As we waited for a table at the popular Mex-American destination, I watched in horror as a man stripped the foil from his burrito.
"Maybe he doesn’t like the two layers, likes to play it fast-and-loose," we wondered, as the first thin sheath of aluminum was discarded in an untidy pile on the table to his right. But he continued, denuding his meal of the only thing that separated him and his lap from the disaster of a hot, beany mess. He completed his work, and laying the pale, zaftig trunk of his dinner upon his plate, took up his fork.
"I can’t watch."
So we found what seems to be the only restaurant in Seattle wrapping their burritos in foil, no small feat in a land where the burrito mojado is mostly implicit, unless you want a dry tube that just sort of lies there, a meal you’ll end up dousing in salsa nonetheless, turning the tortilla into a cold, squidgy mess that ought have spent several hot seconds under the salamander. Munching on chips and shaking margarita salt from my fingers, I briefly considered offering to teach a class on how the elegant design of a fully wrapped meal rendered flatware and plates de trop. As my colleague received his burrito, I noted his furrowed brow. Picking it up, he could tell. I poked it: too soft, not packed to be eaten out of hand. I was right to have ordered a torta.
* * *
As much as we would like to say that we are citizens of the world, we’ll always have the opportunity to prove ourselves hopelessly provincial, as we look to raise a shared eyebrow to anyone else born within 100 miles of our old homeland.
"Eh," the look will say. "Look at that guy who is clearly not from a place where they do what we do. What a rube. Let’s not tell him, he wouldn’t get it."
It is a deplorable trait, but being human, we are deplorable. As Beckett wrote, “You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that.” We won’t get into what Beckett must have craved, as an Irishman in France, but anyone who has watched the French eat hamburgers with knife and fork has the faculties for understanding the peculiarities of food regionalism.
And so it is that here, burritos are on a plate, unless you want to go to Chipotle, but it is not for us to wonder why anyone would go to such a place when there is so much fine regional food to be had elsewhere.
No, burritos are not proper Mexican food, and saying something is “Mexican food” is about as correct as saying “Chinese food”—but that doesn’t stop me from missing the desire to feel the heft of a burrito in a plastic basket and know that my nutritional requirements have been met for a full 24 hours. Food is about place, and while I’ll occasionally miss that I can’t pick up a log of food far greater than anything I’d soberly agree to consume, I can enjoy the dozens of truly great moles and handmade corn tortillas that can be found around Seattle. Here, where I have been an unfortunate witness to a thing called a “burrito bowl,” there is great cuisine, but also a regionalism that accepts a flour tortilla for tacos. Other places, other mores.
Once guilty for taking an Italian to task for putting cheese into tortilla de patatas, I received a look that said “Don’t be that asshole.” My Italian friend should know, coming from a culture where diverging from the food norm is tantamount to kicking one’s grandmother. To change a recipe that has been handed down is to challenge history—and why would anyone want to do that? Everyone who leaves “home” takes a version of it with them in the food that they make or crave, but like anything within memory, there is much room to get it wrong or fudge the details. Writing about literature, author Marilynne Robinson pointed out that regionalism “makes people feel that they live in a peculiar place.”
While I’m not going to attempt to mimic the craftsmanship of La Taquería or Taqueria Cancún anytime soon, I’m going to continue to look for it everywhere here, so that I can, for a moment, indulge in my own peculiarity.