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Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Behind the Tortilla Curtain

Now that we don't talk about the iron curtain (for you post-communist era folks that's what we called the invisible barrier between the West and communist Europe and the USSR, now Russia—I suddenly feel old)). I guess people no longer use the phrase 'tortilla curtain' when referring to the invisible barrier that separates us from our neighbors to the South.

For those of you who have never been to Mexico let me say that they do eat a load of tortillas. They eat tortillas at every meal. They eat tortillas with everything. They eat tortillas by themselves. Got it? I’ll move on.

Since we don't have much in the way of a national cuisine in America we have the luxury of picking and choosing amongst those of lots of other nations. It would be hard to imagine us saying, "Honey, do you feel like Mexican food tonight?" every night but nobody seems to mind down here.

I like the way they bring out a bunch of bowls of condiments for your meal: at least two types of salsa, chopped onions, cilantro, fresh oregano, and limes--lots of limes. I saw this kid take a lime press and squeeze the juice of two limes on his bag of potato chips and then splash on about two shot glasses of Tabasco sauce. My kind of kid. They put lime in beer, of course, another thing we already knew about the cool people here. They also put lime juice on most meats and on all antiojitos or tortilla dishes.

Eating is really fun here and, even though you eat Mexican food every fucking night, there are a lot of choices. I find it hard to decide between having a meal in a rather formal restaurant and trying some of the stuff being sold around the market. I will settle on a restaurant if they have pozole on the menu. Pozole is a soup or stew of hominy and whatever else they want to throw in.

This dish can be found all over Mexico. Pozole is the chili of Mexico. That is exactly what it is. It can be good or bad, it can be terrible or fantastic. That is just one of those questions you have to be ready to answer. You have to be willing to walk into five or six restaurants and just order Pozole and a bottle of Carte Blanca. I was going to put this into parenthesis but it is too big a point. In the previous sentence I mentioned Carta Blanca, which is a Mexican beer. I take for granted that almost all adult Americans recognize this aspect of popular Mexican culture. We know much more about our neighbors to the south than we think. It is never too late to learn more.

In honor of Hugo Huesca, from Veracruz Mexico, who has taught me so much about the cooking of his country.

2 16 oz cans of hominy
1 16 oz can of tomatoes
1 chayote squash (peeled and diced)
1 small can chipotle peppers in adobo
1 onion (diced)
2 fresh jalapeño peppers (stems removed and diced)
1 small garlic clove (pressed and diced)
1 12oz can of chicken or vegetable stock (or water)
A few sprigs of fresh cilantro
Some sort of dead animal, either a pig or a cow . Kill it somehow and tear off its skin and then call Martha Stewart for the rest of the gory details. She actually made it look like fun on her show. (for vegetarians either use both meats or skip).

Add tomato, half of the onion, jalapeños, and garlic to a food processor. The chipotle peppers usually come in a small can but just add a couple peppers and some of the adobo sauce as too much will make the dish too smoky. Liquefy this and put it in a soup pan. Add the stock or water and simmer with the chayote pieces.

Brown the meat in oil and add to the pot along with a bit of the cilantro and the rest of the onion. When the chayote is tender (about 15 minutes) add the hominy and simmer a few more minutes. I use a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper. Garnish with cilantro and tortilla chips.

Go crazy from there. About the only rules to this dish, if they were going to have a big international Chili/Pozole cook-off, would be that you must make it with hominy. I’m sure there is some yuppie restaurant up in el Norte that serves pozole with seared ahi and kiwi relish. I don’t mean to trash yuppie restaurants. Criticize them all you want but without them we’d still be eating weenies and beans.

more thoughts on trying to be funny in a foreign language and culture

Just before I sat down to write today I stopped off at a little café, as has been my habit the past three days, to get a cup of coffee to go. As I was waiting for them to make it three clowns walked by the place (clowns are everywhere here, some sort of festival). I told the young girls working there that I was afraid of clowns. When they asked why I told them that when I was little I went to the circus and one killed my family. An old joke, I know. Not only didn’t they get it but I think I frightened them. I had to tell them it was a joke, which sort of took the fun out of it. Maybe they find it funny now. Dark humor isn't very big here so if you want to make it in the world of Mexican stand-up stick with hitting people in the head with coal shovels, dropping your pants, and other Benny Hill stuff.

My joke when I go to a restaurant is to ask the server in a very conspiratorial tone, as if I were asking for whiskey during prohibition, if at all possible, if it's not too much trouble, could I get tortillas with whatever it is I am ordering. That is about as obvious as asking for your meal to be served on a plate. I’m the only one who gets my joke, which is pretty much the story of my life.