The Blog

Tortilla Nation

Why Americans are all wrapped up.

12:00 AM, Sep 9, 2008 • By VICTORINO MATUS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.