just used in passing in a story, it’s not likely to be picked up.

And, frankly, the last sentence you quote in that TOTT piece sounds like a dry joke, but since I’m missing that particular disk of my set of The Complete New Yorker, I can’t check.

I moved to Ohio, from New Mexico/El Paso, in 1955, and tacos were unheard of. Never even imagined anything. There was, deep in the back of their mind, something funny about enchilada, but, … que huh? Then, from CA, to Minneapolis, a wealthy and seemingly cosmopolitan urban center, in 1965, and there was one mexican restaurant. And avocados had to be blind force fed. Even today, in Minnesota, people like run of the mill mex, love fish, but wouldn’t even try a fish taco, a San Diego staple.

Richard W. CrewsAugust 24, 2007

While not a New Yorker, I have visited often enough since the late 60’s that I have considerable acquaintance with the dining scene. It’s my impression that NYC was very slow to get good Mexican food, and has yet to get good Indonesian food.

As much as I love the New Yorker, I’m not sure that it is a good barometer of popular culture. I mean, I seem to remember some James Atlas pieces from the Tina Brown era that explained to readers what public schools were (and it wasn’t clear Atlas really understood the concept).

I definitely experienced home-assembled tacos using Old El Paso boxed pre-fried shells in the ’70s before I ever experienced tacos from a fast food place. This was in Virginia, but my father grew up in New Mexico.

In the fall of 1979, I came to NYC with the band I managed, Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns, a Tex-Mex punk band from Austin. Part of the band’s shtick was tossing autographed tortillas into the crowd. Finding tortillas in the city was a bitch; there was one grocery on West 14th that sold them and but one Tex-Mex or Mex restaurant in the whole city down in the Village just off 7th Avenue whose cuisine was pretty horrible. We had to haul our own salsa up from Texas.

By the mid 80s there were a few decent joints popping up around town including Tortilla Flats in the meat-packing district by the old West Side Highway, which is still there. Today, good Tex-Mex and Mexican fare is plentiful throughout the city.

As for the New Yorker and its renowned fact-checking department, I noticed in a recent issue that Petco Park was in San Francisco, not San Diego, according to a piece on Bobby Bonds.

This is silly. Over the past few decades, hundreds of purely regional foods and folkways have broken out to go national. As Woody Allen said, in 1977 turning right on a red light was sometimes called the “California stop.” (Why a New Yorker like Alfie Singer, who drives rarely if at all, would care about California traffic laws is a mystery.) Now you can do it almost everywhere. Other California exports from that time are “bitchin” and “E-ticket.” And, apparently, tacos.
As a kid in the ’60s in Annapolis, I never encountered bagels, kiwis or yogurt (I’d heard of yoghurt). Or paella, couscous, falafel, pita bread, or any Mexican food except chili. On the other hand, we had soft-shell crabs, lacrosse and duckpin bowling. Now all of these things except duckpins are available almost everywhere.
I’m of two minds about whether this homogenization is a good thing, but it’s inevitable with a national media, the internet and FedEx. What’s your point?

Hey JoeNick - Great story about Joe King.
As late as the 70’s I visited my grandparents in a small town in Oklahoma. We went to the local Dairy Queen for lunch. I ordered the tacos and my grandparents were fascinated. They each took a bite from my tacos and thought them not too bad. In those days there were no Mexican people around those parts. Of course today the area is full of Mexican people, food, and culture.

The only explanation I can think of for this whole taco discussion is that many of the readers/writers weren’t around in the early 1970’s.
I went to school at a women’s Catholic college and my freshman roommate (1972) had me order 3 tacos for her on days she couldn’t make it to lunch.
These were not a new and unusual food. St. Benedict’s was not known for its adventurous menus.
This was in Minnesota, Stearns County - home of the Lake Wobegone Trail…
Those pre-packaged taco kits mentioned in an earlier post had made it farther west than Virginia by at least 1970.

Is that true about “California Stop”? Nowadays I’ve heard it as as not stopping completely at a stop at a stop sign.

