The tacos of history

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Globe Staff

Everybody loves tacos—but where did they come from, other than “Mexico”? In Smithsonian magazine, Katy June-Friesen talks with Jeffrey Pilcher, a historian at the University of Minnesota who has studied Mexican food for two decades, and whose new book, “Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food,” is coming out this summer.

Nobody knows exactly where the taco originated, Pilcher says, although it’s clear that Glen Bell (of Taco Bell) didn’t invent it, as he sometimes claimed. “My theory is that it dates from the 18th century and the silver mines in Mexico, because in those mines the word ‘taco’ referred to the little charges they would use to excavate the ore. These were pieces of paper that they would wrap around gunpowder and insert into the holes they carved in the rock face.” From there, Pilcher says, you’re just a metaphor away from a taco filled with spicy chicken. “And one of the first types of tacos described is called tacos de minero—miner’s tacos.”

In the 20th century, the taco’s popularity grew, in part because so many Mexican-Americans fought in World War II; tacos now incorporate distinctly non-Mexican ingredients, like hamburger and cheddar cheese.

How markets do moral damage

Matt Callahan/Globe Staff


Economists tend to valorize “the market” as the best, most neutral mechanism for solving problems in a society whose moral values are decided elsewhere. Writing in Boston Review, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel offers a compelling case against that view. Markets, Sandel argues, aren’t always morally inert—in many cases, they have a profound effect on what’s bought and sold. “Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about,” he writes. “[S]ome of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities.” (The essay is a summary of his new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.”)

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Take this example: For years, the Swiss government had been looking to build a storage facility for nuclear waste, and in 1993 it began focusing on a small mountain village called Wolfenschiessen. When economists asked residents if they’d allow construction of a waste facility if their village really was the best spot, more than half said yes. (“Apparently,” Sandel writes, “their sense of civic duty outweighed their concern about the risks.”) But when the same economists proposed compensating the villagers, that sense of civic duty diminished, and only a quarter of residents supported construction. Even raising the offer couldn’t return support to the level it had been when it was voluntary.

It’s a classic example, Sandel writes, of the way that putting a price on something—in this case, civic virtue—can change, even destroy it. Apart from the market, accepting the location of the storage site is virtuous; with the market, it’s simple bribery. It’s what Sandel calls “crowding out”: Introduce the market, and you crowd out other ways of thinking about a decision. The same dynamic, he argues, exists throughout our society, wherever a market approach forces us to reinterpret a decision in purely economic terms.

Economists, Sandel writes, aren’t particularly bothered by crowding out; in their view, society is better off instituting market mechanisms wherever possible, so as to reduce our reliance on altruism, which is a fickle and limited resource. But that view of altruism might not be accurate, Sandel thinks. It’s not just that it sells human nature short—it’s that it “ignores the possibility that our capacity for love and benevolence is not depleted with use but enlarged with practice.”

The fish upstairs

Bored with the notion of urban rooftop farming? UrbanFarmers AG, a firm based in Zurich, has invented a new twist: a rooftop fish farm, enclosed in a dome that looks like a fish.

istock; matt callahan/Globe Staff


The fish farm, which they call the “GLOBE (hedron),” uses bamboo poles for support; inside, water flows from a series of planting beds to a reservoir at the bottom, where the fish live. That water is then purified and re-used to water the plants. One unit, the inventors say, “could feed a family of 4 with fresh fish and vegetables, salads & herbs—year-round.”

There’s something both utopian and post-apocalyptic about these sorts of projects—after the power goes out, you could subsist for years on the produce from your own roof. The system is still in the early stages, and has yet to advance to a “real-world” prototype; it’s one of many projects-in-progress from UrbanFarmers, who are already working on rooftop farms in a number of European cities.

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at