Food has long been a cultural identifier, a unique way for people to share the intricacies of their ancestry and traditions. With the rise of foodie culture and fast casual dining in the U.S., however, cuisines that were once localized are losing a touch of that magic, with rare regional preparations being ushered into mass appeal. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but there is an inevitable dilution. As Alison Herman writes in a new piece for The Ringer, “To most Chipotle customers, the contentious Mission staple is just a burrito.”
The piece, “The Lost Burrito,” is all about burritos: the Mission burrito, the Chicano burrito, and, most importantly, the California burrito, which Herman grew up eating in San Diego. What separates the California burrito from its brethren is not just its preparation, which includes the addition of french fries, but also that it hasn’t found a foothold outside of San Diego, which Herman notes “isn’t particularly well known for its culinary bona fides.” The California burrito, according to Herman, has stayed “stubbornly regional, resistant to the mainstreaming that’s amplified other strains of American Mexican food. That split is a happy accident that’s kept the California the rarest of things in the 21st century: truly local.”
She taps a few experts to help her investigate the humble origins of the burrito and its many specialities while asking questions as to why particular styles take off while others don’t. For Herman, though, it comes down to identity:
The California burrito’s rarity preserves something special about the act of homecoming, allowing San Diego to maintain a sense of place—even as national franchises have rendered places more indistinct than ever… It’s similar to how people from Cincinnati feel about chocolate-spiked chili, or St. Louis natives feel about toasted (read: deep-fried) ravioli. The comfort of specificity remains, a temporary holdout against the homogenizing impulses of capitalism.
The whole thing is worth a read. If nothing else, it’ll make you very, very hungry.