Frozen food?s greatest achievement: the frozen burrito

Keith Brumley

Keith BrumleyColumnist

It’s a difficult process; simple in concept but difficult to master. The variables, at least on the surface, are few. As one grows more involved, however, it becomes clear that this is not just cooking; it’s an art form.

I’m talking about frozen burritos. They’ve been around for half a century and with the growth of technology so does the complexity and popularity of burritos. They’re not just for the desperate and lonely. They taste good. So good, in fact that connoisseurs of the microwave burrito are becoming not only accepted into the mainstream of the frozen food community, they’re becoming respected as chefs in their own right and are indeed being called upon for advice and recommendations.

Widespread initiation into the subtleties of all this began in the late 1950s in conjunction with the advent of television. At that time the frozen food world consisted of what were then little more than small, compartmentalized, aluminum covered frozen three-course food portions named “TV dinners.” The idea was that a nuclear tribal unit (then called family) could sit down behind small individual tables (TV trays) facing a screen illuminated by a cathode ray tube, watching moving images beaming in from the Great Unknown. This quickly became an accepted into ceremony with the frozen meals themselves being the sacraments. It was called “supper.”

As for the burrito, it was invented in 1959 by Duane Roberts. At the time, frozen burritos were considered by most 8212; outside the most esoteric of circles 8212; as heretical. Prevailing doctrines considered them not only of questionable nutritional value, but theologically suspect. Since frozen burritos are essentially a one-course deal, they had none of the sacramental qualities of the three-course TV dinner. The only problem with the former was that everything tasted the same. This was later attributed to artificial infusions of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and salt, thus challenging the integrity of the traditional frozen food establishment.

Since then many of the tribal units have disbanded8212;some because of the death of the elders, but most as a result of schisms within nuclear tribal cosmologies. This, the scholars say, was called “divorce.” Contemporary ethnographers maintain these phenomena coincided with the microwave revolution and many cultural anthropologists claim a direct correlation. Microwave ovens no longer required the services of a designated oven monitor (more commonly referred to as wife, mother, husband and/or father.) Any individual could, as long as he or she could count and display a modicum of cipher skills, cook. Frozen foods could now be thawed, heated, and consumed within seconds. Hence, the term “consumer.”

As the frozen food consumer paradigm became gained complexity so did the quality and variety of the thing in itself (frozen foods.) Following the disruption of the tribal units, frozen burritos came into their own. The seeming simplicity of microwaving a burrito became attractive to disenfranchised nuclear tribal members. They also tasted better8212;and it’s here when the frozen burrito community began to thrive.

Theories now abound. Some believe burritos should be heated in stages during which additives such as cheese, salsa, guacamole, sour cream and lettuce are applied. Others maintain that burritos are to be heated8212;and consumed8212;at once. Still others claim burrito quality is related to the burrito makers, thus making brand loyalty a topic of considerable discourse. Throughout it all, however, is the underlying question of whether to follow the heating directions. Should the burrito be mouth blistering hot? Should it be heated only to the point of palatability? These and other related questions continue to dominate the frozen burrito discourse with the issues of personal taste and gastronomical integrity at their foundation.

One truth remains unchanged. The frozen burrito is here to stay and as its popularity grows exponentially, we all can take comfort in the fact that when you eat a burrito, you never eat alone. We frozen burrito eaters are, at any given moment, in the unique company of thousands.

Keith Brumley is an SDSU alumnus and current journalism graduate student at SDSU. Contact him at [email protected]