A recent thread on reddit concerned the origin of the “wet burrito.” For those who don’t know, a wet burrito is like a regular burrito, but it is typically eaten on a plate, with a fork, and it is covered in an enchilada sauce. Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the 1980s and 1990s, this was in fact the only kind of burrito that I was familiar with. Legend has it that a cook at the Beltline Bar in Grand Rapids invented the wet burrito in the 1966. This might seem like a strange place for the invention of a kind of Mexican American food, but in fact West Michigan has had a sizable Mexican American population since at least the 1920s.
But some people in the reddit post weren’t so sure. One noted that he had eaten wet burritos since as long as he could remember. Another thought the wet burrito was probably born near Los Angeles, since it is often on the menu there and California has a much larger Mexican American population than does Michigan.
In the past years, I’ve written quite a bit on the origin and evolution of words and phases, such as “The Bill of Rights”, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t Much,” etc. I thought maybe I could do similar research into the history of the term “wet burrito.”
The earliest use of the term on materials on archive.org is from 1980 in a Michigan cookbook. The ULCA Daily Bruin from 1981 also has an advertisement for a wet burrito. When a word enters the spoken language, there is often a delay before it is written, and before it is spread in written sources. That the earliest readily available hits are from 1980 and 1981 is strong evidence that the term is fairly new. In fact, a 1966 invention would seem to be about right for the time needed for the term to spread and enter print sources.
The archive.org search results also lend evidence to a Michigan origin. The majority of the hits for “wet burrito” from sources in the 1980s are from Michigan. This would make sense if the term was born there and first spread locally. By 1995, however, the wet burrito was on the menu in Los Angeles, New York, and Alaska. At this point, the term had certainly spread nation-wide, even if it was not familiar vocabulary to all Americans.
There is a way to distinguish between a word that has recently entered the language and one that is already common. When words are new, they are often placed in quotation marks, or an additional explanation of the word immediately follows its use. The author of a 2002 guide to Alaska, for example, puts “wet burrito” in quotation marks, as if it is a new term, one that not everyone is familiar with. But when a term is well-known, it can be used without any additional explanation. For example, a food dictionary from the year 2000 claims that something is “like a wet burrito”, with the assumption then that its audience already knows what a wet burrito is.
A search over at Newspapers.com provides further of a West Michigan origin of the wet burrito. The earliest hit in a newspaper is from the Holland Sentinel in 1976 for the Fiesta Restaurant. The advertisement provides an explanation of what a wet burrito is. Note that it has cheese and enchilada sauce on top.
Newspapers.com also provides a 1979 advertisement for a wet burrito in Santa Cruz, California, giving further evidence that the L.A. area was probably the first or second place to offer the wet burrito.
By 1982, the wet burrito is in Evansville, Indiana, and by 1986 in Fort Pierce, Florida. Most of the newspaper hits for wet burrito in the 1980s are from Indiana, which indicates a regional introduction of the wet burrito from Michigan.
This evidence is far from conclusive, but I think we can say with some degree of confidence that the Michigan origin of the wet burrito holds out, and that is was also in California at an early date. Further research and perhaps a master’s thesis will be required to investigate this story.