One Nation, Under Tacos

An excerpt from 'Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America'

One Nation, Under Tacos

About 213 miles up in space, the Earth below a cerulean blue, the universe around them infinite and awesome, Jose Hernandez and Danny Olivas wanted Mexican food.

The two had come prepared. They were astronauts on STS-128, a NASA mission that flew the Discovery space shuttle to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Aug. 30, 2009. Discovery's seven-member crew spent 10 days at the research station, primarily to resupply the people already up there and to rotate members. Olivas—raised in El Paso, Texas—went on a spacewalk to repair an ammonia tank, among other tasks; Hernandez—a native of Mexico who picked crops in California's Central Valley alongside family members as a child—sent his thoughts to our planet en español. "Espero la cosecha de mi sueño sirva como inspiracion a todos!" he enthused via Twitter. "I hope the harvest of my dream serves as inspiration to all!"

On Sept. 8, the Discovery crew undocked from the Space Station. It was morning. It was time for breakfast burritos. The rest of the crew had earlier asked Hernandez and Olivas if they would cook the meal, as Olivas was the NASA member who knew how to make them best. Of course. A video camera transmitted footage of the duo floating toward the galley of the middeck to open a shelf containing the ingredients they needed to construct the cylindrical god in zero gravity: flour tortillas sealed in a vacuum pack, clumps of ready-to-eat scrambled eggs and fat sausage patties.

Mariano Martinez invented the frozen margarita machine at his Dallas restaurant during the early 1970s. The machine pictured is now part of the Smithsonian's collection
Mariano Martinez invented the frozen margarita machine at his Dallas restaurant during the early 1970s. The machine pictured is now part of the Smithsonian's collection

Location Info


Fullerton Public Library

353 W. Commonwealth Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92832

Category: Libraries

Region: Fullerton


Gustavo Arellano will sign copies of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America at the Fullerton Public Library. April 12, 7 p.m. Lecture, free; books, BARATO!


Check out a bunch of pictures of Mexican food here. Sabroso!

Olivas pulled out a tortilla, letting it float in front of him while tearing open a thumb-sized salsa packet. He smeared a smiley face on the tortilla and tried to roll it up; since it wasn't cooked, the flour flatbread bent into a U-shape but wobbled back into its outstretched natural state. Hernandez, meanwhile, opened a pouch that contained the patty. Olivas placed the tortilla near the meat, expecting the sausage to plop down on it, as it would in terra firma. Instead, the brownish, glistening mass popped out of the bag, away from the tortilla below it; presumably, it would've continued on an endless trajectory in zero gravity if the fast-thinking Olivas hadn't grabbed the sausage with the tortilla. The salsa acted as a binding agent and secured the incipient Icarus.

The eggs proved more manageable. Hernandez cut them out of a packet; Olivas used a spoon to guide each mini-mound onto the tortilla, then promptly chopped them into smaller pieces, the better to smush and smear—if the tortilla would only bend. The moment of truth arrived: Olivas folded the vessel in half, wrapping one flap over the other, and rolled it tight. Success! A breakfast burrito was born, and more were on the way.

This wasn't the first time burritos orbited Earth—Olivas made a batch on his previous visit to the Space Station two years earlier. In fact, NASA had used tortillas for astronaut sustenance as early as 1985, when Mexican scientist Rodolfo Neri Vela requested a pack as part of his food provisions to make tacos. At the time, the media treated Neri's food choices with bemusement, but astronauts quickly took to flour tortillas—not only because of the flavor, redolent of flour and slightly sweet, but also because they were better than most of the sterilized slop they ate. Tortillas didn't spoil easily. Astronauts could wrap one around anything and make a quick meal. They also weren't as dangerous as bread, whose crumbs crippled air vents and sensitive equipment.

NASA took tortillas so seriously that it tinkered with the recipe—which hadn't substantially changed in millennia save for the introduction of flour—to keep stacks fresh for up to six months. Scientists created a nitrogen-filled packet that removed almost all the oxygen present in the pouch, so as to prevent mould from growing. One major problem arose: Astronauts discovered that 6-month-old space tortillas became bitter—and no one deserves a bitter tortilla. Finally, NASA found a manufacturer that made an extended-shelf-life tortilla that lasted up to a year and retained its allure, a maker that also sold the product to fast-food Mexican chains. Hundreds of thousands of dollars well-spent.

"I cannot think of anything that cannot be put on a tortilla or has not been put on a tortilla," wrote Sandra Magnus, a veteran astronaut, in a blog post while up in the International Space Station in 2008. "When a shuttle shows up, you are in tortilla heaven because [astronauts] show up with tons of them and graciously donate all of the extras to the ISS crews. You really want to be swimming in tortillas your whole increment."

And for short missions of five to seven days? Astronauts often bring flour tortillas fresh from a Houston tortillería, a tortilla factory. No modifications, no chemicals—just unadulterated rapture. The perfect food.

"Danny is an expert in zero-g burrito making," Hernandez radioed to Mission Control after the burrito party. It was a mission of celebration: Never had two Mexican-Americans flown in space on the same mission, and never did burritos shine so bright. Sure, Hernandez and Olivas offered a service to their crewmates that hundreds of thousands of their fellow Mexican provided daily back on Earth—prepping Mexican food for Americans more than happy to gobble it up. The feast made the news; a video soon went viral across the Internet, the astronauts' beaming, proud smiles as they hoisted their fast food available for humanity to see. So high up in the heavens, up above the world, the burrito not only had become universal—but it was now finally, truly cosmic, as well.

Next Page »