Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I Wanna Burrito: My Inner Mexican

Sitting here in Los Pericos, a tiny corner taqueria in downtown Santa Cruz, California, I feel blissfully at home in a sea of burritos, chile rellennos, enchiladas, tacos, nachos, guacamole, and mariachi music. It's nearly 3 pm, kinda late for lunch, but there's a good range of folks here reflecting California's multicultural heritage: a young Asian in long sleeves and jeans, a shorts-and-T-shirt Anglo couple (how do they stay so pale in a beach city?), an aging pink-faced hippie fellow with a grayed pony tail (wagging as he adds lots of hot sauce to his take-out bag), a three-generation Mexican family, and of course a Mexican quartet managing the grill, counter, and serving.

Taquerias are popular lunch spots since, for the money, you get your tortillas with a lot of rice and beans, as well as free chips and salsa for orders over $5. Add a Corona beer (see photo), Mexican soft drink, or a coke and for under $10 you can eat enough to hold you for days. No fancy duds needed either.

When I'm in Argentina, I do long for Mexican food, so this is my second trip in three days to Los Pericos, which also has free parking for 5 lucky patrons. (If you've ever tried finding parking to hit the taco bar at the Palomar, you will appreciate this!) While Burger King and McDonalds have made inroads into the land of gauchos and great grilled beef, Mexican food is less common than snow. . . and can be rather pricy, even for a simple meal. My U.S. visitors are surprised that Argentinians, who will eat beef "nervios" and intestines, generally won't eat chili peppers and actually gag at the taste of cilantro.

Having spent most of my formative years within a day's drive of Mexico, plus a truly memorable foodie trip to Guadalajara, I know there is more to the Meican menus than one finds in a US taco shop. Carlos Fuentes had one of his short-story characters assert there are really only four or five world-class cuisines: Mexican, French, Italian, Chinese, and….Argentinian. (Italian-Argentines make sure we get plent of homemade pasta, pizza, and other delicacies, but otherwise, international dishes are the province of "Patagonian" or five-star hotel restaurants). Not one to quarrel with such an esteemed gourmet and writer as Fuentes, I'll just agree and ask him if he's tried any Thai, Indian, or Japanese food. (Any other nominations for world-class cuisine?) And then we can talk about the distinct regional cuisines in Mexico, which I'd like to sample on-site, though I've yet to convince my Argentine husband to make the trip.

Language scholars have said that we are born with the capacity to pronounce the sounds in any language, but that we lose many of the sounds that do not occur in our own language, such as the 48 clicking sounds in !Kung or the funny sounds in French that doom me to eternal disdain in Paris cafes. (Thankfully the Quebecois welcomed me with my English, though my French-speaking Argentine husband had to rescue me from going down the hall to the men's room instead of the ladies'. I hope the Brazilians will be as kind about my Portuguese.) Do you suppose we are also born with the capacity to enjoy all kinds of foods, from Habanero peppers to cow innards? Or is that something that we can acquire? Where do our food tastes come from anyway? It can't all be family and culture as I absolutely refuse to eat okra (that slimy fuzzy vegetable that my Texas-born mother loves) and can detect the disgusting taste of eggplant no matter how much well-intentioned friends have hidden it in purees or lasagna. Might our food likes and dislikes evolve not only from family and social experiences but also from genetics?

I think I have an inner Mexicana, alive and well, at least as long as I fulfill the annual quota of enchiladas, pollo con mole poblano, avocado on anything, carne asada, tamales, jalapenos, and so on. When I arrived in Argentina, one of my step-daughters charged me with "speaking Spanish like a Mexican," apparently because I hiss rather than aspirate those s's as do folks in the area of Rosario (which makes "escuela" sound like "ehcuela" to me!). She wondered if it were my teachers, but I told her it was from listening to too much Luis Miguel. Anyway, I took it as a compliment as she could have said I spoke it like a "Yankee." (I know, you thought I was going to say "gringo," but around San Nicolas, that is reserved for Italians.)

Why is the world of food so tied up with the language for me? Because since my earliest recollections, eating Mexican food, listening to Mexican music, and hearing Mexican-accented Spanish all runs together. The food/music memories stretch back as far as early childhood trips to Olvera Street in LA. One expert in diversity training said that getting folks to eat "foreign" or "different" food is one of the easiest first steps to a fuller appreciation of the culture. And yes, years after the first tacos and burritos spread from coast to coast, the U.S. has witnessed the rise of the Latino voter, with representatives and Cabinet Secretaries. Do we need upscale restaurants like the fabulous eateries I tried in Guadalarja (where I had the most beautiful, tasty meals of my life) before we get a Supreme Court Justice or President whose name ends in a vowel (besides a silent "e")? Oh, wait….we may be headed there already with a certain dark-skinned man whose last name ends in "O." We shall see!

Viva Mexico! Viva el burrito!

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