Watching the Taco Index

(This post originally appeared on an earlier blog.)

We weren’t paying attention…and “taco” took over.

In the past month I’ve had vegan Southwest tacos, fresh-ahi tacos, and Thai basil-quinoa tacos. Just for the hell of it, I made taco-tacos the other night. You know, the ones with ground beef, tomatoes, olives, cheese, and salsa all gathered quietly under the friendly roof of an actual corn tortilla.

I decided to look into this trend. First, etymology: The word supposedly comes down from a Spanish reference to a wadded-up cloth used for patches when firing musket balls. I’m guessing the cruelty-free raw bar around the corner where I had the Thai taco with organic-soynut sauce does not know the origins of this word.

The idea of an entrée wrapped in an edible container isn’t new or unique to Mexican culture. Every cuisine has some version of it, from dim sum on down through the ages.

I’ve discovered something useful. Tacos, it turns out, are reliable tools for gauging the state of the economy. Here’s why: In tough times we like to touch our food. In boom times, we don’t.

Remember those silly towers of fusion food marooned on big white plates during the dot-com years? Those cilantro-truffle-lamb aperitifs rising above reductions of pear that went for $39? No one dared touch that stuff with a hand…a chopstick, maybe. Mostly folks just left them on the plate and ordered more imported vodka.

Now, as our home equity vaporizes, we’re all about “finger foods.” Even Starbucks is selling its coffee as instant in itty-bitty bags. You can’t handle their prepared coffee because it’s heated to something like 700 degrees, but you can safely dip a finger into that jumped-up, instant Sanka-esque stuff and breathe a sigh of relief: It’s all going to hell, but I can reach out and touch the coffee.

There’s really no need to listen to those economic “experts” or try to keep up with the rapidly accumulating issues of the Economist that get pushed to the bottom of the magazine stack. Just keep your eye on the menus around town.

When you need a knife and fork for all the daily specials, you’ll know that the long, dark night is ending.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

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