Rachel Laudan

Is a Taco a Sandwich: Or How Do We Classify Foods?

Every so often my past pops up.  Once upon a time, I studied why we classify things and how we do it.  So my answer to the question “Is a taco a sandwich” will be a bit theoretical. If that’s not your thing, just sail right on to the next post.

Whether a taco is a sandwich has no one right answer. It depends on why we are asking the question, that is, why we want to know if a taco is a sandwich.

Here are at least three reasons we might be asking this question, and the answers we will give.

1.  We might want to find out about parallel ways of preparing food in different societies. This is what interested Elizabeth Rozin, a pioneer in food history and philosophy.   In her lovely book,The Universal Kitchen, she compares similar dishes that appear in many places in the world under such headings as “Meat on a Stick,” or “The Primal Soup,” or here “Layered, Spread, Sandwiched, and Stuffed.”  She suggests layered, spread, sandwiched and stuffed was a fairly late development because it depends on “separately prepared foods orchestrated in elaborate compositions of color, flavor, and texture.”

If this is your question, the answer would be: Yes. Tacos and quesadillas are sandwiches.   Message.  Probably late to develop in Mexico.

2.  We might be asking whether diners themselves consider two things part of the same general category. Do Mexicans think tacos are sandwiches? These judgements depend a lot on people’s sense of identity, of what is thought of as foreign, etc.

If this is the question, the answer is: No. Tacos and quesadillas are quite distinct from sandwiches. Sandwich comes from the US (who got them from the UK.  Although they are regularly eaten by Mexicans, they are not a deep part of Mexican heritage.

3.  We might want to know how certain dishes or techniques have spread around the globe.  Which ones have a common ancestry?  Which are merely parallel inventions? a

If you are asking whether tacos and sandwiches come from the same ancestral preparation, again the answer is: No. Tacos and quesadillas have a different ancestry from sandwiches.

In short, there is no one correct answer to the question “Are tacos and quesadilllas sandwiches?”   It all depends on what the questioner wants to know.

This does not mean that all answers are equally correct.  I could be wrong about lack of common ancestry, for example.

But enough.  That’s enough food philosophy for one day.

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One thought on “Is a Taco a Sandwich: Or How Do We Classify Foods?

  1. rajagopal sukumar

    Interesting question. Not sure i agree that all stuffed things are a late development. The samosa in India (must have come with the islamists) has been around for 1000 years atleast. Chinese dim sum possibly has been around for 1000s of years. Am i missing something?

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