The Observer

Le French Tacos and the Hidden Meanings of What We Eat

“A fattening Franken-food without genuine culinary roots.” This is how our Paris correspondent describes le French tacos, the Gallic take on the traditional Mexican taco.
© French Tacos

Food globalization is an easy trend to track. A decade ago, the eatery on my street corner in Paris was called La Pause-Déj’ (“lunch break”) and served sandwiches. Today, rebranded Le Big Snack, it offers delicacies such as le burger, le kebab, le couscous, le panini, and la pizza (the only feminine noun, possibly because the pie is related to the Niçois specialty la pissaladière). A brief dalliance with something called le texmexe came to a messy, ptomaine-related end. But it’s the latest offering that grabs attention: le tacos, complete with the terminal “s,” despite the singular definite article. That semi-neologism is appropriate, however, because this UFO (unidentified food object) bears only the remotest resemblance to its Mexican namesake. It consists of an oblong tortilla crammed with meat and french fries, smothered with a gooey sauce, dotted with toppings, then plonked on a grill. More Dagwood than delicacy, the confection can now be found all over France. And it’s created quite a stir: Le tacos à la française has been the subject of articles, TV reports, blog posts, an erudite New Yorker piece and, naturally, a Master’s thesis.

Much of the media coverage has been critical, focusing on two aspects in particular. This being France, le tacos has been vilified for a lack of authenticity – a fattening Franken-food without genuine culinary roots. Now, “authentic” is one of those fuzzwords, like “holistic” or “innovative,” that have been neutered by overuse. Travel companies employ it ad nauseam to make clients believe they will experience – another fuzzword – the “real” Paris/New York/Tokyo/Sao Paolo or wherever. Of course, they find themselves surrounded by other authenticity-seeking schnooks in places that no local would ever dream of frequenting. Similarly, food-obsessives, a subspecies of gastronomes who prefer the term “foodies,” will hunt down the “authentic” cassoulet in Carcassonne or pad thai in Pattaya, never realizing that no definitive version exists and that many of the locals prefer pizza anyway. I confess to the same sins, repenting only after a hole-in-the-wall in Cambodia served me a processed-cheese sandwich when I asked to sample the chef’s favorite food. And even the hardest of hard-core authenticists will pale or puke if served real specialties such as durian (“like eating garlic custard in a urinal”) or surströmming, the Norwegian fermented herring (“rotten flesh and gasoline”).

When not stomach-churning, authenticity often turns out to be a disappointment or worse. The scene from the 1996 movie Big Night, where a restaurant diner in New Jersey orders a side of spaghetti and meatballs because her seafood risotto is too authentically Italian, has become a classic. As that renowned gastronome Jean-Paul Sartre said: “If you seek authenticity for authenticity’s sake you are no longer authentic.”

The second reason for the tacos’ tribulations is more pernicious, and more enlightening. A nation and its people often frame their identity through the food they eat, while singling out foreigners for their specificities. Traditionally, for the French, les Rosbifs (roast beef) are the Brits, who return the compliment with “Frogs.” Some Americans call Germans “Krauts” – often unaware that the word means cabbage – and the Brits “Limeys.” But national identities are hardly static; and France, like so many countries, has become more diverse and more urban: At least 80% of the population now lives in cities. Thus a typical menu is more likely to feature, say, tomates-mozza (a take on Italy’s insalata caprese) than French onion soup, or hummus instead of pâté de foie gras. For decades, this steady influx of foreign specialties was denigrated as le fast-food, deliberately ignoring the official term la restauration rapide in order to underscore the foreignness of the phenomenon (also labelled néfaste, or harmful, food).

In the eyes of some, these so-called migrant foods have become potent symbols of a diluted national identity. While le couscous, originally brought in by North African migrant workers more than seven decades ago, is now one of France’s most popular – nay, traditional – dishes, another incomer has sown seeds of discord. Doner kebabs, or gyros, have long been a popular and affordable street snack. Originally popularized by Turkish immigrants in the 1970s, le kebab was quickly adopted by Maghrebi communities in France, proving especially popular with young people. Decades later, most big cities and their suburbs boast a selection of snack-kebabs outlets, which are cheap and easy to set up and operate. Crucially, the food is halal.

As inter-community relations across France grew ever more tense during the 2000s, the kebab was politicized as “Islamic food.” A far-right journalist, who went on to become mayor of a southwestern town, published a much-discussed web article imagining France in 2047, with women all wearing head coverings and the kebab replacing the baguette. That image struck a chord. Slogans promoting le jambon-beurre – a traditional ham sandwich – over le kebab were chanted at nationalist demonstrations. And several cities, including Marseille, took measures to limit or reverse what they labeled la kebabisation, despite accusations of culinary racism.

In this pernicious climate, le tacos, too, has drawn fire and ire. But because it is a pure hybrid, criticisms aimed at community-specific foods have fallen flat. On the contrary, the product’s commercial success symbolizes the dynamism of young entrepreneurs too often shut out of the mainstream. As the New Yorker writer notes, le tacos affirms the cultural power of suburban youth. But here’s where it gets interesting: The biggest name in the industry at the moment, which goes by the Celto-Hispanic mashup O’Tacos, claims to offer… le goût authentique! The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was onto something when he said that a society’s cuisine is a language into which it translates its structure – unless it reluctantly and unwittingly reveals its contradictions.

As a hungry customer placing an order at my now-globalized eatery might say: “Donnez-moi un tacos, un hot dog, un donuts – et un croissant. Adios, goodbye, salut!

Article published in the July 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.