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Our Cultural Historian Explains Why Arizona Is ‘Ground Zero of Burritoness’

On Saturday, I described the selection process for the 16 restaurants in the West region of our Burrito Bracket, which we define as the western half of the United States, excluding California and splitting Texas and Oklahoma in two.


Our Burrito Selection Committee member who was assigned to scout the West is Jeffrey Pilcher, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota. He wrote “Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food” and has eaten that cuisine in just about every country where you can find it. We call Pilcher “The Academic.”

I asked him about the debate over the origin of the burrito and which state in Mexico it hails from.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester: Can you summarize a bit of the burrito’s history from your research?

Jeffrey Pilcher: The burrito as we know it is made out of a wheat flour tortilla, and wheat flour tortillas are really only found in northern Mexico, in states like Sonora and what had formerly been part of Mexico — California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

As a cultural historian, I want to have the documents. I believe that words do matter, and if we just sort of say this looked like a burrito, and therefore it is a burrito, I have problems with that. So the earliest references to an actual burrito using that name are from the early-20th century; they refer back to earlier times, but you can’t really extrapolate that too far. It’s clear that there were people using the word burrito by the beginning of the 20th century at least in California and probably in Arizona as well.

AMBJ: On the burrito cheat sheet you used when we made our selections for the Burrito Bracket, you noted, “I could not live with myself if Arizona, the historical cradle of the burrito, was not seeded.” What’s the deal with burritos in Arizona?

JP: Some of the first references we have to the wheat flour tortilla, and especially the big ones, [are from Arizona]. The burrito certainly has come to be seen as these big flour tortillas. Already by the 1850s, there are documentary references to those big wheat flour tortillas. There are also oral history accounts that describe the artistic ways in which they were prepared. So that’s why I sort of insist on Arizona as a ground zero of burritoness. But also, I have to confess, if I had been the California regional expert, I’d probably be saying the same thing about California, so take it for what it’s worth.

AMBJ: The burrito’s origins come from both sides of what is now the U.S.-Mexico border. It seems to have grown out of traditions in both countries. As a food historian, do you see the burrito as a Mexican food or a Mexican-American food?

JP: [Mexican-American scholar] Américo Paredes referred to “Greater Mexico” and “Mexicans wherever they are living.” The U.S. Southwest is very much a part of this greater Mexico. For people living in the Southwest, there’s often a greater sense of connection with people living across the border than people in Washington, D.C., or New York, or Mexico City or southern Mexico. There’s a sense of that being a region, a border region, whereas people in Mexico would consider Mexican-Americans not to be Mexican.

I find that as something of a false divide. We should think of the Mexican-American food in the North as a regional food. Burritos are just a northern Mexican food. In my mind, the only reason we make a distinction between people who are on either side of the Rio Grande River is because of nationalist ideology. It’s not about any culture. It’s a way of drawing boundaries and saying they are not like us.

AMBJ: So in a sense, that’s a Mexican-American region.

JP: Yeah, but Sonora is not part of the United States, even though they have more contact with U.S. culture and more influence from the United States.

AMBJ: Your region, the West, covers a huge amount of landmass — the western half of the United States, excluding California, but including Alaska and Hawaii. What can you say about the burrito prowess of the West?

JP: In some ways, I was struck by the lack of what we might call “literary” production, the underdeveloped Yelpness in the West. There are a lot more Yelpers in California than there are in Arizona or New Mexico. But if you’re looking on taste, I think you’ll find that the foods of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado do hold their own in this national competition.

AMBJ: In your book “Planet Taco,” you describe how Mexican food became a global phenomenon. What’s the international scene for burritos?

JP: It’s one of the foods that travels, and it travels in part because the wheat flour tortilla moves very well. Like the taco shell, it’s something you can spread around. If you have pita bread or some flatbread like that, you can make a burrito. So I think that’s one of the reasons the burrito spreads, and the other one is, of course, that a lot of the people who are spreading Mexican food around the world are coming out of California, where it’s all about the burrito.

AMBJ: As a food historian, you’ve written about the origins of Mexican food, its history in the U.S. and abroad. What do you think people will say in the future about the importance of burritos at this moment in time?

JP: So, one thing is that I think the burrito is in some ways on a decline. There’s growing interest in foods that are seen as more authentic, which in some ways is unfair. It’s a reverse discrimination of the nationalist image that Mexicans have of Mexican-American food, but nevertheless, Americans increasingly want something that’s from southern Mexico. So I think that the burrito is going to slip. And what’s going to keep it alive is precisely those, be it college campuses or working-class restaurants where people want a cheap meal, and that’s really the future of the burrito.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.