Four Big Facts The Daily Got Wrong In Its History of the Burrito

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Photo by Professor Salt
The cylindrical god in its El Toro Bravo manifestation

Here's to hoping my Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America is hitting the cultural caliente list at the right time--and it is, if you go by recent histories on Mexican food published by mainstream publications. I know Smithsonian Magazine is working on something because they called me for comment about the tamale wagons of 1900s California (but never got my comment . . .). Its blog did a good piece on the history of Fritos, and The Daily, Rupert Murdoch's iPad-only publication, just published a history of the burrito.

But that Daily article, like most Murdoch-owned news efforts, is laughably wrong, relying on half-truths and Wikipidia-ed myths to spin a tale suitable for a gullible public.

To wit:

1. The Burrito Was Not Invented Around the Time of the Mexican-American War

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Another burrito

No one will ever know with certainty where the burrito was invented, and author Caille Millner uses the classic wiggly answer all food historians (including myself) trots out: The burrito is a product of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. But on an exact date, Millner is shockingly more precise: "The burrito was invented around the same time as the United States took over [half of] Mexico in the 1848 Mexican-American War."

Not even close. If that were the case, the burrito dish would've been a part of American letters from that point onward--but the earliest mention of a burrito in the English language dates to only 1934, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, while the earliest reference found in Mexican books dates to 1898. Of course, people have been stuffing food inside tortillas since time immemorial, so the absence of the burrito's name doesn't necessarily mean the dish wasn't around--but then that means we'd have to go back to the time of initial contact. For Millner to assert such a precise time peg is just bizarre.

2. El Cholo Did Not Popularize the Burrito
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Their pioneering nachos--burritos? Not so much



El Cholo Cafe, of course, is the second-oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in the United States, and it did popularize nachos on the West Coast. Millner also asserts "the first burrito to become well-known commercially stateside was served" at El Cholo.

Only problem? There is no evidence to back up that claim. A Taste of History, a collection of El Cholo's history and recipes, mentions nothing about its pioneering efforts with burritos, nor offers any recipes, even though the book meticulously recounts all the dishes the place introduced over the years, along with the decade in which they debuted. More crucially, the book contains full El Cholo menus from the 1930s onward--and its first burrito doesn't appear until the 1970s. Even then, it was a chimichanga.

3. Glen Bell Never Cared Much About Burritos

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The Daily article mentions that Taco Bell is one of the last places to buy a simple burrito of beans and cheese--somewhat true. But Millner then writes that Bell "learned what made an authentic burrito simply by looking at what his neighbors in San Bernardino were eating."

This is speculation based on the fact that Bell's first foray into Mexican food was in San Bernardino's West Side barrio. But Bell didn't give a damn about learning how to make burritos. His self-commissioned biography, Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story, devotes little attention to the burrito--and Bell never sold any burritos at his original San Bernardino restaurants, Bell's Burgers and Taco-Tia. Taco Titan goes on at great lengths about how Bell spied on his neighbors in order to learn how to make hard-shell tacos and mentions that the second Mexican dish Bell introduced was a cup of pinto beans--but no burritos. Bell didn't start making burritos until his first Taco Bell--and that opened in Downey, not San Bernardino

4. The Fat, Mission-Style Burrito Only Won the Burrito Wars In the 1990s Because of Chipotle--And Not Any Time Sooner
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Millner, who used to write for the San Francisco Chronicle, devotes some space to the Mission burrito, the wonderful edible brick of SanFran's Mission District. She gets the right genesis story and pegs it to the 1960s. But then she writes, "That [massive burrito] turned out to be the winning formula: Americans have been feasting on overstuffed burritos ever since."

Not even close to true. That type of burrito has only been ascendant since the mid-1990s, since the rise of Denver-based Chipotle. Before that, the burrito that ruled was the very Taco Bell burrito she mentioned earlier. And even then, the burrito was hardly popular in the United States--but you'll have to wait for that blow-by-blow for my book.

Some of ustedes may accuse me of nitpicking, and that's fine. But there are far too many ludicrous origin stories surrounding Mexican food history (Rita Hayworth as the inspiration for the margarita? Please), and having studied the damn subject for three years, I need to debunk at all times. Now, preorder my book!

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20 comments
jim3k
jim3k

Well, Gustavo, I think part of what you say is mistaken.  You said: "That type of burrito has only been ascendant since the mid-1990s, since the rise of Denver-based Chipotle. Before that, the burrito that ruled was the very Taco Bell burrito she mentioned earlier. And even then, the burrito was hardly popular in the United States."  Maybe true nationally.  I'm from Arizona and really didn't notice them there in the '60s.

But, you don't seem aware of the taco shops in Los Angeles which were in operation from the '50s.  A major example is Tito's Tacos in Culver City--still an icon.  I was led to it in 1973 when I moved there.  Originally beans, the burrito menu branched out to all the main Mexican meats.  (Tito's uses mainly chile con carne--very messy and very good.)  It was a popular place to sneak away to for lunch.)


So I know that the burrito was going strong in LA in 1973, not the 1990s.  (As far as El Cholo is concerned, I can't say...In those days, their Margarita dominated everything on their menu.)

 

The story we heard in the '70s was that a Mexican cook at  taco stand or shop in East LA had invented the burrito after the War, but no one ever pinpointed it.  I know there are histories that claim it was created in Chihuahua in the 1800s, but given its lack of references in the writings of the time, that seems unlikely.  However, soft tacos aren't far off, so maybe it grew from that. 

