Here Lies Authenticity: In Which Donkeys, Rams, and Dynamite Collide
There is a very specific kind of hunger that one gets from writing a paper about food. It makes it hard to actually continue writing about the subject rather than abandoning it immediately and filling the new taco-shaped hole in my stomach. We’ll see if I can finish this without having to swing by a Taco Bell (I realize it isn’t real Mexican food, that’s the point of this paper). Sure I know a salsa from a salsa-fresca, but let’s be fair, when it comes to hamburger vs burrito I side firmly with hamburger every time. That being said, my culinary reality for anything south-of-the-border extends as far south as the aforementioned Taco Bell on 9th East that happens to be south of campus. I joke, but really, I don’t know much about Mexican food so I thought it’d be interesting for me to try some new things and get cultured. And even at the end of this experience I still have no idea whether or not La Casita in Springville, or Rancherito’s and Brassa’s in Provo are authentic– I just know they taste really good.
And that is really the crux of this paper. I aim to dismiss the idea of ‘authenticity’ in Mexican food. The only way anything can be ‘authentic’ is if there is some kind of gold standard that can be referred back to. But there is no such thing in Mexican food. There’s only legends and stories that have practically no verifiability. The food cultures of any one civilization will be heavily influenced by and borrow from the immediate surrounding areas. But Mexican food turns out to be this weird amalgamation of different cuisines.The clash of differing geographies and cultures allowed a tumultuous environment where new foods were created from old as new ingredients and ways of doing things were introduced to either culture. There are very few genuine facts regarding the creations of some of the most iconic foods. And like any good origin story, the great majority of the history of these foods is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside of an enigmatic tortilla.
Now, having framed and given context for this paper, lets move on to the meat.
Burritos are curiously named after little donkeys. There is some legend as to why that is but first some history. The staples of the Mesoamerican diet were rice, beans, and corn. Flour and wheat were introduced during the conquests so nothing quite like the large tortillas we know today were had before then. Because ground corn and water do not quite have the same gumminess that flour and water has, anything ‘tortilla-like’ before the conquest was more akin to a taco than a burrito. And it is this pliability that flour has that gives a traditional tortilla its ability to be wrapped around a shi[z]-ton of tasty ingredients.
Now back to that name. All of the origin stories I found involve the food being both created and given it’s odd name. The first one is a folk-tale from the border town of Ciudad Juarez. A food vendor named Juan walked the streets with a donkey lead cart selling tacos during the Mexican Revolution. To keep his food warm, he made extra large tortillas and completely wrapped the meat, beans, and other what-nots inside. Juan’s version of the taco became popular and was named a burrito as it is food of the little donkey. The true irony is that if there was a real donkey pulling that mythical cart, it probably had a name other than donkey and the world will never know it. Another creation legend is that another street vendor would sell tortilla wrapped food to poor kids. Burro is slang for a dunce (just as another term for donkey in english has grown into slang), so burrito is slang for the kids that ate the food. At some point, the name was transferred to the food rather than the children, much to the pleasure of the parents I’m sure. A simpler reasons as to how the food got its name was that a wrapped burrito looks like the rolled pack carried on the back of donkeys for field workers or travelers.
However it got its name, the burrito has since been put into the food Hall-of-Fame. Wherever it goes, a different version of it gets created. Mexican burritos tend to contain simpler ingredients like meat, rice, beans, and some cheese with some type of mole. California has a few iterations such as the Mission Burrito, all with some variation of innards like lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, onion, avocado, etc. Then the question is asked, how would you like your burrito? Whether it’s smothered, breakfast style, wrapped in tin-foil, or big, messy, and open-faced on a plate, a burrito is a burrito is a burrito and is hard to get wrong.
I might as well consider this wrapped up right here after the burrito. Because there are so many different kinds of burritos from different geographical regions that all came about at the same time, there is no such thing as the gold standard burrito. So whether it’s Chipotle, Mountain West, Taco Bell, or some dude on the streets of Mexico, a burrito is a burrito is a burrito. The inclusion of meat, or lettuce, or cheese with the beans vary not just by restaurant but on location.
Paper Wrapped Gunpowder
In contrast to the burrito, there is good evidence that what we have come to know as the taco is in fact pre-Columbian and came from somewhere in the Valley of Mexico. Our friend Diaz del Castillo documents the first taco party on the part of the Europeans. Cortes himself was not simply a guest at this event, but the party host as he invited all his captains to come feast with him. But this is not where the the taco was named.
