Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cloudy, with a chance of tacos

"My Brain is Cloudy, My Soul is Upside Down." 

It isn't so much that I get writer's block, but language is my rabbit hole. I have always known that written communication is walking a rope with no net. Sharing knowledge, feeling, thought and experience stretches between rocks and hard places. Second guessing always sabotages first drafts.

Much of what I believe about language I learned from reading Wittgenstein. The master of the brain worm.

thanks a lot, Ludwig

“ All I know is what I have words for.”

"Language disguises thought..."

"What can be shown; cannot be said"

"Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself"

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language "

"Someone who knows too much finds it hard not to lie"

I'm so dizzy

As if these mind invaders were not enough, contemporary language (and therefore thought) has become Oxy-cleansed. Between the rock of the politically correct and the blare of the marketplace it has become difficult to convey much at all. Superlatives are diminished to the point of uselessness. I can no longer believe 'awesome' or 'brilliant' as I read and, therefore, cannot use the words. Do I sound frustrated? brain is cloudy with nattering. It's taken years of louche profligacy to achieve this level of cognitive dissonance.

But I must write, I must. And so how do I fight my way out of the verbal slough of despond and right my soul? Oddly, Ludwig knew the answer:

“What is more important than the meal? Doesn't the least observant man-about-town look upon the implementation and ritual progress of a meal as a liturgical prescription? Isn't all of civilization apparent in these careful preparations, which consecrate the spirit’s triumph over a raging appetite"

spaghetti with milk and coffee?

And so I turn to dinner. For comfort, for stability and purpose; for good, orderly direction. Food ought to be safe territory for me. A place where I can sort it all out.

Of course cooking for others is also dependent on shared expectations. Cooking and talking. It is not as simple as my delicious versus your disgusting, oppositions abound: clear, muddled; too much, not enough; plain, spicy; authentic, revisionist; pure, tainted; exciting, boring; overheated, raw; comforting, challenging. Flavors, textures, irony, meanings, syntax, seasoning and mood, reference, metaphor, simile, color: the alchemy of the palate. Once again, where do I start?...

For today, how to beguine?...

I say, when in doubt, try something grilled

Cut through everything and light the fire. The streets all around are alive with the smell of asado. Various grills are turning meats into antojitos...little cravings. Street carts. Front rooms turned into diners. Meat smoke drifts through the humidity. Smoky kitchens. The parks at dusk are redolent. My sweetest childhood memories are of backyards and camp sites with open flames and glowing coals.

Greek, 17 century B.C,

We have been working at grills for a long time.

A few years back, British primatologist Richard Wrangham broadcast his theory of anthropology...culinary evolution. Essentially, the leap from beast to brahmin required cooked food. The arguments are compelling. I have taken the principle to heart as you can see below (keep in mind the Irishism that no truth is so fine that it cannot be improved):

First we ate rocks. Plenty of minerals. Gave us those flat molars. Our ancestors who survived the rock age moved on to plants and, so superior was the plant diet, that the rock gnosh mostly disappeared. I say mostly because one can still find edible rocks, in the form of dried clay, sold for consumption (occasionally blessed by the,...really.) Still most of our time was spent chewing raw leaves, stems, roots, fruit and seeds. Also, most of this food passed all  the way through us. Cellulose and too much fiber.

the jealous gods' payback

And then along came Prometheus. Fire: protection from beasts, warmth and cooking! Cooking raw food made it more tender and therefore, nutritionally available. We learned to hunt and gathered together around the fire to make up stories and gods to explain why grilled meat tastes so good. When fat drips onto the embers it turns into enticement. The lovely smoke rises and perfumes the meat above (and those gods.)

Since I am a gringo I dream often of the hamburger, the king of the grill. We believe that we have invented the burger. We didn't but we did make it wonderful. I have actually eaten the thing they make in Hamburg (kind of a meatball with white sauce, it's not even a good idea.) Sadly, once we perfected the burger, we created its nadir. What worked for Henry Ford as the assembly line turned the burger thin and tasteless for Ray Kroc's Mcdonalds.

