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My mother first came to the United States from Mexico at the age of seventeen. She’d never had—or even heard of—a burrito in her life. I’ve been to her hometown of Miguel Auza in the Mexican state of Zacatecas twice. I can verify that there are no burritos there. My abuelita thinks they’re absurdly named, and has taken to calling them burrototas. But everyone in my family eats them. They’re one of our favorite foods.
And so it was with great pleasure that I savored Gustavo Arellano’s thesis in his article in the June edition of Reason, “Taco USA: How Mexican food became more American than apple pie.“
Arellano, a Southern Californian, found himself in South Dakota visiting a university there. Longing for a taste of home, he stopped into Taco John’s and walked away with something called a Potato Olé burrito.
There is nothing remotely Mexican about Potato Olés—not even the quasi-Spanish name, which has a distinctly Castilian accent. The burrito was more insulting to me and my heritage than casting Charlton Heston as the swarthy Mexican hero in Touch of Evil. But it was intriguing enough to take back to my hotel room for a taste. There, as I experienced all of the concoction’s gooey, filling glory while chilly rain fell outside, it struck me: Mexican food has become a better culinary metaphor for America than the melting pot.
Back home, my friends did not believe that a tater tot burrito could exist. When I showed them proof online, out came jeremiads about inauthenticity, about how I was a traitor for patronizing a Mexican chain that got its start in Wyoming, about how the avaricious gabachos had once again usurped our holy cuisine and corrupted it to fit their crude palates.
In defending that tortilla-swaddled abomination, I unknowingly joined a long, proud lineage of food heretics and lawbreakers who have been developing, adapting, and popularizing Mexican food in El Norte since before the Civil War. Tortillas and tamales have long left behind the moorings of immigrant culture and fully infiltrated every level of the American food pyramid, from state dinners at the White House to your local 7-Eleven. Decades’ worth of attempted restrictions by governments, academics, and other self-appointed custodians of purity have only made the strain stronger and more resilient. The result is a market-driven mongrel cuisine every bit as delicious and all-American as the German classics we appropriated from Frankfurt and Hamburg.
It’s a fun read. And that picture? Member Humza Ahmad, the biggest burrito aficionado I’ve ever known, snapped that at a mini-meetup in San Francisco last year.