Inglewood resident
Inglewood resident

As always, I enjoy reading your columns and look forward to reading your book. However, I will order the book from my local bookstore (Zahra's) in Inglewood, CA. I give them all my book business.Keep writing and setting the record straight.

DanGarion
DanGarion

Gustavo... You want to know why burritos are so awesome?

Flour Tortillas! ;)

jk640
jk640

John and Ken love Burritos. 

Da Judge
Da Judge

In the late sixties, south bay L.A. county surfers were already driving to East LA to devour legendary overstuffed burritos at El Tepeyac on Evergreen and other venerable institutions. I'm sure O.C. had similar places...

Marti Reed
Marti Reed

Growing up in Albuquerque in the 1950's, I remember chimichangas, but not burritos. My first recollection of burritos (naked chimichangas--why would anybody bother to eat one of them???--was my opinion) was in the early 1970's in Arizona.  

I'm now looking at Erna Fergusson's classic "Mexican Cookbook," originally published in 1934 in Albuquerque, and it has a recipe for burritos, but they're way different. You start by making a thicker-than-normal corn tortilla and then you "make a depression in the middle of each and fill with chicharrones... Bake in a moderate oven."  I don't ever remember encountering one of these in person!

In her cookbook "Southwest Flavor," Adela Amador, who was born in 1924 and grew up in Placitas (north of Albuquerque), writes that her mother made flour tortillas but not corn tortillas, which her grandmother looked down on because they "came from Mexico." They made tortillas gorditas--"thick fat ones, so that they can be opened and filled, making a sandwich... At one time they were used as spoons. Before there were spoons, there were tortillas."

Of my three most-used Mexican/New Mexican cookbooks besides Fergusson's. none of them have a recipe for burritos.  I wasn't even aware of that until I just now looked. Neither does my file box of my grandmother's recipes, which she got from her Native American, Hispanic, and Mexican friends in Santa Fe.

And now we eat them all the time!!!  But I hadn't thought about where they came from.  It may very well be that Inabigway is right, that what we now eat as burritos entered New Mexico with the balloon fiesta. I had never thought of that. It would make sense.  Something hand-held and hot and full of green chile--perfect for that freezing early morning! My dad did the weather for the Balloon Fiesta for 16 years, and those burritos were definitely a part of our survival mechanisms.

Speaking of chile, Amador also writes that when she went to California during WWII to work in a factory, people didn't eat chile there.  The food was more Spanish/Mediterranean.  Her friends thought her food was very weird. She sees much of what we now eat in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona as having come from Mexico, and relatively recently. But New Mexico cuisine is very different from that of its neighbors. And I put chile on everything. I was raised on it!

Interesting!!

Kbc10
Kbc10

If El Cholo (est. 1923) is the second oldest conituoisly operating Mexican restaurant in the U.S., what is supposed to be the oldest? El Fenix in Dallas was established about 1917 I think...

Bozo
Bozo

Gustavo is so humble, he deserves the Nobel Prize or something.

Rick
Rick

When are you going to do a ten best burrito's in the O.C???..................be sure and include Carnitas Los Reyes on Tustin Ave in Orange........

Inabigway
Inabigway

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fesita is allegedly the father of the breakfast burrito. How do you feed people breakfast on the go. Several vendors claim to be the first to serve them.

Joe
Joe

Since the late 70's/early 80's I've eating just wonderful big ol' handheld burritos at stand-alone shack in Pomona on Indian Hill Blvd. called Juanita's.  The recipe hasn't changed in decades; very unique flavor that I've never found anywhere else, and those bad boys are still less than $5.00.  I must drive out there this weekend.

 

Marc Hutton
Marc Hutton

Not sure about the burrito argument. As a poor undergrad in the late 80's we were eating over stuffed mission style burritos in of all places Huntington WV at a place called Hulios ( yes that is how the spelled it) along with cheap pitchers of beer and papas frites con caso azul dressing. LOL doesn't matter though I had burritos!

909Jeff
909Jeff

I just want to publicly thank you for sending me to El Castillito during my last trip to the city... My Wife was less than enthusiastic though that we had to walk past an old lady yelling something over a loudspeaker in Spanish at the entrance to the BART station, and that the shop was next to the Mission Adult Superstore! The burritos though were phenomenal.

Joe
Joe

OK, just  looking at that picture of the El Toro Bravo carnitas burrito made it inevitable that I am going to pick one up one for dinner tonight.    Gustavo, I know your book is a history book and not a "recipe book", but are there any recipes in it?

DanGarion
DanGarion

I thought burritos were invented by Chipotle... No wait sorry, I meant the Mission District in San Francisco! :)

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

DO IT, SON! and gracias for the kind words!

Sent from my pinche iPhone

DanGarion
DanGarion

Thanks for sharing so much information! That was really cool to read.

Juan Contreras
Juan Contreras

Marti,response to your comment, "You start by making a thicker-than-normal corn tortilla and then you "make a depression in the middle of each and fill with chicharrones... Bake in a moderate oven."This is how I remember my abuelita making burrtios for me and my brother. The smae way her Abuelita thought her how to make them. So when I came here to the USA I was surprised to find the modern style Burrito we all know and love now.

nancy509
nancy509

@Marc Hutton God, how I miss Hulio's!  I first had a burrito there around '83-'84.  Loved the fries with blue cheese dressing too.

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