Long before us the Romans minced meat, added pepper corns, pine nuts, garum (holy roman fish sauce!) It seems they baked the dish, Isicia Omentata, and sauced it with a wine gravy. They needed another millennium to get the tomato (from Mexico) to make my ketchup.

chevaline a la Genghis Khan

There was a historic gap until the Mongol horde carried a new approach across the steppes to Russia. They were in a hurry and, rather than stop to make camp they ate in the saddle, from the saddle. Placing strips of horsemeat between those saddles and their unbutchered horses. The meat was trotted into a paste and cooked at 100 degrees (horse heat.) The Russians cleaned it up and passed steak tartare to the Germans who turned it into Hamburger sausage which they then shipped to the new world because we already had ketchup (another interesting history for another day.)

Ah. The burger. Nothing like it. Fixings at your option. Cheese, of course. Big juice. Bacon? Sure. I can build a satisfying week around a good burger. They make a pretty good one at Hennessey's Irish Pub on the Pasejo Montejo. (The ketchup is wrong, too vinegary and not sweet enough; they claim that it's a bbq sauce [it isn't]). They use big fat beef and will grill it medium rare, just gone from red to pink. If you pick it up for the third bite, you cannot put it down without its disintegration. Which is ok. Grab a fork.

Into any really good burger feed the juices of everything merge: grilly beef fat, mayonnaise, pickle juice, ketchup, mustard, special sauce, cheese goo. An appetite for these elements separately is a vice but together...completely acceptable, understandable, laudable. Perfectly edible. Toward the end there may not be any meat left, but...if you have a piece of the bun left to swipe the soup from the plate...nirvana.

slow down, food is here

Mexico is one of the world capitols of street food and there are hamburguesas everywhere. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that the best hamburgers are not street food. But there is so much beyond the burger that is stellar (or, perhaps estelar.) Although small soft wheat rolls and pita (pan arabe) are available it helps to like corn in every conceivable form: tacos thin and soft, crispy or thick, folded around, stuffed or topped with a staggering variety of meats and vegetables.

Take a day trip anywhere. As you drive through villages and slow for the topes (speed bumps), vendors offer bags of cut fruit and jicama with chili powder, salt and lime, Cocos frios, juices, peeled oranges, cactus fruit both green or ripe red. Today I saw the persimmon red of mamey and its cousin white sapote along a city boulevard. And always, grills smoke along the street.

Except for the burgers, it's all good. I am not alone in loving one of these cravings above the rest. Tacos al pastor.

on the one hand

Not just another taco. This is one worth writing home about.

Tacos al Pastor (in the style of shepherds) is the Mexican version (and refinement) of a dish brought over the sea from Lebanon. Spin grill a roast at a broiler to a turn (ahem) until the edges crisp and caramelize. At your command, the patron de pastor will slice it thinly onto a taco, or first into the juices that accumulate below and then on a taco. Add some chopped onion and you are there.

These roasts are composed of slices of pork stacked in a great pile and run through with a spear. The meat has been marinated with pineapple which provides tenderizing and flavor. Here in the Yucatan, the meat is rubbed with recado rojo, a spice mix that dates to the early Maya culture. It now includes black pepper and cloves, neither of which are native to the western hemisphere and must have been added after the Spanish arrived.


However it has developed this great food serves Mexico the way that the burger serves us North of the Border. To say that tacos al pastor is important to the culture here is an understatement. From time to time they go overboard for a good cause. I can only imagine the animal that produced this roast.

So that's the story today. I cannot help but weave words which often launch me into uncontrollable fugues. When I cannot save myself from the run-on sentence my salvation is a meal. It doesn't matter whether I feed myself or cook for you. Cuisine stops everything for a moment. It ends whichever madness the day holds at least for that one moment. At the very best...grand elements join: cultural mores, history and the principle of nurture: this is why we are who we are and this is how we care for you. Often, particularly here in Mexico, grills flame the center of life on the nearest street corner.

Cheers (as always),


*Bob Wills, thanks unitstructure

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the burger and taco knowledge.Wills and singer Tommy Duncan are still kings in these parts.