I remember in the early 1980s, when on The Phil Donahue Show, Phil did an entire hour-long show explaining Mexican cuisine to the people of New York and - I remember this very clearly- this included explaining to the people of New York what a taco was. I remember this so clearly because I had lived my entire life in Southern California and Mexican food was nothing exotic. I thought, “Well, those New Yorkers aren’t nearly as sophisticated as they think they are, are they?”

Lars SchumacherAugust 24, 2007

I tiptoe lightly into this taco fracas only to note that Woody Allen was wrong if he thought that a “California stop” is turning right on a red light.

As a native Californian, who has used my native state’s driving habits for many decades, I can confirm what another commenter wondered: A “California stop” is generally regarded as failing to stop completely (usually at a stop sign) before continuing through the interesection. Whether one makes a right turn or proceeds straight or left following the California stop is neither nere nor there.

I have also enjoyed tacos for many decades, but cannot shed any light on when they came to the consciousness of New Yorkers. Yet, I am encouraged to think that, perhaps, this is one issue about which we Golden Staters can look apalled at the provincialness of Empire Staters.

Check out this blog
if you want to learn more about tacos. This guy knows what he is talking about.

leftcoastindieAugust 24, 2007

The Old El Paso seasoning mix of that time was as good as it gets. They changed it about 10 years ago and I haven’t bought it since. There is nothing comparable in today’s stores and only a few restaurants are as good as that was.

I grew up in New Jersey in the ’70s. My mother would make tacos as a special treat at least once a month. We’re an German/Irish family with roots in western PA so there was no cultural tie. I’m assuming she found the idea in a magazine or newspaper or cookbook or something. Friends families would do the Old El Paso box thing - which I considered low brow compared to my families soft tortillas and homemade salsa.

This snooty sounding post is just to suggest that the Taco concept had reached rural New Jersey in the 70’s meaning it HAD to be pretty regular food in NYC or Philly by then…

JOe Nick, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns!!! Saw em in Odessa at Dos Amigos on 50 cent Taco Night in the late 80’s!

Richard W. Crews: Huh? Currently in Minneapolis people won’t try fish tacos? Where the hell are you hangingout? Have you been on the West Lake lately? Central and Lowry, Jeebus, maybe they ain’t feeding each other fish tacos, but all those Mexicans (Who happen to be Minnesotans as well.) are eating something. Us Scandinavians are likin’ it as well.

Maybe Minnesotans prefer lutefisk tacos.

I never had fish tacos till I went to my brother’s wedding in San Diego in ‘93.

I was born in 1945, when I was 7 we moved to NY. For various reasons, (I was a only child until I was 11, my father worked in Manhattan and ate a lot of business lunches and dinners) I was familiar with a lot of different cuisines. I remember that I wanted to try Mexican cooking but there were very few Mexican restaurants. I think I ate it for the first time around 1955 so tacos were definitely not part of the general culinary landscape in NYC.

marc sobelAugust 24, 2007

I can’t believe no one has mentioned that Woody Allen was repeating something Raymond Chandler said first about the cultural advantage of turning right on a red light in California. A “California stop” is something else: rolling through a stop sign without stopping. At lease where I come from. My mom made tacos in Portland, Oregon for my sister and me in the sixties. You could buy the hard or soft shells in most Safeway stores. While on the subject of Raymond Chandler he also said the problem with California was that you saw palm trees everywhere instead of only in hotel lobbies where they belonged.

Following up my suspicions regarding the Complete New Yorker’s index, I played a hunch and skimmed through my copy under “Calvin Trillin” and found an earlier reference from May 29, 1965. Appropriately, it’s from Los Angeles, in his article on Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers:

“In the course of their interviews, [documentary filmmakers William Cartwright and Nicholas King] came across Joseph Montoya, who had bought the towers from [Louis] Sauceda. Recalling their meeting, King, a lively informal young man who is now living in San Francisco, says, ‘This guy worked as a milker in dairy. He had bought the towers with the idea of putting up a taco stand there, using them as a kind of attraction to customers.’”

Note that Trillin doesn’t bother explaining what a taco stand IS.

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