Burritos might not be the first food that come to mind on Thanksgiving Day, but they are for commentator Scott Thybony. He's a burrito guy; always has been. And on this day - that is partly a celebration of indigenous foods, like beans and flat breads - Scott tells us about his life-long bean burrito odyssey.
Temperatures were topping 100 degrees at the bottom of Grand Canyon last spring, convincing me to travel light. I left the stove behind and carried only ready-to-eat foods. As an experiment, one meal consisted of a surprisingly flat burrito in a foil package with a label claiming a three-year shelf life. Not particularly promising, and after a couple of bites I set it aside for when I really got hungry. My food standards tend to be pretty low in the backcountry, but I never did get that hungry.
The origins of the burrito remain a mystery. Even the experts have trouble sorting out the claims and counter-claims. Contenders range from the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest to the ranchers of Sonora. Several taquerias in California also claim to be the original home of the burrito. Wherever it got its start, the burrito has become as much a native food as pumpkin pie for some of us.
Burritos turn up everywhere these days, even in gas stations ready for the microwave. But growing up in Virginia, I didn’t encounter my first burrito until arriving in Arizona at the age of seventeen. My son, who was raised on bean burritos, found my deprived childhood hard to imagine. And before Mexican fast-food chains spread from coast to coast, a friend who was attending college in the East went through burrito withdrawal. Hearing I planned to drive back, he put in a desperate request for a burrito from the old El Canario café in Prescott – no substitutes would do. Being winter, his girlfriend and I taped it to the front bumper of her pickup to keep it cool and drove cross-country to deliver it. He heated it up without hesitation and dug in.
While going to school in Tucson, I decided to hitchhike to San Francisco for Thanksgiving break. I was studying anthropology at the time and wanted to observe the exotic way of life found on the streets of Haight-Ashbury. Unfortunately, the Flower Children had already departed for the communes of New Mexico, leaving the sidewalks crowded with counterculture tourists. My luck soon took a turn for the better when I decided to investigate the local food customs.
Thanksgiving is, at least in part, a celebration of indigenous foods. So I headed to the Mission District and ordered a burrito con todo – with the works. My eyes opened wide when they served what must have been a four-course meal wrapped in a tortilla, then wrapped a second time in foil. It was stuffed with whole beans, not refrieds, cheese and Spanish rice, shredded meat, and a mix of other ingredients too tangled up to identify. It was huge, sloppy, and spicy enough for me to grab extra napkins to wipe away the tears. My backpacking burrito was meant to stay edible for three years, whether I wanted it to or not. Except for a stray bean or two, the one from Mission Street got eaten immediately.
This Thanksgiving we may not be having burritos, but the day after I’ll be wrapping the leftovers in a tortilla.