The idea of taking some kind of protein and sticking it within some kind of carbohydrate wrapping is not new. On the contrary, it has to be one of the oldest and most universal innovations in culinary history. Virtually all culinary traditions employ some version of it, from the burrito to the panini, from the double cheeseburger to the Bánh mì, from the the doner kabob to moo shoo pork. It is not a productive use of one's time to worry about which of these "sandwiches" are authentic and which were imported from somewhere else, since the whole richness of culinary history lies in its tendency to borrow and fuse ideas from as many sources as possible. The "sandwich" (you'll see in a moment why I'm using those quotation marks) serves some basic functions: it's quick and easy to prepare, portable, and relatively nutritious. For a cuisine not to have some form of the "sandwich" is like a language not having a word for "mother".
I was thinking about this recently while snacking on a "Beachin' Buffalo Chicken" burrito from Burrito Beach (a necessary evil; I was stuck in the Union Station food court waiting for my train to depart to Wisconsin). This burrito consists of "spicy buffalo chicken, fat-free black beans, white rice, crisp romaine lettuce, diced tomatoes, and blue cheese dressing". In other words, it doesn't contain any of the ingredients that you'd find in a carne asada burrito ordered at La Pasadita, save of course for the tortilla itself.
So is it the tortilla that makes a burrito? Not really, because we have the problematic category of the "wrap", which can take any filling that can be diced into bite-sized chunks. For that matter, we also have the taco. At restaurants like La Pasadita, the default fillings in a taco and a burrito are exactly the same, and of course both make prominent use of the tortilla. It might be tempting to forge a distinction between the taco and burrito based on their size, whether they remain open or closed, and whether the tortilla is cooked or grilled along with the ingredients, but all of these are problematic, as there are many exceptions to the rules. At many times and places the terms have been used interchangeably, particularly early in the development of the burrito.
Indeed, it is folly to try and determine where the burrito ends and the wrap begins. Instead we have to acknowledge some kind of spectrum, like the one that I have outlined below.
The spectrum has some degree of directionality to it. For example, as you move rightward from taco to "traditional" (La Pasadita-style) burrito to Cal-Mex/San Francisco/Mission-style burrito the size of the tortilla increases, and the list of ingredients generally becomes larger and more diverse. But what is fascinating is that all of these concepts have been invented and re-invented many times over, and that the influence always works in at least two directions. Is the wrap an evolved sandwich or an devolved burrito? (Most people would say "devolved sandwich or evolved burrito", but you know where my biases lie). What do we do with something like the torta, which contains "burrito-like" ingredients but not a tortilla, and predates the modern burrito in its origin?
A Massachusetts judge ruled last November that a burrito is not a sandwich; the case arose because Panera Bread Company owned exclusive rights to sell "sandwiches" in a certain shopping mall, and claimed that Qdoba Mexican Grill had intruded into its territory. The linchpin of the judge's ruling was that a burrito consists of one tortilla and a sandwich two pieces of bread. I'm sure you can think of all the same problems with this definition that I can, although I have some sympathy for Qdoba's position, as they were the defendants in the case and the common usage definition of sandwich probably involves Wonder Bread and tuna fish. Nevertheless, we're left to pick and choose our conclusion:
- A burrito might or might not be a sandwich, but a sandwich is definitely not a burrito.
- As Rick Bayless has put it, the burrito is the original fusion cuisine.
- This whole post has been the equivalent of talking with food in one's mouth.