Saturday, September 10, 2016

On a Burrito


Every Saturday morning, before attending to my belles lettres, I stop at the Taco John’s six blocks from my house to buy a burrito. I suppose there are better burritos than those made "hot and fresh" at Taco John’s, but not in the town where I live. I purchase the burrito at the drive-through window, carry it to my office, and there enjoy my breakfast while reading the Friday Wall Street Journal’s entertainment section.

The burrito that I order at Taco John’s is a "Scrambler Burrito" made with sausage. (The burrito can also be purchased with bacon substituted for the chorizo sausage.) When I order the burrito, a voice from the intercom in the parking lot says to me: "Welcome to Taco John’s, what can I make fresh and hot for you?"

To which I always reply: "I would like a Scrambler Burrito made with sausage with the hot sauce in it."

Often this causes some kind of confusion. As at all fast food places, the turnover of staff is high. About every six weeks, I meet someone new at the window and we have to re-educate one another as to this transaction.

If I am dealing with a seasoned employee, the voice through the intercom will respond: "Okay, that’s one sausage scrambler burrito with hot sauce."

I am a student of German and have read that language with some degree of fluency for forty years. Yet, I could not construct a proper German sentence to save my soul. One of the problems that I encounter is that I often choose the wrong preposition for the use that I intend. Of course, I know German prepositions and understand their meaning, but there are idiomatic elements that always confound me in the selection of a preposition. The same problem afflicts my Saturday morning attempts to order my breakfast burrito.

This morning, I exchanged words with the Taco John’s intercom as above. After placing my order, the voice asked me: "What was that about the hot sauce?"

I said: "Put the hot sauce in it."

The voice paused and seemed a little uncertain. "What is that?"

"Put the hot sauce in it."

"Okay," the kid said.

I made the turn and drove to the window. An earnest, worried-looking young man came to the window, slid it open, and leaned out to me.

"I just want to make sure: you want me to put the hot sauce on the burrito."

"Inside the burrito," I told him. He looked puzzled. I paid and he retreated into the kitchen.

Half an NPR radio-story later, he returned to the window and handed me a bag pleasantly heavy with my burrito.

I decided to clear up the confusion once and for all.

"What is the default position here? If I just order a Scrambler burrito and don’t specify anything about the sauce, what is the default."

The boy’s brow wrinkled with concern and he frowned at me.

"I just didn’t hear you clearly. Sometimes, it’s not clear on the speaker, you know."

"Okay," I said. "But if I just order a Scrambler burrito what is the default: does the hot sauce go inside the burrito when you make it or does it go into the bag as a side?"

He shook his head again and looked very sad. Then, I understood what was bothering him: this helpful young man heard me saying "fault" (not "default") and he was trying to understand whose "fault" this mix-up might be.

"I’m not saying you’re at fault or anything. I just wanted to know how I should order," I said.

He brightened.

"If you just order a Scrambler burrito, we will put the hot sauce packets in the bag with the burrito," he said. "But you can always order the hot sauce on the burrito."

"On" – there it was, the problem! In Taco John’s parlance, you put hot sauce "on" a burrito. You don’t put hot sauce "in" the burrito. This is a counter-intuitive use of the preposition "on". The reason I have never asked for hot sauce "on" my burrito is for fear that the cook would assemble the scrambled eggs, potato ole’ fragments, onion, and chorizo, wrap the tortilla tightly around those components, and, then, pour hot sauce all over the exterior of the burrito – to me, this is putting hot sauce "on" a burrito, that is, slathering the outside with the red pico sauce. A burrito made in this way would be very messy to eat – it would make a mess in my car or stain my Wall Street Journal. I always ask for the burrito to be made "with sausage with the hot sauce in it."

As heard in the taco place, my words "in it," probably, sound like "init" or "minute". Furthermore, the pronoun "it" has an indefinite antecedent. Perhaps, the cooks hear the "it" as meaning the paper bag in which the burrito is sold to me. And, in any event, the preposition is wrong – if you want a Taco John’s cook to put hot sauce on top of the filling before he or she wraps those ingredients in a tortilla, then, you must ask the worker to "put the hot sauce on the burrito." (This raises a metaphysical question: what is the burrito? Is it the fill alone? In other words, is a burrito a mixture of ingredients that is, then, wrapped in a skin of tortilla? – Is the tortilla considered apart from the burrito fill?)

Prepositions are small words but they can be vastly consequential. In Germany, rivers flow auf or ab – if you pick the wrong preposition, you might find yourself struggling mightily against the current. Apropos prepositions and word order, someone once remarked that in chemistry it makes a tremendous difference if you put hydrochloric acid in water or, vice versa, water in the hydrochloric acid. The difference between the two recipes is a manageable reaction versus an explosion with third-degree acid burns. But I can never remember which result obtains in which case. For this reason, I stay away from mixing water and hydrochloric acid.


  1. Despite what all fast food places claim, i.e, "we make it your way", they most definitely do NOT and "special requests" are terribly confusing to the people assembling the foods and usually are not adhered to, or screwed up. Same with using a coupon at a drive through, pointless. The workers never know what the current coupons are and it just wastes time shouting the particulars of the coupon through the speaker. If you must use a coupon or make some kind of special request, go inside to the counter (more accountability. They figure you might actually check out your completed order before driving off and discovering they screwed you over two miles down the road). Better yet, don't eat fast food.


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