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