[A]nother neophyte, at the point of death, asked anxiously whether, in the realms of bliss to which he was bound, pies were to be had comparable to those with which the French regaled him.
~ Francis Parkman, Pioneers of France in the New World
The native medicine man of New France was helpless against the wily Jesuit patissier. Food is still employed as a tool of proselytism. The homeless are lured to downtown missions by the promise of a hot meal, but forced to hear a sermon first, while suburban churches compete for membership by constant refinement of their espresso techniques.
In 1617, the Maréchal d’Ancre, much hated by the people, was assassinated. The day after the assassination, his body was exhumed and cut in pieces by a savage crowd, which the day before had not been able to vent its hatred thoroughly. One of these “posthumous executioners” tore the heart out of the Maréchal’s chest, intending to devour it in front of everyone. But before he brought it to his mouth he had it cooked a point over a charcoal fire, and sprinkled it with aromatic vinegar.
~ Aldo Buzzi, Journey to the Land of the Flies
In Midnight Oil, the young V.S. Pritchett (then an ex-pat in Paris) is warned by a strict-minded old crone that the French “are mesmerized by sensuality” and that “their food is the cause of it – cooking in butter, the sauces, aperitifs,” etc. There’s a passage in Sentimental Education to back her up. Moreau is at a party, enjoying himself immensely, when Flaubert informs us with a wink that “the political verbiage and the good food began to dull his sense of morality.” No doubt the Maréchal’s cannibal was similarly inspired. It would make a nice dissertation topic: the shared history of political violence and barbecue.
Three lessons learned this week: 1) That being sick in exotic locales may feel passively adventurous, but being sick at a hotel in suburban Sacramento is the very mockery of the gods. 2) That in Sweden pickled sprats are anchovies and anchovies are sardines, or something like that. 3) That Jansson’s Temptation should be succumbed to whenever possible.
One of my coworkers is married to a retired chef, a Swede. Anders must be seventy. He walks with a stoop and wears a pink shirt unbuttoned at the top, white-blonde hair slicked back, a golden ouroboros round his neck. An oak from the yard fell onto the house last year and Anders made the repairs himself. Re-tiling the bathroom, he set a massive trilobite fossil into the wall. He pulled the bulbs and wires from the chandelier to use candles instead.
Bottle after bottle of wine appears. Dish after dish of lobster, scallops, veal, and salmon vanishes. We talk about Knut Hamsun’s troubled politics, Stieg Larsson’s posthumous fame. Anders promises to read me Solzhenitsyn in Russian if I visit again. ‘Now drink this akvavit,’ he says, ‘to help with your cold!’ …It doesn’t. The happy dream over, I wake next morning on the blasted heath of my hotel bed with a pounding headache and cough.
Cato who doted upon cabbage might find the crude effects thereof in his sleep, wherein the Aegyptians might find some advantage by their superstitious abstinence from onions.
~ Sir Thomas Browne, Notebooks
Within the past week: My wife adopted a pet tiger she insisted could survive on cheese; I discovered a subterranean basement below the bathtub; I saved my daughter from drowning at sea. Then my home was invaded by birds: long-necked hawks, brightly colored owls, shoe-billed ducks and tiny songbirds that built nests atop the framed pictures hanging on the walls. If dreams are determined by digestion, then all this seems to have started with a dish of baked fennel and parmesan.
SAUCE, n. The infallible sign of civilization and enlightenment. A people with no sauces has one thousand vices; a people with one sauce has only nine hundred and ninety-nine. For every sauce invented and accepted a vice is renounced and forgiven.
~ Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
An illustration of the painful path to virtue: I came home last night and found my wife concocting a sauce of red chile peppers. She had roasted them in the oven and the fumes filled the house. I immediately began coughing. There was a sharp pricking at the back of my throat. The floodgates of eyes and nose were thrown wide and I fled to the bedroom until the air was clear. The final result of her labors, however, was beyond tasty – it was another yard won from creeping barbarism.
Patrick Kurp notes a “culinary disappointment” during his recent trip to Portland: the inconvenient closure of the local taquerias. I can sympathize. I don’t know Mr Kurp but I used to live in Seattle, not far from where he lives now, and I can assure you that there is no such thing as authentic Mexican food in Washington State. I’m surprised to hear that it may exist in Oregon, but Kurp once lived in Houston so he ought to know what he’s after.
Predictably, the Mexican food improves the farther one travels down the west coast of the United States. From San Francisco southward is a golden territory. The 38th parallel, as I imagine it, marks an invisible Tropic of Taqueria, roughly coinciding with the historical frontier of Spanish and Mexican settlement. Our relocation to California six years ago was full of gastronomic consolations (local wine, year-round farmers’ markets, fresh artichoke and avocado, etc.) but easy access to real Mexican food was perhaps the most consoling.
A personal favorite is Taqueria La Bamba in Mountain View, not far from the campus of a certain Internet Goliath I will not name. Their al pastor and carnitas (crisped at the edge and tender inside) are tasty perfections. Also recommended are the Salvadoran pupusas, thick corn tortillas stuffed with pork or cheese and eaten with curtido, a fermented cabbage and onion relish. Wash it all down with a glass of sweet horchata to put out the fire. At La Bamba, a taco will set you back a negligible $1.85.
A more recent discovery is Victor’s, not far from my office in San Francisco. While their al pastor failed to impress, the carnitas and sopes have been praised in my hearing. The chief reason to eat here, however, seems to be the saucy compliments (and I don’t mean the salsa). At Victor’s you get to hear yourself called “guapo” (handsome) at least a half dozen times by the motherly ladies behind the counter. “Hola, guapo!” “What’s it going to be today, guapo?” “Hasta, guapo!” This is what Victor’s is known for. To judge by my receipt ($4 for a single taco), the special treatment comes at a premium.
Photo credit: Flickr user mrjoro