On a cold day in early 1979, having been in Missouri (and in the Midwest for the first time) for only a day, I had my first burrito, and the angels wept with joy. Granted, it was at a Taco Bell, and I was treated by a fraternity brother of my roommate’s “big brother” in the frat house, but years later, I remember little about anything else about that time except the burrito. Having grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey at a time when Mexican food wasn’t so widespread, I knew lasagne, corned beef and canned asparagus, but I didn’t know the burrito…..or her friend the enchilada. It would be years before I met the wild joy of the chimichanga. I just knew, when I tasted the combination of refried beans and cheese, that this was a love that would last my whole life.
I was right about my lifelong relationship with Mexican food. When I get home from Vermont, where really good Mexican food is scarce (at least where I hang out), I head straight to the pantry to open a can of refried beans and then spend the next week eating at my favorite Mexican restaurants in town. La Tropicana still serves the same unbelievable come-home-to-me chicken enchiladas, rice and beans although now instead of it being $3.35, it’s more like triple that. No matter, this is manna from the gods and goddesses. La Parilla, a Latin American restaurant downtown, brings me back to my best self with the Baja fish tacos, rice bowls, enchiladas and other delights. I still lament the loss of Pancho’s, one of my favorite places to eat enchiladas and burritos, which used to be where there’s now a comic book and fantasy bookstore (on the other hand, I’m happy to live in a state with a growing Mexican-American population and great food to be had in most communities).
There may be many studies and behaviorists who say we imprint on the food of our childhoods, but my childhood was filled with food that would seriously shorten my life if that’s mainly what I ate. As a kid, I consumed hot dogs, malted, and bowls of sour cream and bananas (seriously, this is what Jewish kids were routinely served in the 60s) with an occasional eggcream, bagel, Swanson TV dinner or ice cream cone (Carvel of course) thrown in for good measure. Existing on sugar, dairy, strange chicken products in foil trays and Kosher hot dogs kept me alive but it’s no surprise our family has had more than its share of health issues.
But it wasn’t what foods I was moving beyond that brought me to the burrito: it was the burrito itself as well as the tostada, taco, fijita, and so much more, often variations of corn, beans, rice, onions and peppers. There’s something blatantly perfect about Mexican food, at least for me. It satisfies, it can easily be prepared in a way bursting with the minimum vegetable requirements for a day. Of course it can also be deep-fried and slathered with melted cheese and sour cream, but there’s obvious happiness there too.
When I was pregnant with Daniel, I ate a burrito a day, usually from Taco Bell (although I mostly make my own Mexican food or eat at locally owned restaurants). What can I say? I just woke up in the morning, looked at my ginormous belly and realized, “I have to have a burrito or I’m going to die.” This morning, I found a pan in the kitchen caked with leftover refried beans from Daniel’s breakfast, so it must have taken. In any case, it isn’t just a bad legacy to pass on, and living in Kansas — where the weather thrashes us silly, exhausted and freaked out on occasion — it just makes sense that when the going gets tough, the tough make burritos.