The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Burritos! Are you rolled up all snuggly like one? And how many times have those dang beans been fried? Let’s unwrap some burritos facts and history.
Lie #1: They’re Mexican Food
Kinda? Ish? Once? They certainly started out as Mexican food, but burritos as we know and love them today have been very much shaped in the U.S.
There are various origin stories and folktales about the burrito’s origins (and how it came to be named after a little donkey — either because they were all laden like a donkey, portable enough to eat on a donkey, sold off of a donkey or sold to kids that were contemptibly called donkeys), but like most things, it probably came about by someone deciding to monetize what was already going on. Around the northern Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, wrapping leftovers in a flour tortilla became a thing, and then eventually someone started specifically making and selling food like that.
(Some Mexicans favor tacos over burritos due to a corn tortilla being more genuinely Mexican — flour was a European addition. As burrito expert Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, puts it, “It was the Spaniards who were too dumb to grow corn.”)
These Mexican burritos were generally pretty small, and only had a few fillings. Those huge fuckin’ things the size of a weightlifter’s thigh, where a whole day’s worth of food is somehow rolled up in a way that seems to defy the laws of physics, are an American creation. After burritos made it to the States via Mexican workers and became popular with Americans, they started to change. First came frozen versions, and then came enormous ones.
In the Mission District of San Francisco in the early 1960s, someone — possibly Febronio Ontiveros of the restaurant El Faro — had the bright idea of filling a burrito with basically everything. SFGate describes it thusly: “Whereas burritos in Southern California, the Southwest and Northern Mexico may contain perhaps just two or three items, the Mission burrito puts an entire plate of food — meat, beans, rice, vegetables, salsas, sour cream, everything — inside a tortilla.” This was also when the assembly-line method of putting a burrito together originated, later popularized by chains like Chipotle.
Speaking of Chipotle, it’s an interesting chain. The American founder, Steve Ells, had no intention of starting a huge burrito chain, and was hoping to make enough money selling Mission-style burritos in Denver to open a fine-dining restaurant. It was only the runaway success of the burritos that changed those plans. Ells made it with nothing more than an idea, a feeling and a $1.5 million loan from his pharmaceutical executive father. Other interesting Chipotle numbers: They make about $4 million a year just from unclaimed gift cards, and earlier this year, they had to pay a record $25 million fine for making loads of people sick.
Anyway, San Diego and L.A. developed their own styles of burritos, while a thousand miles East, burritos simultaneously evolved into sauce-covered Tex-Mex versions. (The chimichanga, a deep-fried burrito, supposedly got both its beginning and its name in 1922 when Arizona chef Monica Flin accidentally dropped a burrito into the fryer. She started to shout “Chingada!” — roughly equivalent to “Ah fuck!” — but course-corrected mid-stream, changing it to “Chimichanga”, a nonsense word along the lines of “thingamajig.”)
So, while burritos definitely began as Mexican food, give a foil-wrapped six-pound beast to a dude eating on a donkey in Juárez in 1920 and he won’t know what hit him.
Lie #2: “I’m All Snuggled Up Like a Burrito”
Winter is on its way, and getting all snuggly is nice, but not at the expense of the truth. You’re not snuggled up like a burrito. You might — might — be snuggled up like the contents of a burrito, but the burrito itself includes its tortilla, surely, and that tends to either be unwrapped or tightly bound in foil.
Nevertheless, online retailers — there’s a pretty popular one named after a big-ass South American river, for instance — have umpteen variations of “burrito blankets,” giant circular blankets printed to look like tortillas.
The thing is, that’s not a burrito blanket, is it? It’s a tortilla blanket. A burrito is a lot more specific than just “x, wrapped in a tortilla.” Some things are defined by their wrapping — anything between two slices of bread is a sandwich, and if something’s covered in gift wrap, it’s reasonable to expect it to be a gift. But loads of stuff is wrapped in tortillas, not just burritos. Who’s to say the baby isn’t being the chicken in a chicken wrap?
