In Ohio as soon as it snows its an emergency. The county I live in, and surrounding counties, have emergency levels 1, 2 and 3. Investing in snow tires, salt and sand for the roads would likely be cheaper than the total cost of productivity lost due to these so-called emergencies. This rhetoric of emergency also compounds the effects of the existing climate of fear and terror.
This terror-imbued level of emergency was so high that many churches in Bluffton were cancelled. I have a suspicion that the Presbyterian church (closer to my house than the Mennonite church) was not cancelled, since I saw a lot of cars near it. This could prove that Presbyterians are more hearty than Mennonites, that a bunch of people park their cars behind the Presbyterian church overnight or that Mennonites are smarter because they don’t want people driving on country roads or going out and about while the snow is blowing.
In any case, I decided to try making my first smitten kitchen recipe. Warm Lentil and Potato Salad. It was absolutely amazing.
Lentils, potatoes and dill
The last time I seriously examined Smitten Kitchen was about halfway through the Plenty project, so it looked too intimidating. This recipe was made almost entirely with items I had on hand (because now I keep ingredients like capers about) and some replacements – no scallions or thyme – but overall, it turned out well. Reconnecting with my potato-and-dill-loving peasant roots while listening to NPR is the perfect antidote to blowing snow and other winter emergencies.
Tacos have, once again, taken over my blog. Obviously, I love tacos. But they are not even my favourite food. I have eaten better food that I cooked for myself during the Plenty cooking project, and in the current Jerusalem cooking project. So far, it’s been about two delicious years, with no sign of stopping. Case in point: the other day I was cleaning out my spices (as per Apartment Therapy’s January Cure) and realized I was running out of oregano. That’s fine, I said to myself. I have more than enough za’atar.
I received the Mennonite Girls Can Cook Celebrations cookbook for Christmas, so Jerusalem might become more Mennonite in the future. Although, as I recently said to someone I work with, if one is Mennonite, and one is cooking, then one’s cooking is, by definition, Mennonite. But varenicke (I have made these). Rollkuchen (I made these once with my mom). Pluma moos. And one day, zweiback. The day I make those will be epic, or a day when I am trying very very very hard to procrastinate.
What do tacos have to do with any of this? They represent a longing for a different time in my life. When I was in Mexico City, essentially a phone call away from doing something related to comedy with a friend also doing research. Or five steps away from delicious comida corrida. It is as if I live in a parallel universe: I live an easy driving distance away from my most recent city (Toronto), and a sometimes cheap flight away from Mexico City (the alerts I get are a plus/minus in that regard). I am now paid to convince people that Spanish was relevant to their life/academic career. And I live in a town so small that when I go to the much larger town with the grocery store and run an errand at Hobby Lobby against my better judgment (given their lack of support of healthcare laws) I run into one of my students with his girlfriend. Sometimes, the culture shock of the rural Midwest is just too much.
This past weekend, when I began my taco tour in earnest, I took transit from my hotel to Pilsen. Part of me longs to live in a city with transit (or even the option of taking a taxi, just to have it), and then the other part of me remembers how miserable it is to wait for a bus that just won’t come (I’m looking at you, bus 12 in the Beaches. Long and hard and angry).
I paid for a transit pass, found out that the cost of the card (5$) is reimbursable if you register online and saw once again how the system works against you if you are poor. So, I took the subway, and then a bus. And when I got home, I registered my card so now I have 5$ of transit credit with the Chicago Transit Authority. Now, while I was conferencing and wandering about the pretty part of Chicago, I blended. At least enough that some lady from a Midwestern town (judging by her accent) asked me for directions. This blending in ended when I got off the subway and onto the bus.
I was headed for Pilsen. Unfortunately, the bus became more diverse as it passed the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. There were more and more hipsters. I was devastated. I wondered if there would still be any good taquerías? What if gentrification ruined all the things I love? What if people think I am one of them?
As I get off the bus, one stop too late, naturally, and walk back down 18th street to my destination, Don Pedro’s Carnitas, I notice all the hipster coffee shops that were not here two and a half years ago. I notice a bunch of condos in what were formerly abandoned-looking lots (probably previously social housing of some kind).
I am overcome by the same urge that I have whenever I see Amish or Old Order people, to say: I am not like the rest of these people. I am like you. (I never say this. Although on the train to Chicago I did tell a lady her baby was beautiful, but I think you can never go wrong with that. And then tried to recover my shock when it turned out the baby wearing a dress and a kerchief is a boy.) In Pilsen, there is no way to prove that la güera es banda.
