An ode to the breakfast burrito

Joe Inwood recounts an unexpected summer love affair

Image: Wikimedia Commons

America: land of the free, home of the brave, and mother of the godly tortilla parcel of egg, potato, bacon, cheese and chili that is the breakfast burrito.

Here on our small island we’re often guilty of cultural snobbery with regards to all things transatlantic. We mock Americans for their brashness, and roll our eyes at their trashy films, suburban homogeneity and burgeoning far-right politics.

Sometimes our collective condescension is targeted accurately. A lack of imagination has been one charge laid against Americans, and not without reason. American cuisine can justly be accused of pasting together rehashed versions of dishes brought into the US through waves of new arrivals, or the over-processed and over-engineered products that no longer resemble the food they purport to be. Sometimes though, you can stumble upon a real American innovation. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, that spark of genius is the breakfast burrito.

The old received wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day remains stubbornly true. That said, as a cereal and milk puritan (Raisin Wheats, semi-skimmed if you’re interested) my perception of the perfect breakfast has long been dictated by convenience, especially during term time. Bacon, eggs, even toast – all of merit, but verging into brunch territory. Bang the bowl on the table, cereal, milk, and you’re out the door.

Santa Feans meanwhile are eternally relaxed, and the small city seems to operate in half speed, which makes it an unlikely birthplace for the breakfast burrito. Originally intended as a workman’s breakfast for consumption en route to the construction site, the closely wrapped and parcelled nature of the breakfast burrito still to this day allows for clean and easy eating on the go. The idea that convenience need get in the way of a substantial breakfast is made null and void.

Multiple claims to the invention of the breakfast burrito have been made. Wikipedia cites William Harm’s Burrito Shack, which purports to have been the original creator in 1975. Despite its lowly origins, the cultural impact of this key element of New Mexican cuisine has been profound, inspiring everything from high-range kitchen gadget ‘breakfast burrito makers’ to gimmicky fridge magnets. Now, it’s gone global, inspiring journalistic triumphs such as BuzzFeed’s ’18 Breakfast Burritos Worth Waking Up For’ (of which at least 5 are categorically not burritos).

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Wander along a downtown street in any New Mexican city and you’re sure to find a dizzying array of commuter-friendly burrito options every morning. It’s beyond doubt that the breakfast burrito has had a rapid ascent to the rank of staple favourite, and all from an unlikely concept combining the favoured breakfast foods of Anglo, Hispanic and Native American communities in this culturally diverse state.

One of New Mexico’s more endearing eccentricities is the ‘official state question’, as passed by the state legislature in 1996. “Red or green?” – by which preference for either red or green chili can be expressed – is often supplemented with ‘or Christmas?’, offering a combination of the two rather than some kind of festive twist. When ordering a breakfast burrito from a café or street kiosk, this officially sanctioned query is recited with bizarre glee. Indecision is frowned upon, the queueing customers behind you can be unforgiving, and choosing the fence-sitting Christmas option can risk the derision of your fellow breakfasters (marking you out as a tourist with flashing neon lights).

Ultimately your selection is neither here nor there, as any and all combinations deliver the perfect balance of flavour and heft so critical in any substantive meal. You won’t feel the need to eat again all day, until a couple of hours later you notice the chef’s special enchiladas in a cosy joint around the corner, and the circle of food – New Mexico style – begins all over again.