Plus, lots of other flatbreads look enough like tortillas that it could easily be one of them. When it comes to flatbreads, round and off-white with brownish spots is a pretty popular look. The blanket could be modeled after a chapati, a paratha, a lavash, a naan, a poli or a lovely piece of tandoor-cooked Afghan bread. It could just about be an Italian borlengo or piadina, or an unleavened Norwegian flatbrød. A Polish flatbread enthusiast might see your blanket and think, “Hey, that looks like a podplomyk!” Just as their Egyptian counterpart might remark on your bedding resembling a bataw. “Awesome rashush blanket!” says your Yemeni friend.
And so on. You’re snuggled up like something that has been wrapped in a flatbread. Sleep well.
Lie #3: “I Like Refried Beans. That’s Why I Wanna Try Fried Beans, Because Maybe They’re Just As Good and We’re Just Wasting Time. You Don’t Have to Fry Them Again, After All.”
Are refried beans really re-fried though, as in fried and then fried again? Some foods are fried twice — it’s a good way of getting extra-crispy fries, for instance, or a perfectly-formed crust on fried chicken — but those things are both very different to what one desires from refried beans. So what’s going on?
The “re” in “refried beans” doesn’t mean the same as the one in, say, “rearrange” or “reassess.” It’s a crappy translation. In Spanish, the beans are known as “frijoles refritos.” “Frijoles” means beans, “fritos” means fried, so it’s easy enough to assume that a re- before it means it’s already happened. But, in this case, the meaning of the Spanish prefix “re” is more like “very.” If you ask someone how they are and they say “rebién,” it means they are very well, rather than that they are well again after having been really, really ill. (They might have been, though! Ask!)
So, in short, it just means that refried beans aren’t merely fried, they’re hella fried.
Lie #4: “Burritos Are Like Blunts: If You Can’t Roll, Get A Bowl”
Things rhyming is fun. But, if you accept a burrito bowl as being a burrito, what even is a burrito? It becomes a bit existential. Replace every plank on the Ship of Theseus, and is it the same ship? Remove what makes a burrito a burrito, and what do you have?
A burrito bowl — a collection of the delicious components that you would generally expect to find within a burrito, served without a tortilla — surely, surely, isn’t a burrito. Being rolled in a tortilla is generally accepted as one of the things that makes a burrito a burrito. A breakfast burrito, for instance, is pretty much just breakfast foods rolled into a tortilla. Remove the tortilla to make a “breakfast burrito bowl,” and you just have the original breakfast from before the burrito idea was hatched.
A slice of cheese, served on its own, isn’t a “sandwich plate,” is it? Come on. Grow up.
Lie #5: Jesus Couldn’t Microwave A Burrito So Hot He Himself Could Not Eat It
Hey, have you ever seen this show The Simpsons? It’s quite good, you should watch it (or at least, the ones made in the 20th century).
This question — “Could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot he himself could not eat it?” — is a delicious rephrasing of a philosophical question known as the omnipotence paradox. Could an all-powerful god create a stone so heavy that they couldn’t lift it? Being all-powerful means being able to lift anything, so no, but being all-powerful means being able to do anything, so yes. It’s quite the puzzler, one that has been debated by theologians for centuries — Paul the Apostle, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Thomas Acquinas have all ummed and aahed over it. It’s impossible to answer. A real melon-scratcher.
However, this version — in The Simpsons’ medical marijuana episode, “Weekend At Burnsies,” featuring Phish — is answerable. Microwaves are pretty incredible things, which can easily create plasma and ball lightning at temperatures of 10,000 degrees, while not really heating the air around it at all. But microwave a burrito (or, indeed, anything) for long enough and the microwave will set on fire. It might not get so hot that Jesus can’t eat it, but it won’t be a burrito anymore, it’ll be a pile of ashes. In your face, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, you fifth-century didn’t-anticipate-microwaves idiot!