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Tortilla Nation

Why Americans are all wrapped up.

12:00 AM, Sep 9, 2008 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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YOU MIGHT HAVE heard that September is National Preparedness Month. Or that it is National Cholesterol Education Month. But did you know it is also, for the first time, National Tortilla Month? In a member's resolution, California representative Devin Nunes states, "I would like to recognize September as National Tortilla Month to highlight the contributions and hard work of this important industry." As in a staple of the Latin American diet has become so dominant in the United States as to merit thirty days of dedication.

Should this warrant concern? Is the massive influx of Latin American immigrants into our country having such a profound impact on the culture as to affect even our eating habits? In financial terms, tortillas have grown into a $6 billion a year industry. Nevermind the debate over English as our official language--what about white bread as our official source of fiber? It may be too late.

In a 2002 study commissioned by the Tortilla Industry Association (yes, the tortillas have lobbyists; no, their offices are not overflowing with chips and salsa), tortillas trailed white bread in American consumption by a mere 2 percent. That being the most recent analysis, one can assume tortillas are by now either tied or have surpassed white bread. What's next? National Pupusa Month?

Of course, arguments can be made as to the fairness of comparing all tortillas, meaning flour and corn, crispy and soft, with white bread exclusively and not alongside wheat and whole grain. (A similar debate, in fact, broke out last year when another survey indicated Americans spent more on salsa than on ketchup. Technically true, but as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, salsa is more expensive, and Americans still have greater quantities of ketchup in the home than salsa.)

But more important is the understanding that the nation has never really subsisted on one particular cuisine throughout its history. The American diet has continuously undergone a process of culinary assimilation from the early days of Pennslvania Dutch cooking (favored by George Washington) to hot dogs (of German descent) to pizza (which became enormously popular after World War II). The current embrace of the tortilla is simply another turning point in this process--one worth noting and, historically speaking, long overdue.

When Hernán Cortés first encountered the Aztecs in 1519, aside from the human sacrifices and cannibalism, he noticed the natives enjoyed eating corn ground into a flat bread called, in the Nahuatl language, tlaxcalli. (According to legend, Aztec men were made from corn.) A dietary staple, tlaxcalli had been consumed by the indigenous population for thousands of years. But this was news to the Europeans--in a letter to Charles V of Spain, Cortés mentions his discovery of what became known as the tortilla.

Over the next several centuries, the tortilla made its way north. By the early 1960s, thanks to small-business entrepreneurs like Glen Bell, who, in 1962, built his first Taco Bell stand in California, the tortilla began to proliferate throughout the United States. Today, there are more than 5,800 Taco Bells across the country that generate annual sales of over $5 billion. During the 1970s and early '80s, several other casual-dining Mexican restaurants flourished across the country, most notably Chi-Chi's, founded in 1977. Their commercial success led Time magazine to run a 1982 article, "The Enchilada Millionaires," that profiled the owners of chains like Chi-Chi's and El Torito. (Incidentally, the demise of Chi-Chi's came in 2004 after an outbreak of Hepatitis A was linked to its restaurants.)

According to another study commissioned by the Tortilla Industry Association in 2004, 78 percent of high-end restaurants and 74 percent of casual eateries across the country featured tortillas on their menus. Indeed, think of any fast food chain today and tortillas (or wraps) are inevitably part of the lineup: Burger King sells the Cheesy Bacon BK Wrapper--scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, and an American or smokey melted cheese sauce, wrapped in a tortilla. Wendy's has a variety of "Go Wraps" with three types of chicken. Speaking of which, Kentucky Fried Chicken has gotten into the act with items like the Crispy Twister, involving its trademark Extra Crispy fried chicken contained in a flour tortilla.

As for McDonald's, the world's largest fast-food chain has featured wraps on its menu since 1991. But last spring, when it promoted the McSkillet Burrito, which includes scrambled eggs, peppers, onions, sausage, and potatoes, it ended up giving 2 million away in 2 days. "It tested extremely well," says Danya Proud, spokesperson for McDonald's USA. Aside from that, "since we introduced the snack wraps [last year], we've probably sold close to about 700 million." The wrap, adds Proud, "is definitely here to stay."

But why now? Joe Raffa, the chef of Oyamel in Washington, D.C., says without question, "the demographic of America is changing. The Latin population is increasing. They bring their food ways with them, like every other immigrant wave we've ever had does. It's part of how this country grows. People have seen it and they like it. So now we're incorporating it in ways beyond a strict Latin cuisine. Again, which we've done with pretty much every other immigrant cuisine that's come into the country, it's become Americanized."

