[Tacos de Canasta are sold everywhere in Mexico, created primarily
by the drift of population between town and country that defined
Mexico City in the 20th century. They are not merely a way of
celebrating Mexico’s singular culinary heritage, but also a way of
staking a claim to part of that heritage] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 THE STILL-EVOLVING HISTORY OF TACOS DE CANASTA  
[https://portside.org/2018-04-09/still-evolving-history-tacos-de-canasta]


 

 Michael Snyder 
 February 16, 2018
Saveur Magazine [https://www.saveur.com/san-vicente-basket-tacos] 

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 _ Tacos de Canasta are sold everywhere in Mexico, created primarily
by the drift of population between town and country that defined
Mexico City in the 20th century. They are not merely a way of
celebrating Mexico’s singular culinary heritage, but also a way of
staking a claim to part of that heritage _ 

 Made fresh each morning and wrapped in an instantly recognizable
sky-blue plastic sheet to keep them warm, tacos de canasta are sold
all throughout Mexico City and beyond., Michael Snyder 

 

It was the first Sunday in December and some 6,000 people streamed up
and down the steep incline of San Vicente Xiloxochitla’s main
street, ignoring the various stands selling pizzas and ice cream and
liter-size micheladas. In every hand was a small half-moon of
tortilla, sweating through a thin sheet of white paper. Throughout the
day, more than 250 taco vendors would park their bikes in the plaza
and deliver thousands of free tacos into a sea of grasping hands,
while chants of “Ta-que-ro! Ta-que-ro!” hung in the air. It was
the 13th annual Feria del Taco de Canasta—the Basket Taco
Festival—a celebration of the humble snack made and sold by more
than 80% of San Vicente’s 5,000-strong population.

 While many of these basket tacos come from villages like San
Vicente, about two hours east of Mexico City in the state of Tlaxcala,
there is nothing more chilango than tacos de canasta. A hallmark of
Mexico City street food, they’re moist and fat-slicked and typically
stuffed with one of four basic fillings (mashed potato, refried beans,
minced pork, or chicken in adobo), and they take their name from the
woven baskets that vendors use to carry them around. Made fresh each
morning and wrapped in an instantly recognizable sky-blue plastic
sheet to keep them warm, the tacos are sold all throughout the
capital—in tiny storefronts, off plastic tables set up at busy
intersections, and, most characteristically, from the backs of
bicycles.

Food festivals like San Vicente’s Feria del Taco de Canasta are
everywhere in Mexico. For the villages that host them, they’re not
merely a way of celebrating Mexico’s singular culinary heritage, but
also a way of staking a claim to part of that heritage. They also
serve to help stave off the loss of identity that inevitably follows
the loss of population as successive generations of young people move
to the big city. These events do draw in visitors and money, but most
of all, they keep places like San Vicente on the map. San Vicente
likes to bill itself as the one true home of the capital’s most
emblematic dish, but like most everything in Mexico’s mammoth
capital, the taco de canasta belongs to many places at once, created
primarily by the drift of population between town and country that
defined Mexico City in the 20th century.

But where did it all begin? Tortillas as we know them today likely
originated here in the state of Tlaxcala—its name translates roughly
from Nahuatl as “the place of the tortillas”—but the first
written mention of a taco didn’t appear until 1890, in reference to
a dish consumed in the silver mines of Real de Monte in the
neighboring state of Hidalgo. According to Jeffrey Pilcher, author of
Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, those first tacos were
probably quite similar to what we now know as a taco de canasta: a
small tortilla folded around a simple, stewed filling and packed
tightly in napkins to keep it warm.

 “By 1900,” Pilcher says, “they were everywhere.” The first
known photograph of a taco, taken around 1920 in Mexico City, shows a
group of paperboys gathered around a woman selling tacos out of a
basket. “What’s now called tacos de canasta,” Pilcher says,
“was originally tacos mineros”—miners’ tacos.

That simple taco found its way to San Vicente via a man called Marcial
Balderas. In 1948, when he was only 14 years old, Balderas moved from
San Vicente, then an agricultural village, to Mexico City, part of the
first wave of mass migration that, in just a few decades, would turn
it into the world’s largest metropolis. Shortly after arriving,
Balderas met a woman called Cristina Mendoza, originally from
Guadalajara, who, he says, taught him how to make what she referred to
as tacos sudados, literally “sweated tacos.” (Where she learned to
make them he never found out). Each morning, he would fold his
tortillas around hot fillings, pack them tightly into a basket lined
with hand-embroidered napkins, and take them to a sidewalk in front of
a school in the neighborhood of Tlatelolco to sell them.

