A Factual and Emotional History of the Burrito
I ate my first burrito after my first boyfriend broke up with me. This is our story. (Me and the burrito.)
Image by Kat Aileen
The end of my life's first great love occurred within moments of the discovery of my second. This will perhaps sound less callous when you note that my life's second great love affair has been burritos. There have been new relationships since that first love of course, but they've all been either equal or secondary to my relationship with some combination of refried beans, cheese, guacamole, and tortilla.
The word burrito means "little donkey." The reason for this is unknown. The most popular theory is that it was served out of the back of donkey carts. Certainly donkey has never been an ingredient. Some theories suggest burritos look like the bed rolls donkeys often carried, and more creative types have suggested they look like donkey's ears... to be honest everyone seems to be dancing around the "little donkey" idea without much guidance.
Paul and I met at university. He was part-Mexican, as he told me often. He was very proud of this. The purported ratio of Mexican to non-Mexican parts was unclear, and shifted throughout the course of our relationship, as I met more and more of his family members who turned out not to be Mexican at all. He was 50/50 until I met his parents, a Scottish-Canadian man named, literally, Robbie Burns, and a blonde woman with a gap in her teeth that she claimed was lucky. He hovered around 25 percent until I met his grandmother, who had in fact been born in Mexico, but had run away to Canada with her European high school teacher at eighteen. In the end, I think we settled on one eighth. Yet somehow, from our first meal together in the autumn of 2006 to our second-last in the fall of 2009, we did not consume a single burrito.
Mexico does not actually consume that many burritos per year. While the dish is traditional to some areas in the north, in the south of Mexico it exists almost exclusively for tourists. What you think of when you picture a burrito is basically an impostor food.
Burritos are, I think, the perfect comfort food. Warm and soft and filling, a light crunch provided by lettuce and some vegetables to complement the overall oozy texture of guacamole, beans, melted cheese, and sour cream. The kind of thing you can't really eat alone. Someone needs to be there, a testament to the fact that a burrito is a choice you are making, not a lifestyle. You have friends and a job and a life outside of this dimly-lit restaurant with the linoleum floor and the folding chairs, and you will return to it shortly, but first you will do something truly unspeakable to the foil-wrapped parcel in front of you containing enough food to reasonably feed three full-sized adult humans.
The Diccionario de Mexicanismos has an entry for the burrito as early as 1895. The entry states that a burrito is "A rolled tortilla with meat or other ingredients inside, called 'coçito' in Yucatán and 'taco' in the city of Cuernavaca and in Mexico City." There is some suggestion that burritos are a war food, brought into America during the Mexican/American strife of the early 1900s. There is very little documentation of the burrito's early days. Presumably all surrounding paper was used as napkins.
Paul and I met at a house party. A friend of mine in first year was dating a guy who was-if you can believe it-in second. He had his own house and we could. not. stand it. They were throwing a back-to-school party and we (young, eager freshman that we were) got there embarrassingly early. So early that when a tall, handsome, partially Mexican man answered the door, he was not yet wearing a shirt. He had a six pack. (This mattered, at the time. I was still being weaned off of Josh Hartnett posters ripped out of YM.) The six pack later told me that his name was Paul. and that he was shirtless because "all" of his clothes were in the wash. We found we shared a drama class and made a habit of having lunch together afterwards. When I went on a few dates with one of his friends, he made fun of me. One night we had planned to meet friends at a local club, in the middle of the gross Canadian winter. Everyone cancelled. "Should we still go?" he asked. "Sure."
The first mention of a burrito in the Los Angeles Times wasn't until 1958, the same year that the term initially appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary. The almost 60 years of silence between the Diccionario reference and these references were hopefully the work of an Illuminati-style secret gang with delicious but nefarious intentions.
The morning after that Ale House night we made breakfast and I wore his sweatpants. We annoyed our friends for the rest of the semester, and presumably several years beyond. Through some teen romance voodoo we spent the summer in Italy, living and working in a dried up ski town in the Alps for a now-defunct government program that took bureaucrats' children away from them while they weren't in school. We taught English four hours a day and had sex for the remaining twenty. We travelled to France, drinking wine on the beach and failing to smoke cigarettes, 19 and alone and the most good looking we would ever be in our lives. One night we took the train to Monaco, won several hundred Euros playing roulette and spent it all on champagne. We said "I love you" to each other when we got back to Canada because we had both been intimidated by the raw, unfiltered romance of the European setting. I turned 20, then 21.
An authentic burrito is actually a rather plain mix of beans, meat, and rice or cheese. Chipotle has lied to us all. The over stuffed, multi-ingredient, aluminum foil heavy diapers you think of as a burrito are known as Mission Burritos and originated in San Francisco in the 1960s. It is predicted that by 2018, Chipotle's annual sales will be more than $6.5 billion dollars in the US alone.
Throughout my entire two and a half years with Paul, I did not eat a single burrito. Not one. I knew they existed, of course. There was a Mexican restaurant in our little university town-Tacos El Asador. Our house was across the street and still I did not go there. Poutine was really the It Food for students at the time. Now it is something called "poonair," a combination of poutine and doner that sounds like a great idea if you are 18 and drunk and don't know how bad it's going to be to have a body later. I ate all of the individual ingredients required for a complete burrito often, separately. I knew my way around a plate of homemade nachos better than most. I had experienced the odd taco night and was an accomplished fajita chef. I had a real boner for sour cream.
The frozen burrito was invented in 1964 in California and was an instant hit with gross-os everywhere. "Breakfast burritos" were invented some time in the early 1970s, for the same gross-os.
