Tasting Place

by Sarah Menkedick Jan 15, 2009
All photos by Jorge Santiago
Wendell Berry said that eating is an agricultural act. Here we find it also as an act of travel, a reconnection to place.

THE CHILE PASILLA IS MY FAVORITE, a deep, dark purple the color of intense grief or memory. It is wrinkled and weathered, a mirror of the aged face of the woman who hands me my change and my chile and says, per Oaxacan custom, “Que te vaya bien,”

The chile pasilla rests atop a bouquet of squash blossoms, whose airy, floral looks—delicate orange and green lilies–betray the hearty vegetable flavor they take on when sautéed in oil.

I’ve always thought squash flowers were embarrassingly sexual vegetables. They start out innocently enough, small bodies fanning demurely into star-shaped flowers, but the second they hit the heat of the pan they give way entirely, losing form and caving to the oil, until they are limp and languid. Their pistons remain crunchy, but the rest of the flower goes soft.

The still virginal squash flowers cover up a layer of moss green and bumpy avocados, gently prodded between fingertips for ripeness. The avocados jostle guayabas, small Mexican guavas with a flavor like a yellow exclamation mark.

The guayabas rest gently beside the cecina enchilada, thinly sliced pork that has been rubbed with chile. All—cecina, guayabas, avocados, squash flowers, chile pasilla– are sided by a wall of tortillas. The tortillas are warm and keeling over a bit, emitting moist fumes with a faint starchy smell.

It is Oaxaca conjured through a handful of ingredients, an hour in front of the stove, a half-hour of chewing and laughing and exclaiming.

This is my dinner. Chile pasilla soaked until it is soft once more (memory and grief released) and ground into an earthy, smoky, salsa. Squash flowers tossed into the pan to lust and wither. Avocados cut cleanly in halves and sliced into crescents. Cecina fried, letting off waves of rich, red, animal smells, the spiced enchilada rub creeping up into one’s nose. Guayabas blended to make thick, acidic margaritas, the type that make your eyes squint and your tongue ache a bit before the sweetness and alcohol kick in.

This process—the journey round the market, the jostle of vegetables in the bag, the feel of warm tortilla flesh pressed into one’s hand, the slicing through soft avocado, the colors and smells blurring in the pan, the smoke of the pasilla cutting through the nose-watering spice of the pork, is the evocation of place.

It is Oaxaca conjured through a handful of ingredients, an hour in front of the stove, a half-hour of chewing and laughing and exclaiming.

If I cannot be Mexican (for as much as I love the heavy r’s and spiked sentences of Spanish, the land here, the people, I still have a streak of undeniable Americannness that prevents full assimilation) I can literally get the country in my blood.

And perhaps the piquant jalapenos soaked in white vinegar and the cups of crunchy hominy with mayonnaise fuel not only my ability to walk and breathe and think, but also the tingle I get down my spine passing a church whose religion I’ve never practiced, the nostalgia I feel walking past the bright fading walls of a city I did not grow up in, the surge of longing that grips me when I go running on the dusty soil of a foreign country.

Salman Rushdie writes in Midnight’s Children of the way in which a character cooks her lust, her hatred, her bitterness, her passion into the dishes she prepares for her family. I still remember that novel when I am hovering over a simmering pan of softened vegetables, sprinkling them with cumin, fanning them onto tortillas.

Not simply eating, but cooking is an intimate and sometimes perilous (the love affairs that emerge from a steamy kitchen and all those heady flavors, the tossing and turning of North American stomachs confronted with distant spices) affair with a particular place and its people.

Which brings me to the point—even if you have never hovered with longing before the spice racks in the grocery store, or rhapsodized about the possibilities of a chayote, you might be surprised by the sense of connectedness you get from spending a little time with local ingredients in a local (hostel or hotel included) kitchen.

Think of the vegetables and breads and spices as an extension of the landscapes and the personalities you encounter and hope to develop relationships with. What better way to feel and come to know a place than to eat it?

This includes eating it from a distance—I remember finding Chinese Five Spice in an American grocery store and nearly gnawing away at the cap to get to the delirious smells of star anise and allspice. I made myself a stir-fry of heavily anise-infused vegetables and could almost make out the cluttered noises of rickshaws and bicycles passing in the dry air of Beijing.

All of this means that, in that sometimes maddening and occasionally gratifying quest to feel connected to a specific place on Earth, sometimes the best thing to do is poise oneself over a pan of local flavors, inhale, indulge, and let the food guide you.

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