Taco. What does the word “taco” mean? I break down what a taco is technically. This is not a listing of favorite taquerias or an entry with recipes to make great tacos. This is a little scenic route through the land of language. So, take this overly analytical journey with me if only just to show you how my brain works. Even if it is just discussing one word–a delicious word, I might add–I always tend to overdo the discussion.
The taco is defined as such in current online dictionaries.
a Mexican food that consists of a folded and usually fried piece of thin bread (called a tortilla) that is filled with meat, cheese, lettuce, etc.
a Mexican dish consisting of a fried tortilla, typically folded, filled with various mixtures, such as seasoned meat, beans, lettuce, and tomatoes.
Origin: Mexican Spanish, from Spanish, literally ‘plug, wad’
tortilla filled with spiced meat, etc., 1949, from Mexican Spanish, “light lunch,” literally “plug, wadding.”
It is becoming–if it is not already–the food item of the century and the talk of the town across the United States. As you might gather from a search of recent news stories, the taco is used to contribute to the daily dialogue on hard work and immigration and healthy eating habits… among other topics.
Being of Mexican parents, I feel like I have always been surrounded by tacos. To this day, chorizo and egg breakfast tacos remind me of mornings getting ready for elementary school. (I must not forget the cold chocolate milk and The Jetsons playing on the television set. Those are the finishing touches to that memory.)
A particularly vivid memory that I always recall is a conversation I had with my mother. It was a cold, rainy day, and she had made her world-famous chicken soup. Even now, I cannot replicate that flavor no matter how hard I try.
I was home from school (maybe it was a weekend?), and when Dad came home from work, she asks him in Spanish, “¿Quieres un taco de caldo?” or “Do you want a soup taco?”
A soup taco, I thought to myself. A taco of soup? I imagined her pouring the chicken broth onto a corn tortilla and making a mess over the stove. How does one make a soup taco?
I laughed loudly. “Mom, how can you make a taco out of soup? That doesn’t make any sense.”
With a stern smile that silently asked me to stop laughing, sit back, and listen, my mother poured some chicken soup on to a large bowl for my father. She explained, “The word ‘taco’ actually means, ‘a piece of,’ or ‘a bit of.’ So, I asked your father if he wants a little bit of soup.”
Then, in that instant, my world of tacos came to life and made complete sense. A carne guisada taco literally translates to “a bit of carne guisada.” Instead of serving it in a bowl, or a plate, or on a napkin, make it portable and completely edible on a tortilla.
I’ve searched for the etymology of the word, but as of now have been unable to trace the roots or history of the term.
The closest I have found, to my surprise, is the Spanish Royal Academy dictionary (Real Academia Española at http://www.rae.es), which includes one definition of the term taco to mean, “a snack or light meal that is taken outside the normal eating hours.” This is similar to the Online Etymology Dictionary (refrenced above) that says it is–similarly–a “light lunch,” literally “plug, wadding.”
So next time you are eating a taco of your favorite meats and/or veggies, just take a moment to remember that it means “a little bit” of those meats or veggies. And recalling this anecdote will perhaps help your meal taste even better.