A year older than me, Paul got into an overseas grad school program midway through my third year. I sat with him in the campus newspaper office while he did his entrance interview. They liked him, I could tell. "Well," I offered, when he got off the phone. "We could break up. England is very far away. We could get back together when I come over next year." He would not hear of it."What's the point?" he said. "We're going to be together a long time, next year included."
In October 1977, the face of Jesus appeared in a flour tortilla in Lake Arthur, New Mexico. The thumb-sized Jehovah-shaped mark in the tortilla stopped the production of Maria Rubio's husband's breakfast burrito. Within two years, over 35,000 people had visited the holy relic, which came to be known as the "Miracle Tortilla." Mrs. Rubio quit her job and worked full time presiding over the "Shrine of the Holy Tortilla."
In November of 1977 a competing Miracle Tortilla appeared in the skillet of a Phoenix woman named Ramona Barreras. This time it was not just the face of the saviour, but the letters KJC and B, which stood, according to Ms. Barreras, for "King Jesus Is Coming Back."
Several years later, in March of 1983, Paula Rivera of Hidalgo Texas found the face of Jesus in yet another corn tortilla and attempted to start a third, competing shrine. Pilgrims were loyal to the original Miracle Tortilla, and Ms. Rivera's shrine did not last long.
Months pass and it is Paul's 22nd birthday. His plane leaves the next day. We are celebrating this milestone with his family, at a Mexican restaurant. Paul's Mom had said "of course," after the words "Mexican restaurant" on the phone. I do not see why "of course" we are going there but do not really care. Mentally, I am already about two weeks into the tragic but beautiful yearnings of long distance, sending and receiving gorgeous love letters, pining dramatically by windows and in cafes, beatifically alone.
We arrive a few minutes ahead of everyone else and settle into a booth, looking over the menu. "I think I'll get a burrito," I say. "I don't think we should stay together when I go to England," he says.
Black bean burritos are also a good source of dietary fiber and phytochemicals.
I had a few seconds to think about Paul's pronouncement. Mostly I made a high-frequency noise audible only to dogs and heartbroken teenage girls. The noise morphed into a strangled but bright "HELLO!" as I held back tears and shrieked a greeting at his parents, grandmother and little brother, who had arrived together, all at once. I made small talk about my fourth year courses with the parents, discussed the menu with the grandmother, and asked the brother about his World of Warcraft stats. Paul tried to hold my hand under the table. This gesture was absolutely not returned.
In 2006 Panera Bread attempted unsuccessfully to prevent the opening of a Qdoba Mexican Grill, citing a contract granting Panera exclusive sandwich rights in the mall where Qdoba hoped to build. Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke heard testimony from chefs, culinary historians, and a high ranking agricultural official before ruling that a burrito is not, legally, a sandwich. The delineating factor was quantity: a sandwich is two slices of bread, a burrito a single tortilla.
While Paul's Dad ordered a round of drinks for everyone, I went to the bathroom and cried, ugly and loudly, for a long time. Not too long, obviously-I had to get back upstairs for margaritas. I spent a few minutes wiping my face clean of smeared mascara and the shattered pieces of my girlish dreams for the future, and returned to the table.
Our food had already arrived. Paul was staring at me and I knew he knew I had been crying. He gave me an angsty look that said, "Sorry." I gave him a look that said, "Kill yourself." I slid into the booth beside him, stopping at enough of a distance that I saw his grandmother notice. "I've never had a burrito before,' I said cheerily, trying to not to blush or cry or stab Paul in the face with a fork.
The original Miracle Tortilla met its end in 2005, when Mrs. Rubio's granddaughter took it to school for Show and Tell. It was dropped by a careless student, and the 30 year-old tortilla shattered instantly. The pieces now live in a special drawer in New Mexico, but I imagine they are not looked at often.
The anticipated weeks of exquisite longing for my overseas love were replaced in my imagination with visions of a future ruined. Obviously, my life was over. I was 21, alone, and had been betrayed by my True Love. It did not matter that the food had arrived. I would never know true happiness and was destined to die alone, probably soon. I pictured my sad, single corpse, laid out with pitying family members around me. cold and-holy shit. Good lord. I am sure I don't need to remind you what it feels like to taste a burrito for the first time.
Amazing, in short. Incredible. All my favourite sauces, fillings and flavours had been brought together and wrapped gently in the arms of my other favourite thing, warm bread. I could not believe I had never had one before. I ate quietly but with what I presume was visible purpose. For the first time, I experienced that thing where it's like, should I keep eating this burrito? I'm pretty full and I probably can't but maybe I should just try? Just because the best stuff probably collected in the bottom and I won't eat all of it but... oh there it goes, looks like the whole thing is gone I guess?
I did not need to deal with the Paul thing anymore. I needed extra cilantro. I was not bothered by heartbreak, but had a pressing and extreme interest in more green salsa. Sure, my chest cavity felt like someone had pooped in it (a phrase I actually used in one of our later terrible, melodramatic emails), but how bad could the world be, really, if this sheer amount of sour cream could exist as part of a single meal for one person? I was fine, he was fine, it would all be fine.
I read a website today which assured me "it is unlikely the Aztecs ever made anything approximating a burrito, but I bet they would have liked it if they had." I agree.
When the plates were cleared, Paul's parents brought out a birthday cake. I abstained; I was too full. I sang "Happy Birthday" to him with his family and may even have smiled for a picture. I do not know where that picture is now, but I feel sorry for it.
Paul moved to England the next day, and a few months later I started seeing an old friend who became and stayed my boyfriend. During the first year we dated, the route between our two houses was home to 6 burrito restaurants. You know what they say: when God closes a door, he opens an artisanal Mexican-fusion food truck.
This is an excerpt from Monica Heisey's I Can't Believe It's Not Better, out September 1 on Red Deer Press.