Typically, I don’t understand the irritatingly persistent appeal of French food. I have little interest in the incessant barrage of cookbooks, the well-lit photos, the homages and journeys all dedicated to what has become the pinnacle of “good” food. One does not simply eat in France, the belief goes, one immerses him or herself in culinary culture. Ordering is a process, a delicate balance of steps leading to the meal that will change our lives. It won’t just taste good, it will enhance our palettes beyond previous recognition. Eating in France is not about eating, it’s about developing our tongue’s intellect. French food is all very romantic, but after spending some time in Paris, I began to see French food as little more than a misleading garnish. A croque monsieur is a ham and cheese sandwich more elegantly defined. But, there exists one culinary triumph that sits victorious amongst the well-presented platters and edible doses of sophistication: The French Taco.
The reader is probably thinking, at this moment, that I am some lowbrow from the middle of the country who eats ketchup on steak or dips fried cheese in ranch dressing and just simply cannot understand food that isn’t processed beyond recognition. This is partially true. I have admittedly done those supposedly horrendous acts and I have done even worse. Because while I might often love a really good cocktail and I do believe that a talented mixologist is a true gem, I also love drinking straight from a bottle of cheap wine if the situation calls for it. Breaking culinary rules is sometimes better than maintaining culinary tradition. And the French taco does just that.
The French taco is different. Its appearance is not nearly as vital as its contents, and those contents would likely be considered “low quality” by anyone more well-versed in French food than me. A French taco is a tortilla stuffed with halal meat, cheese sauce, usually another sauce, a “salad” consisting of conservative portions of lettuce and tomato, and fries. Then, at least in the kebab shops sprinkled around Paris, they’re served with another side of fries. It’s a melty carb infused cheese fest, which is not typically how fine food is described. It’s a pile of grease and cheese sauce wrapped in a to-go friendly burrito-like packaging. It’s like Taco Bell, but with better ingredients. It’s alcohol-absorbing drunk food, a fast-food cultural hybrid that breaks all of the rules of French cuisine, but that firmly situates itself as French.
The bizarre beauty of the French taco inspired my culinary curiosity in ways no French plate had before. I pieced together its history, written about in conflicting accounts by both French and English language sources. Parisians and foreigners alike, it seems, wondered where this gooey hybrid of a pile came from. While the French chain O’Tacos has since claimed and popularized the creation, it was likely (although debatably) created by the owner of a small kebab shop in a suburb of Lyons, France. The influences vary, but the meat is often Middle Eastern, the sauces Belgian and African, and it is pressed like an Italian panini. And of course, the name “taco” implies that it is in some way Mexican.
It’s not. It’s not much of a taco at all. If anything, it’s a burrito. But the taco has been used in varying ways for years now, with Korean taco trucks a staple of every other New York City and Los Angeles block. Few can deny the appeal a taco holds, the pure optimism that comes from filling a blank tortilla with toppings and sauces and flavor… it’s easy to be emotionally swept up in it. Tacos, maybe more than any other food, represent possibility. The filling combinations are endless. The hybrids, the fusions. It’s all part of one mass network of delight. Tacos may have originated in Mexico, and Mexico should be given utmost culinary credit because much credit is due, but tacos have had a place on all sides of various borders and nothing can dent their boundless appeal. Taking the name “taco” was undoubtedly more of a marketing scheme than an actual homage to the Mexican taco, because Mexican food is hardly widespread in Paris and there is almost nothing legitimately Mexican about this particular dish; however, most would say that there is nothing particularly French about it either.
Biting into a French taco is all the more satisfying after trying to navigate the nonchalantly expensive bistros that plague the city like wasps. Walking from place to place, trying to choose a restaurant, is a lot like trying to choose the shade of pale yellow you will paint your impending child’s genderless room. There’s not a lot of difference. All of them are characterized by outdoor seating, an element that would bring more appeal if anyone ever wore anything besides a well stylized grey; a menu of high quality meats and cheeses and unaffordable fish dishes; ten-euro salads sprinkled with two cherry tomato halves, maybe a nut, and goat cheese; and condescending waiters who revel in having taken a food and wine course.
It’s attractive at first. And then it starts to get exhausting. The sight of glorified cold cuts begins to feel troublesome, and consistently ordering the second cheapest wine begins to feel like what it is: A way to look like you base your decisions on something besides an item sitting at the absolute lowest price point. The thirty-euro price tag on everything that is not a side gets financially exhausting and feels fruitless for a patron whose culinary knowledge caps quite quickly.
I had my first French Taco while sitting on a bench near a dog park. I was not sitting street side, drinking wine. I was shoveling a burrito into my mouth with the fervor that only legitimate discovery can bring. And this is what the French taco was — a discovery.
I could not make the French taco a source of daily nourishment, but in that moment it created a sort of internal cohesion that could only be born from this kind of grease-streaked comfort food. And it wasn’t just about eating it. It was about ordering it. When I walked into the kebab shop, I was greeted warmly. The incessant stare of the impatient and well-dressed waiter does not exist in these spaces, places frequented by those who are already relegated to the outside of what is considered “Parisienne.” Three different men from three different countries made me this anti-French French taco and did not cringe when I asked for two hot sauces. I wanted spice and they understood why I asked for it. In a city known for encouraging a perfect balance of tastes at all times, when food-based decisions are almost always carefully weighed, the act of making one as sloppy and tasteless as this feels liberatory.
