Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Food So Treacherous

“You won’t like that” insisted the fifty-ish woman in a heavy Chinese accent just after I had ordered the Tiger Skin Peppers.  

“Why won’t I like it?  What is it?”

“Green peppers fried with many vinegars.  You won’t like it.  Perhaps you like the Tofu with Mixed Vegetables.”

Like a little boy I found myself getting stubborn.  “No.  I want the Tiger Skin Peppers.”

All that happened last evening in Sandy, Utah as I took a break for food with my friend John prior to going to the airport for my night flight to San Diego, California.  It had been a long day of working to have enough accomplished I could leave for three days to go to a conference, and I was very tired. 

The peppers were wonderful, blistered in oil with their skin peeling and lightly charred, fleshy and piquant, their smokiness and heat contrasting beautifully with the Chinese black vinegar.  It was one of those rare and wonderful finds in the world of ethnic restaurants in the US where most serve a set of dishes that somehow have become codified and stereotypical.  

Despite my pique at being told I would not like something, I wondered why she decided to tell that to me and immediately I thought it must be because I am a “round eye” out of place.  I did not order one of the standards.  

Inside I felt reduced to a category, a culture, a stereotypical American who by definition is unadventurous in eating and must not like anything spicy lest he have to turn in his passport.  

Equally stereotypically I chaffed at the perceived loss of my individuality.  “I am not one of them!  I like spicy food and love Chinese cuisine.”

Of course I got all defensive.  After saying it would take time to cook them, she went to the kitchen, took a while, and then brought out complimentary bowls of hot and sour soup.  “The peppers will take a long time to cook.  You wait.  Ok?”

They did take a long time, and when I bit into the much anticipated dish its flavor overwhelmed me and made me feel justified in my individuality and taste.  But then, just like the sharp acid of vinegar, something stung me.  

Maybe she did not tell me I would not like the peppers because I was White and Wonderbread-like but because they did not have the peppers in stock and she had to send someone to the store to get them. 

Oh my, if that was the case then maybe I should feel guilty for being demanding.  Yikes. 

When a young man came and in lightly accented English asked how things were I asked him about the peppers.  “I just went to the store and bought them.  I am glad you like them”

So here I sit, nine in the morning in California, feelingt he coastal air and altitude in a little cafe, called Maria’s, advertising Mexican food.  The waitress wears a stereotypical, full, pleated dress and embroidered blouse as if she came off a tourist poster.  

The walls have Aztec calendars in papel amate, decorative brick arches, and pottery casseroles.   

I have entered the culture of stereotype in a border region where such things are marketable.  They draw clients just like the stereotypical chinese lanterns and paintings last evening commercialize Chinese culture; they reduce it to a series of things that can stand for all the complexity of the rest. 

They also seem saturated with intent, both one’s own and that of some generic, to be defined other among which one has to negotiate identity or communicate with other people.

The waitress come up to ask me in Spanish inflected English if I would like something to drink.  “Café por favor.”  I replied in what I assumed was her language.  

I have no idea why I answered in Spanish but perhaps it was to locate myself in that world of stereotypical burros, brightly feathered birds, and a cyclical world.  

Immediately I got irritated with myself, since to simply speak Spanish with no permission when she had spoken English to me could be interpreted as a insult in the areas of the border where I grew up.  

Luckily, she answered back in the same language with no pique.    

Once she brought me the chips and salsa that are typical of this side of the border, though stereotypically “Mexican”, I asked for “huevos dicvorciados”, two fried eggs--one in red sauce and one in green, accompanied by refried beans and rice.  

Again I broke the code.  I did not ask for the huevos rancheros or the burrito of ham, potato, and egg, instead I went for another code, that of cafes and restaurants in Mexico city.    

She asked me what kind of tortillas I wanted, corn or flour.  Now I hesitated.  Normally I just go “corn, of course.” but here on the border that identity weakened. 

Flour tortillas are the common bread of much of the border and not, per se, something that Anglos (English speakers) order because they are not used to rolling a corn tortilla in a flute to keep in one hand and nibble at while eating their food. Instead they are ordinary and a sign of being a northerner instead of someone from deep inside Mexico. 

What should I do, I wondered.  I was caught on the implications of ordering one or the other.  I am from the border and so flour, but I really like good corn tortillas.   I had to consult with the waitress for a key and ask which she preferred. 

So much struggle with culture and identity, yet so minor and unimportant.  

I tried the chips and sauce.  The chips were fried tortillas and not commercial chips.  The salsa was thick with ground tomato that looked for all the world like it had been hand made in a molcajete.  

The flavor was wonderful and seductive.  At the same time I note I am acting like a stereotypical Gringo from the border with my chips and salsa. 

While I like to be a Mexican food purist and snob here I am acting like someone right out of a commercial, the flip side to the taco bell chihuahua dog.  

My beans had yellow cheese, and white cheese on them.  I was so enchanted by the food that I did not wrinkle my nose at the barbarism of yellow cheese.  But, then after the incident with the Fried Dragon Skins, I had to step back.  

Instead of acting a culture role, like a stereotype, why not ask how the code of chips and salsa, or big plates loaded with refried beans and Mexican rice (Spanish rice as we called it in El Paso) and decorated with melted cheese, developed.  

I have never met someone from Mexico who will acknowledge this food as legitimately Mexican, though places tout their authenticity and that includes serves and kitchen staff speaking with a Spanish accent or carrying ethnicity on their skin.  

It is US food, from a border and a zone of encounter filled with stereotypes and the need to market self, created in the encounter of all the forces and processes that make the border what it is, whether a zone of desire or combat.  

Oh well, now to see which tastes better, the red sauce or the green sauce, redolent and pungent from fresh tomatillos.  Maybe I will like it and maybe I won’t.  

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