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A taco will always be a taco – no matter what we call it

Last week a judge in Indiana decided tacos are a subset of the broader sandwich category.  (Getty Images)
By Tim Carman Washington Post

For most of my life on this big blue marble, I’ve known tacos as tacos and sandwiches as sandwiches, the distinction between them self-evident.

But in recent years, the courts – and a certain segment of American eaters – have spoken out on a surprisingly divisive question: Is a taco a sandwich?

Perhaps the question sounds trivial to those who like to reserve their brain power for more complex problems, such as Wordle. But some of the answers to this question are not trivial at all: The livelihood of a franchise owner may hang in the balance, such as in 2006 when a judge ruled a Massachusetts mall could lease space to Qdoba because the Mexican chain’s presence would not violate an exclusivity clause with Panera Bread to be the only sandwich shop.

“A sandwich is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos and quesadillas, which are typically made with a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice and beans,” Worcester Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke wrote in his decision, based on news reports at the time.

Back then, Locke said he consulted with Webster’s dictionary, a chef and a “former high-ranking federal agriculture official” before issuing his ruling. His wouldn’t be the last word on the subject.

Out of curiosity, I turned to my copy of “The Penguin Companion to Food,” originally published in Britain in 1999 under the title “The Oxford Companion to Food,” to see how it described a taco. The volume, which runs more than 1,110 pages long, didn’t have an entry on tacos. (!) I had to flip to the section on Mexico to learn that maize “may be eaten in the form of tortillas, either to accompany other dishes, or stuffed with some combination of beans, meats, vegetables and cheese.” I never saw the word “taco” mentioned.

The truth is, much of my early education in Mexican food came from another British source, the formidable Diana Kennedy, a London-born cookbook author who devoted many of her 99 years to unlocking the secrets of Mexican regional cuisines for American readers.

“To many people outside Mexico, a taco is a tortilla bent in half to form a deep U shape, fried crisp and stuffed with ground beef, iceberg lettuce, sliced tomato and grated cheese,” Kennedy writes in “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico,” a compendium of her first three books. “Throughout Mexico, however, the simple taco consumed by millions daily is a fresh, hot corn tortilla – sometimes two if small – rolled around one of a hundred or so fillings and liberally doused with one of a hundred or so sauces. The variety is endless.”

She makes no connection between tacos and sandwiches, and why would she? Mexico already has well-established names for sandwiches: torta, cemita and pambazo, among them.

Even here in the 21st century, as publishing houses began regularly releasing titles on Mexican cooking by authors who actually have an ancestral connection to the country, you’d be hard-pressed to find any such connection. Street food is the preferred, and perhaps most apt, description for tacos.

But last week a judge in Indiana has decided tacos are indeed a subset of the broader sandwich category, which places this Mexican snack right back into the British fold. How, you ask? The accepted culinary lore is that the sandwich was named for (not, as many claim, invented by) John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich and an inveterate gambler who apparently wanted a handheld bite so he could remain at the gaming table.

I’m still processing my thoughts on this latest opinion. But here’s one thing that weighs on my mind: Many of the arguments that address the central question – is a taco a sandwich? – focus almost exclusively on its architecture. The taco, they assert, is a wrapper filled with a loose combination of ingredients not typically eaten on their own, not unlike the fillings pressed between two slices of bread or layered inside a hoagie roll. This argument, however, is all but divorced from the foodways, the history, the land and cooking techniques that make the taco distinct from anything else on Earth.

It’s as if folks want to assimilate every snack bound together with a carb-based binder into the great sandwich Borg, erasing all individuation just like the villain(s) in “Star Trek.”

Sci-fi hyperbole aside, there is no real harm in this exercise, of course. It’s not any different from, say, the wide variety of animals – reptiles, birds, humans and more – listed under the phylum chordata. No creature loses its distinctive character by being lumped into an overarching classification. Same with the taco tucked into a larger grouping of handheld, bread-based foods.

I can even see a more charitable side to this classification of disparate foodstuffs. At a time when some politicians are demonizing the people who cross our southern borders in search of a better life – comparing them to Hannibal Lecter – I find it comforting that others are looking for commonalities across food cultures. They want tacos to join their club.

Maybe this means little to nothing. As author Gustavo Arellano noted in “Tacos USA,” some Americans have an almost supernatural ability to love Mexican food but dislike the Mexicans who prepare it. But Arellano is also not hung up on traditions and authenticity when it comes to Mexican cuisine. He embraces its many variations as dishes migrated north and melded into American foodways.

I’m reminded of a passage from “Tacos USA.” In it, Arellano wrote, “As I’ve driven and flown around the country and come across a mild salsa, a mutated muchaco (a ground beef taco served in a pita bread by the midwestern Taco Bueno chain), and other items I immediately wanted to decry, I remembered the concept of what the legendary Chicano scholar Américo Paredes deemed Greater Mexico: that the influence of Mexico doesn’t cease at the Rio Grande. Wherever there is something even minutely Mexican, whether it’s people, food, language, or rituals, even centuries removed form the original mestizo sources, it remains Mexican.”

So go ahead and call a taco a sandwich. It doesn’t change its inherent Mexican identity one bit.