 Three years later, Balderas left the taco business to take on
better-paid work laying pipes and installing plumbing in the rapidly
expanding city. By then, he’d passed the skill on to a handful of
other young migrants from San Vicente who, like him, had come to the
capital for work. The trade picked up slowly in the 1950s and, like
the city it served, exploded in the ’60s. The burgeoning workforce
needed to be fed, and San Vicente’s growing army of taqueros was
happy to oblige.

Irad Santacruz Arciniega, a chef in Tlaxcala’s capital, also called
Tlaxcala, has devoted his career to research on the cuisine of his
home state, the cradle of agriculture in Mesoamerica. “In those
days,” Santacruz told me, “many people from town would go on
pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe [in Mexico City]
and they would take their bikes and their canastas filled with tacos.
People would start to ask them where they had gotten their tacos and
that’s why they started to sell them.” The canastas, he went on,
would most likely have come from the nearby basket-weaving town of
Santa Apolonia Teacalco. “This, I’m sure, is one of the reasons it
became so popular [in San Vicente],” he says.

 Then, as now, some taqueros moved to the city full-time, as Balderas
had, while others spent weekends back home in the pueblo. Still others
commuted daily, making their guisados at home with their wives, buying
their 14-centimeter tortillas from a growing number of local
tortillerias, packing in the early hours of the morning, and carrying
their bikes and baskets to the city, often on a series of public
buses. “I’ve told people here, if I hadn’t come back with these
tacos, then my village would have nothing,” Balderas, now 86, likes
to say. When I asked why he hadn’t come down to the feria that day,
he threw up his hands in frustration: “They didn’t invite me!”

 The idea for the feria came from another San Vicente taquero,
Zeferino Ruiz, who first started selling tacos in 1978 when he was 15
years old. For his first 20 years as a taquero, Ruiz worked the
streets of Mexico City, but eventually, he says, “it just got too
saturated, so I moved out to Cholula,” a scenic university town two
hours southeast of Mexico City and about 50 miles from San Vicente.
San Vicente was already half a century into its taco de canasta boom
and neighboring villages were catching on.

 “I was there in Cholula, right? And people from Nopalucan [the
next town over] started turning up with baskets,” Ruiz recalled,
still quietly exasperated at their audacity. Customers in Cholula, he
said, didn’t know the difference between his tacos—the “real”
ones from San Vicente—and the those sold by the interlopers. “They
thought we were the same.”

 Aggressively nonchalant in aviators, a fedora, and a pale blue shirt
unbuttoned to the base of his sternum, Ruiz revealed his next move
with a sly smirk. “So I decided to change the color of the plastic
in my basket so everyone would know which was the real thing.” He
tilted his head toward his basket, lined with a white plastic sheet, a
subtle but obvious contrast to the blue plastic that most taqueros
still use. “Now everyone [in Cholula] knows to look for the white
basket.”

 Ruiz developed the festival for much the same reason, as an attempt
to stake San Vicente’s claim to one of the most popular forms of
sustenance in Mexico’s densely populated central valleys. “We
started this feria so people would recognize that this is our taco,”
he said, “that it comes from here.”

 Whether the _taco de canasta_ is the product of a particular man
or woman, whether it’s really from San Vicente or Mexico City or
Guadalajara or the abandoned barracks of a defunct silver mine is
really beside the point. Who’s to say when something as elemental as
a small, sweaty taco served out of a basket becomes a specific dish,
or when you start calling it by a particular name. _Tacos
mineros_, _tacos sudados_, _tacos de canasta_; they all have their
part to play in the creation of a tradition, both for an immense
metropolis and a small village that, without it, might well have
disappeared. Traditions, after all, need their origin stories.

Today, the _taco de canasta_ is from both everywhere and nowhere, a
decidedly Mexico City dish served in cities and towns throughout
central Mexico, prepared by people from anywhere looking for a way to
get by. San Vicente describes itself as “the cradle of the _taco de
canasta,_” but really San Vicente is just one part of its history.
“As they say,” Ruiz told me as he packed away his empty basket,
gripped the handles of his battered bicycle, and prepared to make his
way home through the crowds, “there’s enough to go around.”

 

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