I stumbled upon the French taco at an appropriate time. I was at the stage of travel in France in which cynicism replaced my initial romantic visions of the city as a bastion of literary and art history. There is a phrase for this. It’s called “the Paris syndrome,” and it plagues travelers who encounter a version of Paris different from that of their fantasies. And considering how frequently Paris fits into our fantasies as the pinnacle of all things class, culture, and sophistication, this syndrome is nearly inevitable.
Before I went to Paris, I romanticized it in the way that everyone else does. I pictured long walks in well-manicured parks and a gritty underbelly of a city known for its sensuality. I could never find this gritty underbelly, and the parks were manicured to the point that it was physically restrictive. One lawn per day could hold picnickers, and I had the impression that the greenery was akin to a glass table we could break. To get in and out of the Louvre I had to walk through a mall full of tourists beating one another down with selfie sticks, and the road to the Arc de Triomphe was littered with high-end shops and multinational restaurant companies.
For visitors, Paris has become an idea of a city more than a city itself. The city has become so marketable that it’s no wonder disillusionment occurs. I can’t blame my frustration towards France and French food on people from Paris, but rather on the way that the concept of Paris has been sold to most Americans for our entire lives.
Americans abuse and fetishize all things French. We will buy anything that is supposed to make us into a Parisian, whether it’s red lipstick or a scarf or a book telling us to parent the way French parents do. What the French see as life the Americans see as an overly romanticized nod to intellectual sophistication. Eating a baguette is a status symbol for us. While the French might just want to picnic at the park, the Americans want to take twelve pictures with a cheese plate and post it online as #parisienne because anything supposedly French elevates one to the highest echelons of society. We eat a baguette daily in France and then return to the United States only to say that we don’t eat white bread.
From what I understand, French food is more about the process than the actual product. The preparation is characterized by carefully ritualistic qualities and the consumption characterized by nearly the same. Because we need a specific product to solidify our French-food eating brand, we forget that it’s not necessarily what we eat but how we eat it. We have turned a valuable culinary tradition into an elitist rite of passage.
This is all part of one huge process of mimicry. We emulate what we believe to be part of the upper echelons of sophisticado, attempt to piece together the learned tastes and preferences that will make us into the kind of person who values “the finer things in life.” We try to learn what we must be moved by, allow our palette to be swayed by both the historic and digital algorithms that tell us presentation on a plate is worth half a day’s pay and that in order to designate our taste buds as dignified we need, we absolutely must, eat what the world has deemed the pinnacle of high-class.
Our taste is pre-selected. “Have you seen the Monet?” every tourist in Paris asks. “You need to see the Monet.” The reality is that “Monet” is one of the few French names they can pronounce and they happened to learn about him during the course of their elementary school art education, which in the U.S. is not exactly robust.
We ravenously consume the cultural currency that will allow us to visually buy our way to the top of the “intellectual” heap. We are obsessed with authenticity, but simultaneously surrounded by duplication. We learn about Monet and see his work on every postcard and mall kiosk calendar and then consider ourselves just one step beyond basic because we finally saw the real thing. Then we snap a picture of ourselves and post it to every social media platform imaginable just to show that we saw the real thing.
If someone stands in front of the Monet and is genuinely moved, then I have respect for that. But when everything is so consciously decided, when we know what we should be moved by, then the possibility for legitimate emotion feels out of reach.
That’s why the French taco was so refreshing. I was breaking all of the rules on how to be what we are supposed to want to be. I was moved by something no sophisticated person should be moved by: a caloric mess. It was the American pretense of French food that ruined it for me. With the French tacos, there is no pretense. There is no search for absolute authenticity because the French taco symbolizes what international cuisine has become. It’s a mess of influences with blurred boundaries.
Attempting to make sense of the French taco, whether to legitimize its name or to decipher its degree of Frenchness, is no light task. If the French had had any real role in colonizing Mexico, or if they had contemporary displays of blatant political racism towards the country, calling this food a taco might be a problematic example of the worst kinds of cultural appropriation. The extent to which it is would be up to Mexico to decide. But although those specific power dynamics are not at play in this dish, others are. France is currently facing an anti-immigration backlash, with many claiming that immigrants (primarily from Africa and the Middle East) are ruining their ethnic “purity.”
So maybe the French taco isn’t French at all, but that depends on how one sees France. I suppose it boils down to how we define our national cuisines. If we focus on purity, then our foods are reduced to an ahistorical blob, something that provides a comforting and one-dimensional notion of what we consider our respective countries to be. If we call our cuisine what it is — an ever shifting phenomena based on culture, geography, history, and technology — then we can embrace something as multidimensional as the French taco and love it for what it is: Indulgent, delicious, and a symbol of (as the best food always is) something beyond itself.
Chelsea Carrick is a writer currently residing in Mexico City. She is interested in the politics of ethical travel and the intersections of art, food, and culture.