By Ben Saff
I kindly ask you for five minutes of your time—five minutes of thoughtful reflection to be paid forth to the Mexican/Tex-Mex cuisine, which many of us know, whether intimately and frequently, or in the rare and impassioned rendezvous, or, at the very least, by reputation. I’m talking about the burrito. In these five minutes, you and I will dissolve our egos as best we can, as we think upon that humble burrito and the very nature of its being.
The archetypal burrito is characterized by its simplicity, and so, let us take a simple manifestation of it—rice, beans, cheese, salsa, and the tortilla.
Wrapping the other ingredients into a soft cylindrical shape, the tortilla gives the burrito a deceivingly simple outward appearance. The softness of this outer layer suggests a gentleness to its overall construction, a harmonious bringing-together of ingredients, rather than some act of oppression, of unwilling enclosure. If the burrito is a happy home, the tortilla is the sheltering house. But one must not overlook the shape of the house—a shape formed by the human hand, for the human hand, a shape that reminds us that the burrito does not exist in a vacuum, but in a bilateral relationship with its maker. How else could one simultaneously eat rice, beans, cheese, and salsa in one bite if not for that useful, cylindrical shape? Without a doubt, the tortilla is a culinary invention of convenience and a crafty carrier of joy.
Moving on in our reflection we settle upon the dominant components of the burrito, the rice and beans. Can one think of a more humble food than the solitary grain of rice? Tiny and indistinguishable from its peers, tasteless and unwanted as an individual, a grain of rice draws its powers from its community. Alone it accomplishes little, but in numbers it has the power to feed human cultures across the world. One can see many of the same traits in the common bean. But the bean is hearty and earthy—it has a grit and independence not found in the delicate grain of rice. Consider the bean’s outer skin, a protective layer that gives it a reserved confidentiality not found in its vulnerable counterpart, the rice. In the burrito, one finds an intuitive coming-together of these two communities. Rice and beans do not demand our love or attention, nor desire recognition or celebration, and yet, they sustain us unconditionally. Without this iconic duo, the burrito would be reduced to a house without pillars, and though it would go on for a time, leaning to and fro under wind and weather, it would inevitably collapse upon itself and be no more.
But could the burrito rise to such popularity on the merits of convenience and sustenance alone? One finds it difficult to imagine. The burrito would be a drab and lifeless house without its most savory ingredient—the cheese. Derived from the milk of living creatures, from nature’s intent to nourish and sustain new life, it would be a fine mistake indeed to take this dairy product for granted. We find a surprising and vital energy preserved in cheese, withheld by its inconspicuous form and its varied but always subtle hues. Cheese imbues the burrito with a life and flavor like a flickering fireplace warms a cold room. If properly melted, the cheese takes on a miraculously adaptable form that integrates with the rest of its community, bringing together those stubborn clusters of rice and those reticent loner beans. One can’t help but stumble upon a strange sense of admiration for this noble ingredient. Rather than clinging to its own idea of individuality, the melted cheese develops its unique form in selfless service, connecting the other ingredients in a unique, culinary unity.
Yes, there is harmony. Yes, there is unity. But is that enough? Where is the risk? Where is the bold endeavour in this culinary culmination? It lies in our final ingredient, well known simply as salsa. Consider its composition: the rich red tomato, the sharp onion, the crisp cilantro, and the diverse and colorful cuts of pepper—the reliable bell, the zesty yellow banana, the devilish habeñero, the piercing jalapeño, and crimson chile. Avoiding all labels and definitions, salsa acts as a lone agent within the burrito community. Fueled by nonconformist ideals, salsa can provide flavors that range from sweetly soothing to eye-poppingly spicy. Salsa is a reminder that one cannot have variety in life without occasionally venturing into the uncharted wild. That is not to say throw all caution to the wind: salsa is an untamed creative force which can dominate the entire burrito if one is not careful. The spectrum of salsa is an open invitation to take risks, to embrace diversity, and to be surprised and delighted in a bold new experience.
As a whole, the burrito is a testament to the power of community. Each ingredient has a role to play: the soft outer boundary of tortilla gently wraps and protects, the humble rice and the hearty beans provide a selfless and unconditional sustenance, the noble cheese brings unification, and the brazen salsa lends its unique lust for life. The boundary between individual ingredients blurs, yielding something bigger than a simple sum—that harmonious and delicious Mexican/Tex-Mex cuisine, the burrito.
Benjamin Saff is a reader, writer, musician, and technologist living in Philadelphia. He creates music as a part of the alternative rock band, Kintsugi. He is a blog contributor for Asymptote Journal. His personal writings can be found on Medium. You can follow him on Twitter @bensaff.