The battle over breakfast taco ownership reveals deep fault lines in the changing identity of the state
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EC: What’s Behind the Texas Breakfast Taco Wars
Credit: Photo by Flickr user jeffreyw

No one is exactly sure when the Great Texas Taco Wars started, but the latest in its long line of skirmishes commenced in late February, when Eater Austin published an article with the headline “How Austin Became the Home of the Crucial Breakfast Taco.” There’s little explicitly worthy of offense in the piece, and writer Matthew Sedacca made no categorical claims about the Tex-Mex staple’s origin. But it is described as Austin’s “beloved morning dish,” and the implication of ownership was sufficient rage-fuel for South Texans and Mexican-Americans to deliver a swift and total rebuke.

Impassioned rejoinders came from as far afield as Southern California and New Jersey. Someone registered the website, which has only one page that reads NOT AUSTIN. The mayors of San Antonio and Austin held a truce-making Taco Summit at South by Southwest, and a San Antonio resident named Robbie Rodgers wrote a strongly worded petition on calling the article a “churlishly negligent treatise” and demanding that “the City of Austin throw Matthew Sedacca out of an unmarked van well outside the boundaries of the state.” As of this writing, 1,769 people have signed it, never mind that Sedacca lives in New York.

It was mostly funny, if only because Texans—I am in their number—have been squabbling over who has the best tacos (or barbecue or sports fans) since the days of the Republic, probably. But the breakfast taco furor is not just a dust-up about an article. After all, after all, Sedacca is but the latest to “blunder into a long-running, deep-seated, and hot blooded Texas turf-war armed with the equivalent knowledge of a 30-minute Andrew Zimmern special,” as Rodgers memorably put it in his petition. Rather, it speaks to the larger, generalized anxieties around tacos and cultural appropriation in the Lone Star State.

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Credit: Photo by Flicker user Paul Joseph

Austin is prime territory for a certain amount of Columbusing: As a media hub with an ever-growing number of coastal transplants, legions of college students, and several popular festivals, it’s the prima facie face of Texas, and it has an outsize role in shaping the media narrative about the state that is disseminated or brought back to the rest of the country. That narrative is overwhelmingly celebratory, and a core plank of it is food. If you’ve never been anywhere in Texas but Austin, the brisket at Franklin Barbecue and the breakfast tacos at Tacodeli can seem revelatory. The city does those things expertly, but it’s not the only place where that’s true.

“That's been the story of ethnic cuisine in this country forever,” says Gustavo Arellano, the editor of OC Weekly and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. “With the breakfast taco, it just so happens that it’s the favored food of not just gentrifying hipsters, but Austin hipsters, who have an undue influence nationwide, from South by Southwest to Whole Foods to the music industry.”

There are two ways of thinking about the breakfast taco. The first is as a meal: a flour tortilla filled with a fluffy nimbus of scrambled eggs, a greasy slab of bacon, a daub of refried black or pinto beans, and grated cheese, eaten primarily, but not exclusively, for breakfast. And then there’s the breakfast taco as cultural emblem, a symbol of family, heritage, and assimilation. It may be foolhardy to posit any one place as the home of the breakfast taco, but can we say that tacos are a Mexican or Mexican-American creation? “Yes,” says Carmen Valera, owner of Austin’s Tamale House East. “And the pride that Mexican-Americans feel in creating such a beautiful food is probably why the whole debate on the origins of the breakfast taco got so heated.”

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Credit: Image via Flickr user Kent Wang

As a cultural symbol, the breakfast taco, like any fashionable foodstuff, is subject to appropriation. The values it exudes—authenticity, casualness, a certain insouciance with regards to the consumption of breakfast—easily explain its popularity with Austin, and are in concert with the way many people think about the city itself.

Breakfast tacos weren’t popularized in Texas until the 1980s, the culinary product of two cultures co-existing uneasily. Its alloyed origin is right there in the name: a Spanish word, taco, modified by an English one. According to Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece, proprietors of the blog Taco Journalism and authors of the oral history Austin Breakfast Tacos and the forthcoming Tacos of Texas, the breakfast taco was the local taqueria’s response to fast-food culture. “They were trying to combat the Egg McMuffin,” Neece says. “Everybody wanted something warm and hot that you could hold in your hand.”

