The History of the California Burrito

(In Three Parts)

I used to be terrified of Mexican food. I guess this was because of Speedy Gonzalez, that little mouse who used to whip a bottle of Hot Sauce out of his magical invisible back pocket and sprinkle it on the food Yosemite Sam was about to eat, causing his mouth to burst into flame until he put the fire out by dunking his head into a nearby horse trough. No wonder I didn't try a taco until I was sixteen.

That was when the first Taco Bell opened on Long Island. My father used to take my sister and me to dinner at Friendly's every Saturday afternoon (our parents were divorced), and Suzanne and I liked our dinners predictable: grilled cheese or hamburgers with fries, followed by ice cream sundaes. We were food wimps, basically, and the only way to get either of us to try something new was to beg and plead. Which our father did, and after a sufficient amount of this we begrudgingly agreed to let him take us to the new Taco Bell.

I ordered a taco and promptly announced that I didn't like it. Suzanne did the same. We made Dad feel so bad he ended up taking us to Friendly's for dessert.

I don't know exactly what happened after that. I remember riding my bike past the new Taco Bell a few weeks later and getting a perverse urge to go in. Something about the taste fascinated me. I ordered a taco, ate it and left, never imagining that I would do this again. I repeated the act the next day, and then began to do this regularly, soon eating two or three tacos at a time, all the time still believing that I was a person who did not like Mexican food.

In fact, I was on the verge of a serious obsession.

Once I became a Mexican food addict, the Taco Bell taco ceased to satisfy me. The Taco Bell taco is a very proper, clean food item. The corn shell is crisp and neat like a wafer, and it is filled with a symmetrical spoonful of spicy ground beef, some shredded lettuce, chunks of tomatoes and tiny, ephemeral confetti strips of melting yellow cheese. It is a good food, a respectable food, but it is not enough. I quickly found myself moving on to the hard stuff, like the Jack In The Box Super Taco or the 7-11 Red Hot Beef and Bean Burrito. The 7-11 burrito is the most concentrated form of Mexican junk food easily available on the East Coast, and if you see somebody eating this more than once a week you can be sure this person is in trouble. When removed from it's plastic wrapper it is cold and clammy to the touch, and it is usually zapped in the powerful 7-11 mega-microwave for three to four minutes, after which it emerges in it's true form. Barely a food at all, it consists of just two components, a gummy white flour tortilla and a burning-hot glutenous paste of processed beef and chopped pinto beans cemented together by a peppery red grease that vaguely resembles STP motor oil.

For three years I was a burrito-eater, and I lived with other burrito-eaters. I was in Hellhound, a heavy-metal/punk/thrash band that almost made it during the mid-eighties. I played bass and helped write the songs. If I had to describe us I'd say we were a combination of the Ramones and Jane's Addiction with a touch of Spinal Tap. We had one genius in the band, our lead singer Kevin Whitman. He was a sensitive soul, and I guess we didn't realize how much our long negotiations with record companies and video producers were stressing him out. He really wanted us to make it big, and one bad week after Atlantic Records decided not to offer us a contract and MTV turned down our video, Kevin flipped out. He started doing jigsaw puzzles in his bedroom (in his parents' house where he still lived) and he stopped coming to rehearsals because he said he needed to keep doing jigsaw puzzles until he got his brain to calm down. For seven days he only left his house to drive to the mall and buy more jigsaw puzzles. Then he tried to kill himself in the middle of the night and got committed to a mental hospital.

Someday I'll tell you the whole story of Kevin Whitman. For now the reason I'm mentioning this is that Hellhound used to play Friday nights at a dive in Massapequa called Diamond Lil's, and there was a 7-11 right down the block. We always stopped there on the way home after a gig. Man! those red-hot beef-and-bean burritos sure tasted good at three in the morning when we were sweaty and beer-soaked, tired and hungry, deaf and happy.

(Continue to Part 2 of 3)

Queensboro Ballads
by Levi Asher