Rounding the Four Corners – December 2012

A German Burrito?
Celebrating Street Food

By Larry Larason

I had an epiphany of sorts the other day.  It started me thinking about street food.  I’ll explain my insight later, but first, what do I mean by “street food”?

Street food is food that is convenient.  You don’t have to sit down to eat it.  You can hold it in your hand to munch on as you walk down the street, or hold it in one hand as you drive your car with the other.  A burrito is a perfect example, although when you get one in a restaurant it is usually swamped with chili and grated cheese, which destroys its one-handed convenience.  A burrito is an enchilada packaged as street food.  An egg roll is a Chinese burrito; these days most egg rolls are pretty small [and probably just off the Sysco truck], but I remember back in the mid-twentieth century getting some that were at least as big as burritos.  Consider the hot dog: the bun fits well in one hand – unless you put chili on it, then it becomes a gloppy mess.  I’ll use the burrito as the standard here because I’m sure that all of you reading this are familiar with them.

Rounding the Four Corners Sandwich

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, 1783, by Thomas Gainsborough

Sandwiches are also convenient food.  You put something greasy or gooey between slices of bread to keep the messy ingredients off your fingers.  I consider a sandwich too mundane to be called an “invention,” but the man usually called the inventor of the sandwich was John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich.  Many of his contemporaries considered him a despicable character; he was a member of the Hell Fire Club, for instance, but he was also influential as First Lord of the Admiralty and other positions, so historians are more cautious in their judgment.  Legend has it that in 1762 he was gambling late at night and became hungry; he had a servant bring him some roast beef between two slices of bread so that he wouldn’t get his fingers greasy and ruin the deck of cards he was using.  On similar subsequent occasions he did the same, and his name became attached to such a concoction.  It is likely that workmen in the lower classes had been building such creations for a long time before him, but his name has stuck.

The snack is not the only thing named after the Earl.  He financed Captain Cook’s voyage in 1778 when he discovered the mid-Pacific islands.  Cook named them the Sandwich Islands in honor of the Earl; they are now known as Hawaii.  But there are still others in the Atlantic near Antarctica called the South Sandwich Islands.  Sandwich, by the way, is a place name in Kent, England; the word means place on the sand.  Sandwich is one of the oldest towns in England, with a modern population of nearly 7,000.

The way sandwiches are served today, with meat and veggies hanging outside of the roll, sort of defeats the purpose of a sandwich – keeping your fingers clean.  The last time I tried to eat a Subway while driving, I got a lap full of lettuce.

So, what led me to my epiphany and thoughts about street food?  Well, let’s have a little more history before we get to that.  In 1762 Catherine the Great, impressed by the efficiency of German agriculture, invited German farmers to settle in Russia.  She promised that they would be allowed to maintain their language, religions, and customs; in addition, they would be exempt from military conscription.  Those who answered the call mostly settled near the Volga River.

Catherine died in 1796.  The promises she had made to the German settlers remained in effect until 1871, then the settlers came under pressure to assimilate and the ban on military conscription was lifted.  By 1875 many were looking to migrate to the Americas, especially the pacifist Mennonites.  By 1900 at least 100,000 had left the Volga region to settle in the U.S., Canada, Argentina and Brazil.  In the U.S. they favored the plains because this region resembled the land they had left behind.  They are credited with the introduction of winter wheat to the U.S.  Two famous descendants of the Volga Germans are the bandleader Lawrence Welk and Senator Thomas Daschle.

Where I grew up in Oklahoma there were many Russo-German families.  They brought with them a recipe that I dearly loved: bierocks.  It’s fairly simple in concept, but tedious to make.  A bierock is a mix of hamburger, cabbage and onion sometimes with a dash of allspice, seasoned with salt and black pepper, encased in yeast bread forming a square “bun” about 4-5 inches across.  These one-dish-meals were available at most church socials and bake sales in my home town, and I looked forward to them eagerly.

In those days no one knew how to spell bierocks.  The spelling I preferred was berox.  There are still variant spellings; the one I’m using seems to be the most popular on the Internet.  The Volga Germans in Argentina call them piroks, a name probably related to pierogis, the pan-Slavic filled dumplings.  When I lived in Nebraska, I found there was a similar food called a runza; it was the same thing as a bierock, except for the shape – more like a hot dog bun.  A chain of eponymous restaurants covers most of Nebraska now.  I had my first non-traditional bierock at a small eatery in Pagosa Springs, Colorado; the owner of the place, from Darrouzett, Texas, as I recall, served some with green chili in the filling.  Unfortunately, he was only in business for about six months.

So, the epiphany . . .  My wife made some bierocks recently.  This was after she had discovered that she could use frozen bread dough instead of laboriously making it from scratch.  I was eating one of her creations when I was struck by the thought “this is a German version of a burrito!”  That started me thinking about all the stuffed, or filled, bread recipes around the world – street food.

A Cornish pasty is another filled sandwich from England.  The ingredients are meat [originally venison, now hamburger and/or ground pork], onion, potato, and swede.  The latter is the name given to turnips or rutabagas in England.  This recipe is considered “traditional,” but the English weren’t eating many potatoes, which came from the Americas, until about 1870.  [How long does it take to establish a tradition?]  The pasty is in a pastry crust that is usually folded over into a “D” shape, like an empanada or fried pie.

Well, I could go on, but I’m sure you have the idea.  The concept of food stuffed in an edible crust or wrap has cropped up in many places, in many times.  Cooks adapt favored local ingredients and create a variation of the basic plan of portable meals.  You can make them at home to put in your lunch pail, or purchase them from a street vendor, but convenience is their supreme virtue.

Note: If you want a recipe for bierocks or runzas you’ll find many on the Internet.

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