Maybe it's just a symptom of our collective comfort-food obsession. Or, the burgeoning online food mediasphere and its insatiable craving for content. Or, a combination of factors. But, lately, an awful lot of time and energy has been devoted to analyzing and over-analyzing the humblest of foodstuffs.
Case in point: the burrito. The simple street food that often occupies so much of our stomachs now seems to be encroaching on an increasing amount of brain space, as well.
Consider The Guardian's recent 1,730-word how-to, which seeks, however subjectively, to parse through the popular stuffed and rolled tortilla's proper construction ("no cheese sauce…no pickled jalapenos…no ludicrous pineapple") and even its procedural pitfalls ("just standing to eat a burrito, is fraught with debris-danger"). And, in classically cheeky British pop-journalism fashion, this outwardly informative article inevitably devolves into innuendo: "You want a solid, cylindrical six inches with a filling-girth of around three inches. Basically, it needs to impress without intimidating, it needs to feel solid in your hand but not be too big to handle."
A more serious example is the months-long scientific-ish study by ESPN's FiveThirtyEight site, which applies a sports fan's obsession with statistics toward settling a longstanding foodie dispute. That is, the identity of the best damn burrito in America. The resulting NCAA-tournament-style "Burrito Bracket" contest involved extensive data-mining (using stats compiled from 67,391 Yelp-reviewed restaurants), expert input (including the discerning opinions of seasoned dining critic Bill Addison and celebrity chef David Chang), first-hand observation and a standardized scoring system (as performed by the site's designated "burrito correspondent," Anna Maria Barry-Jester).
After a whole summer collecting and breaking down all that information, the effort ultimately culiminated in a somewhat predictable conclusion. The winner of America's best burrito is…in San Francisco. In the Mission District. Invariably. More precisely, the honor goes to the riceless, "melt-in-your-mouth" carnitas burrito at local institution La Taqueria.
"I really stand by the result," says Barry-Jester, who logged more than 20,000 miles visiting each of the 64 burrito joints that eventually qualified for the nationwide tourney bracket. (That figure doesn't include a stop in Hawaii, she notes: "It may be more like 35,000.")
"The first bite of one of their burritos really is a monumental culinary experience," Barry-Jester says of the eventual victor, La Taqueria, however unsurprising it might be. "But," she adds, "I'm very happy that, along the way, we uncovered places that are not so well-known and don't get the national accolades." (Taqueria Tlaxcalli in the Bronx, N.Y., for one, was among four semi-finalists.)
Any doubts about the serious-mindedness with which Barry-Jester approached her highly important work are quickly erased when you see the video (embedded below) where she surgically dismantles an insipid Taco Bell specimen using an exacto knife from a field medic's dissection kit — purchased strictly for this very purpose. "I wanted to do a visual analysis of the burritos, in addition to the criteria we set for tasting," she explains.
Surely, after such thoughtful examination, Barry-Jester would come away from the project with some sense of meaning, some greater understanding of the cultural impetus behind burrito mania — some epiphany to justify all those miles on the road, all those calories consumed. Well, not exactly.
"It is really interesting how incredibly passionate people are about burritos," says Barry-Jester, whose main area of expertise, ironically enough, is health care. "I'm not sure I totally understand the origins of the obsession."
Indeed, the now-hallowed foodstuff comes from rather humble beginnings. "It started as just a very simple street snack – something you could eat with one hand, while you were doing something else," says Los Angeles-based culinary historian Richard Foss, who traces the burrito's roots as far back as 1922, when it first appeared on the menu of a roadside café near Tucson, AZ. "Who knows which side of the border it started on," adds Foss, noting that the modest Mexican cafés of that era generally didn't bother to print menus. (You can read a more complete history on Foss' web site here.)
"It was a food you could smuggle into a movie theater easily. It was tasty, it was compact, and it was something that you could stick in a pocket."
By mid-century, Foss says, the burrito had developed a certain niche: "it was a food you could smuggle into a movie theater easily. It was tasty, it was compact, and it was something that you could stick in a pocket."
Nowadays, of course, the once-pocket-sized snack has metastasized into an overstuffed full-course meal that few would ever attempt to sneak into the cineplex without the assistance of, say, an equally oversized purse. And, the burrito's cultural importance, too, seems overinflated. "You can start major arguments about what belongs in one, what condiments should be added and everything else — people get cultish about these things," Foss says.
From an anthropological standpoint, Foss offers one pet-theory as to why Americans have come to be such big burrito buffs. "We are a people who have lost touch with our true traditional cultures," he says. Many of us no longer embrace and pass on the recipes and other traditions of our ancestors, he explains. So, we instead attach to things that aren't part of our genetic heritage, things that are simply part of our daily lives, things like burritos.
It was the hearty burritos at San Francisco's El Castillito, for instance, that first stoked Bay Area native Jesse Woodward's passion for Mexican cuisine. The former CPA is now co-owner of his own Mexican-themed restaurant, Hecho, which recently opened in the city's Castro District. Woodward's new restaurant doesn't serve burritos — it doesn't really need to. "There are four taquerias within a block of us," he says. Besides, the sit-down vibe doesn't really jibe with Woodward's personal burrito preferences: "I don't like eating burritos with a fork."
Still, like many San Franciscans, he could talk all day about the things. Maybe the burrito wasn't originally part of his cultural heritage. But, it is now. "There's a taqueria on every corner," Woodward says. "You can get it any time of the day or night. It's perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner. And, it's got a self-contained to-go package. So, you don't have to worry about where you eat it, or when you eat it. Really, it combines all the best parts of Mexican food into one giant helping."
In Woodward's opinion, the often exhaustive burrito-related banter merely serves to reinforce that culture. "People take so much pride in their neighborhood places," he says. "I think it's a fun thing for people to have a pissing contest about."
Even Barry-Jester, who spent so much of her recent life eating and thinking about burritos, hasn't entirely lost her enthusiasm for the stuff.
"If I could eat one right now, I would," she says. "It's really demented."