Not that this is necessarily a detriment, though translating the culinary delights of Mexico for Americans has always been a challenge for chefs. Diana Kennedy, one of the world's foremost experts on Mexican food, remembers the obstacles she faced in publishing her first book, The Cuisines of Mexico, in 1972. "It was the era of the combination plate," she writes in a later compendium, "and we soon realized that just within Harpers itself there was an awful lot of convincing to do about the very existence of the authentic regional cuisines of Mexico." Her book became an instant classic and, three years later, Kennedy published The Tortilla Book, focusing on "the corn tortilla and what you can do with it, in combination with chiles, cheese, cream, and sauces, as well as meats and vegetables, to make delicious and usually inexpensive dishes." (Hard to believe now, but Kennedy notes that at the time, tortillas were still "hard to come by.")

In 1982, Kennedy's good friend and New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne described burritos as "flour tortillas stuffed with a variety of good things with a Mexican flavor--pork, cheese, chilies, avocado and the like--and served hot." And what made them great was that "there is apparently no 'classic' or traditional or hidebound formula for them. You simply start out with a flour tortilla, preferably one that is homemade, and smear it with refried beans or a blend of the beans and cheese, and from there you are on your own. You may find, as we did, that part of the pleasure in making burritos is to discover how innovative you can be."

He didn't know the half of it. What would the late food writer make of a burrito containing a corned beef Reuben (as featured on the Arby's menu)?

According to Jim Kabbani, executive director of the Tortilla Industry Association, besides demographics, there are two other reasons for the surging popularity of the tortilla: "It's a good match with a mobile lifestyle and the increase in being more health conscious on the part of most Americans." (While one can easily see the merits of a carb-reduced wrap versus white bread, the nutritious qualities of the Cheesy Bacon BK Wrapper remain questionable.)

That the wrap is a "good match with a mobile lifestyle," on the other hand, is undeniable. Order a traditional Big Breakfast at McDonald's and you will need to sit down and use a knife and fork. But with a McSkillet Burrito, your entire breakfast fits in one hand while your other hand is free to carry a briefcase, hold a cell phone, or steer a wheel. McDonald's USA spokesperson Danya Proud agrees about the "portability" of the wrap: "For us, being a restaurant that 65-plus percent of our business is done through the drive-thru, portability is a convenience by making our menu items easy for our customers to eat on the go. It's certainly one of the major attributes and criteria for the new menu products that we introduce."

So is the American wrap something to be praised or condemned, a mark of ingenuity or a bastardization? Patricia Jinich, an expert on the regional cuisines of Mexico who teaches cooking classes at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, explains the differences between the American tortilla (predominantly flour) and the Mexican tortilla (primarily corn, except in the north): "The burrita or the burra [Spanish for female donkey] has one ingredient inside. It will either have chilorio or machaca. One uses dry meat, the machaca, and the other one uses fresh meat, and it's a stew. You cook the meat until it is very tender and it's finished off in an ancho chili sauce. It's an exquisite ingredient in one freshly made tortilla. That's it."

In the United States, says Jinich, "they changed the name from burrita or burra to burro or burrito. And they completely transformed the inside because in Mexico we have one ingredient that you can really taste. Here they put everything inside of the burrito. To Mexicans, that's not a burrita, that's like a bomb. The Mexican way of eating burritas and burras is much more delicate than the burrito--you just stuff [the burrito] with a thousand things. You can barely taste what you are eating."

But even among the traditionalists, resistance may be futile. When Jinich's 9-year-old son returned from summer camp, he told his mother he learned to make tacos but that they were different from the homemade ones Jinich makes. The ones at camp, he confessed, were better--he actually prefers the store-bought hard shells or, as Jinich frightfully declares, "he likes Taco Bell tacos!"

"I would not call it a bastardization of the flour tortilla," says Joe Raffa, "because that flat bread, which is basically what it is, is not exclusively a Latin item. It is not exclusively a Mexican item. You find flat breads in the Middle East. You find flat breads in Native American culture. You find flat breads everywhere. It's not a Mexican thing. This is a worldwide thing. It's people who are making bread without yeast. The idea is not revolting. They're using a very common item that everybody likes, and that's fine. More power to them, I suppose."

Still, how many more innovations are possible? Perhaps we won't realize the full Americanization of the tortilla until we start serving Big Mac and Quarter Pounder wraps. "I know they're very aggressively looking at it," says Danya Proud, the McDonald's spokesperson. But she then clarifies, "well, not at the cheeseburger but aggressively looking at ways to incorporate wraps and extensions of existing products. But I would lose my job if I tipped my hat to that right now. You'll have to stay tuned, but there is more to come."

Could there be a Filet-O-Fish wrap in our future? We can only dream. But in the meantime, if you suddenly notice that everyone around you is eating a meal encased in a tortilla, whether it be a chalupa, gordita, or a chicken caesar salad, do not be alarmed. It was bound to happen. Eventually we'll become obsessed with something else. And by next September, National Tortilla Month will probably be replaced--by National Pupusa Month.

Victorino Matus is assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.