Rayo and Neece are the guys to talk to if you’re interested in, say, the variable thickness of tortillas from Corpus Christi versus tortillas from Laredo. We met over breakfast one morning at Joe’s Bakery, a family-run establishment opened in 1962.

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Credit: Photo by Dennis Burnett from Austin Breakfast Tacos

“Part of this taco war backlash was rooted in the sense that this is our food, this is what we've been eating, and then you have somebody who claimed something that's part of our culture without asking us,” Rayo explained, between bites of a bean, egg, and bacon taco. “Yes, it's just a breakfast taco, but for some people it’s a livelihood, a tradition, a culture—not something you can just reinvent or claim for a certain demographic.”

This attempted reclamation is particularly irksome because of who’s doing the reclaiming. To many Mexicans in Texas, Austin is “seen as a white city,” Rayo says. “If you ask anybody around the state, especially in South Texas, they're like, ‘nothing but white people tacos in Austin.’”

Rayo and Neece see it as their mission to point people to the best tacos in Austin, but the broader demographic point is true: 35 percent of Austin residents are Hispanic or Latino, compared to 63 percent in San Antonio (even Dallas, at 42 percent, beats Austin). What’s more, Austin is one of the most segregated major metropolitan areas in the United States: A new study by Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander, of the University of Toronto's Martin Prosperity Institute, found that Austin was the major American city most divided by socioeconomic status. And the city is still geographically divided by race in a way that Houston and San Antonio aren’t. As waves of newcomers crash in, sending housing prices skyrocketing, black and Hispanic Austinites have been the most affected.

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Credit: Photo by Dennis Burnett from Austin Breakfast Tacos

San Antonio has “always been the ‘lame’ city, the city no one wants to go to,” Rodgers, the petition-writer, told me. “And Austin has always been the city everybody flocks to.”

There are a lot of things to love about Austin: the weather, the wondrous Hill Country landscape, the abiding sense of total chill. And, yes, the food, up to and including breakfast tacos. “There's an education that needs to happen on both sides,” Rayo says. “Mexican families have been serving tacos in Austin for generations. It's important to talk about that history.”

It is. But while only the most diehard Austin-booster would posit that the city has a legitimate claim to being the home of the breakfast taco—a claim that would be ridiculous for any one city to make—the problem is that there are more diehard Austin boosters than ever, and they’re louder now.

At the same time, the city is facing a growing inequality crisis that disproportionately affects the very people who brought it the breakfast taco in the first place. “When we ask what has been lost because of our food and culture and areas where we live becoming desirable, of course you might point to the difficulty of some of those same families and businesses being able to afford to stay in such popular areas,” says Diana Valera, whose parents opened Austin’s original Tamale House and have been serving tacos downtown since 1959.

Valera recalls that the late ’50s were a time when there “was a lot of shame eating a taco.” It’s not a little bit ironic that fifty-something years later, there’s such a dearth of shame in eating a taco that the mayors of Texas metropolises are issuing press releases claiming their city has the best. But as the taco has moved into the celebrated mainstream, it’s worth pausing to consider the actual source of the ire fueling what seems like a silly internet debate.

Food communicates certain values, and the taco, in a state with a fraught racial history and a city undergoing rapid demographic change, is a particularly loaded symbol. Its present popularity is a small weld of influence on mainstream American culture by Mexican-Americans, a minor staking of a claim in a long history of exertive power working in the other direction. That claim was achieved over generations, from food carts and kitchens, in towns all across the state. That’s why it can’t have a home, at least not one so delimited as a city, unless you’re not talking about that history at all. What’s in dispute, then, isn’t whether Austin is the home of the breakfast taco, but regional authority. Who gets to arbitrate the conversation? Who speaks for Texas? This particular clash may have been fought to a draw, but the war rages on, with no end in sight.