The History of the California Burrito (Part 3 of 3)

I was exhausted from all my walking, and I suddenly realized I couldn't walk another block. I didn't understand why I was so tired, as I'd walked across New York City many times without getting tired; I later came to understand that walking across San Francisco, with its vast parks and steep hills, is much harder than walking across Manhattan, which is as flat as an ironing board.

I was starving, and I decided to take a cab back to Berkeley. Sitting in the dark back seat as we crossed the Bay Bridge, I started to feel a strange sensation of calm and happiness. We drove through the streets of the East Bay and reached the familiar busy nighttime streets of downtown Berkeley, and I found myself feeling almost ecstatic, for no reason I could understand. I paid the cab driver (it cost forty dollars) and hopped out onto the corner of Telegraph and Durant. I almost walked up to the door of Suzanne's apartment when I caught the smell of Mexican food from a tacqueria two buildings down.

I walked in to the tacqueria and sat down. A Mexican waiter tried to hand me a menu and I said, "Just give me your standard burrito. Put everything on it."

"Gotcha," he said. I knew I was asking for it. He returned with a porcelain plate holding nothing on it but a single huge burrito the size and shape of a slightly flattened melon, decorated with two sprigs of crunchy lettuce and a folded white paper cup of guacamole. I looked at it for a moment. I wasn't sure where to put my fork and decided to start with one of the tapered edges. I took my first bite.

It was good. A bit crunchy, and too lukewarm. But I could relate to it. Brown rice and white beans and lettuce and avocado and barley and radishes and salsa ... there was something tremendously integrated about it. I took another bite, and another after that. Now I'd reached the lentils and tofu sour cream and pinto beans and carrots. Carrots in a burrito! I can't say I fully approved of this, but like I said, I was in a kind of crazy mood. And in this mood I suddenly understood the California Burrito. Inclusiveness was the philosophy. Foods have to learn to get along in the California Burrito, just like people have to learn to get along. It was like a political statement, with guacamole on the side.

I ended up eating a California Burrito every night for the rest of my stay in Berkeley. I returned home a changed person.

Something else happened to me during this trip. For a long time Suzanne had been telling me to read Jack Kerouac. This may strike some of you as funny, because many of you know me as the guy who created a web site about Beat Literature, but I didn't read Kerouac for the first time until a couple of years ago. I started "On The Road" for the first time on this trip, in fact, during the plane ride back from Berkeley to New York.

I hadn't expected to like the book. I expected it to be pretentious and dated, but it turned out to be the freshest, funniest, truest piece of writing I'd read in a long time. Maybe the reason I liked it so much was that it was nothing more than the story of a depressed college-educated boy from the East Coast who can't stand to look at his hometown anymore and goes out to California in search of religion and kicks. I felt like I'd just met my soul brother.

I sat there on the airplane reading, and I reached the part where Sal Paradise meets a sweet pretty Mexican girl named Terry on a bus somewhere near Los Angeles. They start making out and think they might be falling in love, and since Sal has nowhere else to go she takes him back to the grape and cotton fields of Bakersfield to work with her and her family. For a few days the college boy gets to live the life of a Mexican grape-picker and he digs it, though he eventually runs scared back home. I read these lines:

Terry and Johnny sat in the grass; we had grapes. In California you chew the juice out of grapes and spit the skin away, a real luxury. Nightfall came. Terry went home for supper and came to the barn at nine o'clock with delicious tortillas and mashed beans.
This just blew my mind. Think about it: what exactly is Jack Kerouac talking about here? He's talking about his own personal discovery of the California Burrito.

Now it's my dream to write a book about the California Burrito. I see it an expensive coffee-table book, with lavish illustrations and color photographs. I'll start by examining the eating habits of the Aztec and Mayan peoples before their ancient civilizations were destroyed by Cortez and his successors. I'll discuss the interplay between European and Native American ways of eating, and I'll trace the evolution of Mexican cuisine as it spread through the Spanish territories of North America. We'll see how the taco and the burrito and the enchilada and the tamale moved through the fast-growing English-speaking cities of southern California, and how Mexican food merged with the barbecue sauce cowboy cuisine of Kansas City and Texas to form the style known as Southwestern or, later, Tex-Mex. I'll go from there to the arrival of the first chic Mexican restaurants in New York in the late 1960's, and from there to the sudden nationwide success of Taco Bell. I'll conclude with the invention of the California style, and then say a few words about the future of Mexican food in the ever-changing world.

And since I know I'll never really write this book, I can use this title for these pages instead. Here it is: THE HISTORY OF THE CALIFORNIA BURRITO.

Next ...

Queensboro Ballads
by Levi Asher