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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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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."