That honor goes to some 18th century Mexican silver miners. To mine caves, holes would be carved into the rock and dynamite would be placed inside. And what is dynamite? In simplest terms it is gunpowder wrapped in paper. So the term taco comes from the visual similarity between the dynamite and the taco– or at least a taquito. And everyone knows certain tacos can certainly be like a good stick of dynamite to the tongue or the stomach/gut depending on where you get it and how hot it is.
And in another contrast to the burrito, which has only a handful of variations, the taco has more than can be accounted for. Differences range from how thinly the meat is cut, what it’s cooked on, what weird kind of meat is on it (lips, tongue, eye, etc.), if it’s fried in oil, what its shell is made from, to how it’s dressed. And perhaps the ultimate bastardizations of the taco is the Waffle Taco from Taco Bell. I have zero shame in admitting that I have tried it and have equally zero shame in saying that I liked it. Sure it was a bit greasy but if you want grease-free food what are you doing eating at Taco Bell?
Due to the vast range of foods that manage to call themselves tacos I’d say that it’s a pretty loose adjective rather than noun. If it’s some sort of food wrapped in some sort of shell, it’s a taco. And add to that what tacos looked like at different time periods in Mexico and around the border, it’d be nearly impossible to pin down what a pure taco is. Authenticity has been dismantled.
Let me begin this section on by stating outright that I am not a fan of desserts. If that doesn’t make me human then I guess I’m Inhuman. I would just rather have two steaks than have one steak and a slice of cake. If I was presented with a hot dog and a slice of supremely moist german chocolate cake, I’m afraid I’d eat the hot dog. I have to state my general distaste for after-dinner-sweets so that when I say that I love churros, you understand how much I mean that. I could have one churro every day for the rest of my life and never think twice about it, never get tired of it, never ever stop savoring every bite, and never stop feeling sad that I don’t have a second churro when I’m done.
Unlike the burrito and the taco, which have some form of blurry historicity to their creations, no one knows where the churro came from– which is probably why I like it so much. What is clear, though, is that some form of it existed in Spain prior to coming to America. One theory is that the churro was created by Spanish shepherds in the mountains of Spain. It was hard to keep baked good fresh and so an easy solution was to make a pasty dough and then fry it up in a skillet. This origin is most likely true as churros fried in a vat of oil tend to curl up and resemble the horns of rams that are found in Spanish mountain ranges. Another legend says that what would eventually become the churro originated in China. There it was simply a salty fried stick but when the spanish got hold of the technique they wisely tweaked it by covering it in cinnamon instead of salt. What an idea. However, when the churro landed on the shores of the new world, each part of the region put their own spin on it which mainly revolves around injecting the traditionally hollow center with chocolate, pudding, dulce de leche, or fruity jams. The mark of any true American cuisine is to ask the question, “would it be better with jelly inside it?”
The hemispherical uncertainty of the Churro makes one beg the question of whether it could even be called Mexican food. Is an authentic churro come from China or from Spain? Is it fried in oil or baked? I couldn’t care less, myself– as long as it has cinnamon, sugar, and maybe just a hint of vanilla in the dough, I’m happy. I feel good in saying that this is the final cinnamon and sugar covered nail in the coffin of authenticity.
Rest In Peace Authenticity?
I say that authenticity of Mexican food is dead purely based on the mythical origins of specific Mexican foods. But it would be valid to state that authentic Mexican food is found in Mexico and that anything else from anywhere else is inauthentic. Seeing as I’ve never been south of the border to try the food, my argument rests entirely on what I see in the stories. And I might be cavalier in my description of a burrito or a taco by saying that a burrito is a burrito is a burrito no matter how you slice it. But after my foray into the world of Mexican food I must admit that I still love hamburgers more than burritos and probably always will. I’m not one for foods that make me sweat because my tongue is on fire– I’d rather taste my food than have my food taste me. But in my eyes, the idea of authenticity is rather blurry when it comes to Mexican food to the point that I can enjoy a Taco Bell taco and a Brassa’s taco in the same day and not complain. Blurry authenticity is the removal of elitist classification of foods which allows a wider enjoyment.