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Nachos, burritos, and nationality

National Nacho Day (November 6 in the U.S.) invites us to consider the nationality question of Mexican food. The question begins with the curious point that some of the most common “Mexican” foods in the United States such as burritos and taco shells are seldom eaten in Mexico. Nachos actually have become popular in recent years, but only in movie theaters, where Mexicans consider them to be as much of an import as the Hollywood blockbusters they accompany.

Of course, U.S. business has transformed the foods of many lands (German hamburgers, Italian pizza, and so on) and exported them around the world. But the confused nationality of Mexican food also results from the Mexican-American experience of straddling two nations. Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya is well-known for popularizing the combination of corn chips, melted cheese, and jalapeño peppers at a Piedras Negras border club in the early 1940s. Meanwhile, another border dish, the burrito, illustrates the nationalizing politics of food and language.

Little donkey?

Oxford Dictionaries define burrito as: “A Mexican dish consisting of a tortilla rolled round a savoury filling, typically of minced  beef or beans”. The unspoken question here is what kind of tortilla. If you order a burrito in most any restaurant in the United States, you will get a wheat flour tortilla. If you ask for one in Mexico, outside of a few northern states, where flour tortillas are common, the waiter will likely give you a blank look of incomprehension. Indeed, flour tortillas were introduced from the north to other parts of Mexico only in the twentieth century.

The burrito illustrates the enormous regional complexity of Mexican food. Each area has its own distinctive snack foods, known collectively as antojitos (“little whimsies”). This is how the burrito (literally meaning the “little donkey”) first appeared with a culinary reference, in Feliz Ramos I. Duarte’s Diccionario de mejicanismos (1895). He defined it as a “rolled tortilla with meat or other thing inside, which in Yucatán is called cosito, and in Cuernavaca and Mexico [City], taco.” Ramos made no mention of a wheat flour tortilla, implying instead that it was made of maize, and he attributed the term not to the north but rather to Guanajuato, in central Mexico.

To confuse things still further, Ana Bégué de Packman’s Early California Hospitality (1938) suggested that wheat and corn tortillas were interchangeable for making burritos; either could be used with a little leftover stew or some frijoles and cheese. She recalled tales of vendors in Old California selling burritos out of a basket while singing the refrain: “Los burritos para las bonitas!” (The little donkeys for the little beauties!).

Let them eat tortillas

That a once far-flung and diverse Mexican burrito became almost exclusively associated with a flour tortilla in the U.S. Southwest hints at the ways that borders and nation-building can erase local usages. The villain in this story—if one can attribute malicious intent to a snack food—is the taco.

As the linguist Ramos pointed out, the taco was still considered to be a local specialty of Mexico City and nearby Cuernavaca as late as 1895. Over the course of the twentieth century, the capital asserted greater political and cultural domination over the rest of the country through education, media, and the like. The taco became a culinary and linguistic expression of this hegemonic power, spreading out from Mexico City to obliterate many regional antojitos, including that dodo bird of Mexican cuisine, the Guanajuato burrito.

Taco, or not taco?

The dish survived in remote Sonora and California by taking on a new and distinctive identity, cloaked in the oversized, northern, wheat-flour tortilla. By the 1920s, migrants from central Mexico had carried their tacos as far as California. But the availability of new ingredients from the U.S. food processing industry meant that the Mexican American taco evolved in new directions. Industrial flour mills made wheat cheaper than maize, reversing the economic calculations in Mexico. Thus, soft tacos came to be associated with relatively small, flour tortillas, while larger flour tortillas were used for burritos. Corn tortillas were more often fried into hard tacos, the model for the U-shaped taco shell.

The subsequent spread of Mexican American fast food out of Los Angeles helped to establish what had been a peculiar local nomenclature (burritos and hard and soft tacos) throughout the United States. Migration and food processing thus created an industrial image of Mexican food that was almost completely unrecognizable in Mexico.

Yet the politics of nationality also involves value judgments about the movements of people and goods. As industrial products from the United States began to compete in international markets for agriculture and culinary tourism, the distinction between Mexican and Mexican American food acquired new significance. The taco and the burrito, having won “primaries” in their own countries, now face off in a global struggle for authenticity to determine what is “really” Mexican. Vote today at a food truck near you.