The world is in an uproar right now over Donald Trump’s Cinco de Mayo gesture toward “Hispanics”: posing with what he called a “taco bowl” but what most people call a “taco salad.” It’s a notorious Mexican dish: a giant fried tortilla shell shaped into a bowl upon which ingredients such as ground beef (or shredded beef or chicken), lettuce, sour cream, olives, tomatoes and other ingredients found in tacos circa 1967 Lynwood.
The hate against Trump is such that people are attacking the poor taco salad itself instead of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s rhetoric and policies. Leading the charge is National Council of La Raza head Janet Murguía, who told the New York Times, “I don’t know that any self-respecting Latino would even acknowledge that a taco bowl is part of our culture.”
With all due respect to Murguía, who fights the good fight, she’s obviously never been in the cafeteria line at a Southwest high school, where Mexican kids have doctored taco salad with bottles of hot sauce since at least the 1970s. And she’s also ignoring the crucial role that Mexicans played in the development of the taco salad—with a special assist from Disneyland.
The earliest records I could find of a self-defined taco salad go back to the 1960s, but its ancestor is the Tacup: ground beef, beans, sour cream and cheese served in a small bowl made entirely of Fritos. It was a creation of Fritos founder Elmer Doolin (and quick note on Fritos: wholly Mexican creation by a Oaxacan immigrant who sold his recipe and Fritos-making machine to Doolin back in the 1930s). Doolin had a habit of inventing all sorts of foodstuffs based off his Fritos: Frito sauce for meat, Frito Jell-O pie, Frito dressing for salad, and eventually his Tacup. The National Museum of American History notes that the first Tacups were served in Dallas (where Doolin headquartered Fritos) but started selling them at Disneyland by 1955, in Fritos’ flagship restaurant, Casa de Fritos.
Casa de Fritos, of course, was where many Mexicans first had their taste of “authentic” Mexican food. And heading the restaurant was the Morales family of Anaheim, already famous in Southern California for their XLNT tamale brand. At Casa de Fritos, the familia would invent Doritos, another snack that people love to trash as not having any ties with Mexicans whatsoever but which are as raza as the Pyramid of the Sun. The Tacup proved popular enough with gabachos that people decided to make it bigger—and thus, the taco salad was born.
All of the above history, by the way, is in my 2012 book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. And that I’ve found myself in the past 24 hours having to explain the taco salad’s history to reporters shows how few people actually read my book. Sigh…