I chat with a lady selling atole and almost buy an alegría para aguantar las ganas (peanut brittle, or granola bar-thing, to stay the hunger pangs). This would have been a good idea. Then I see a long line of people waiting for carnitas (Mexican pulled pork). Y me asomo. (And I get in line).
This weekend in Chicago I found, by chance, the restaurant where I had my very first Mexican taco experience. Or, at least, it was the right street, and block, and if the birria (goat tacos) were not sold at the Reyes de Ocotlán, they were sold at a place that no longer exists.
In order for you to understand how tacos have become a meaningful part of my life/delicious procrastination method, I bring you back in time several years. I had just completed my comprehensive examinations and defended my thesis proposal. Two important hoops. Little did I know how many more were to come. I decided that of all the Latin American literatures, Mexico was the one for me. A combination of aesthetics and political and religious commentary did it for me. Only later would I find my favourite sexenios (six-year presidential terms), Ávila Camacho and Alemán (1940-1952).
I had just presented at a conference in the rural Midwest and decided to meet up with my brother in Chicago. We stayed at a hostel in Greektown (recommended for both food and inexpensive stays: the Parthenon) and took ourselves on the most unique tour of Chicago any two people have ever taken. We saw the Bean, the Chicago Public Library, the Navy Pier and other conventional tourist things. Then we went to find the site of a historic murder (Leopold and Loeb) and took refuge from the rain in a what essentially was a Gospel Hall McDonald’s. It sold gospel music CDs from local singers. That was one of those times when you realize that you are on transit and that your stop is not really where you would normally want to get off so you look at your sibling and say, ok, think back to backpacking in Central America. Let’s keep the map in the pocket. Let’s accidentally go to the South Side of Chicago.
The next day my brother had to go back to school and so I looked through a tour guide at the hostel. I found a list of hipster coffee shops (second spiritual homeland, after the desert) and an offhand remark about cheap tacos. So I took transit all over the city to find both. The experience of being able to order tacos, consommé and coke was life-changing. Indeed, this was the point déclenchent, or deciding factor in my future escapades on a taco tour. And I don’t even really like birria.
I was on the train last night and realized that there is something so inspiring about cities in winter: the slush, the concrete, the asphalt, the public transportation. I would add chaos, but Chicago is more about institutionalized privilege, corruption and discrimination that crowds, so, there wasn’t much to work with on that front (Pro tip, Toronto: if Chicago can have a card reader system you can load with your credit card in any station, so can you). There was a lot to work with on the taco front.
I went to Xoco, a restaurant by Rick Bayless, a couple of times while in Chicago, but they do not serve tacos. This famous chef (who I spotted cooking in the restaurant) makes tacos at his other restaurant, Frontera Grill, that had a wait time of too many hours on Saturday for me and my friends. So, on Sunday I took myself on a taco tour. I do not recommend doing this. Because so. many. people. are coming out of mass or nursing a hangover, so they also want tacos.
I do recommend going to Pilsen. While walking down 18th street, I spotted far too many hipsters and the first place I ever ate good Mexican tacos, Birreria Reyes de Ocotlan. I stopped in at Carnitas Don Pedro, El Milagro, and a Mexican grocery store. I almost managed to buy some music on the street, but while I was in the store, the cops must have come by because suddenly the men were no longer there. I assume the cops are ok with illegal street food though, because that was everywhere. No puestos de tacos (taco stands), but puestos de atole (corn pudding/hot beverage stands), and someone selling alegrías (peanut brittle, my favourite snack outside of Mexico City subway stations) and images of San Judas.
Tomorrow, I will review the places I went. They weren’t all amazing, but they all were better than any tacos I’ve eaten in NW Ohio. So, in the spirit of doing things on the road that I can’t do at home, I will also discuss my plans for a taco tour, complete with a flag and matching t-shirts, for LASA.
Posted in Taco Tour, US
Tagged carnitas tacos, Chicago, delicious, eating, food, gentrification, Pilsen, Rick Bayless, taco tour, tacos
Yesterday morning I left a sleeping city to greet 2014 for the first time. “Hello 2014,” I said, “I think I’m going to like you.” (Fear not, friends. I have not decided to become an optimist, or anything so illogical).
Then I drove home. As I meandered around Detroit in a snowstorm, the city designed to facilitate commuting to the suburbs, I thought, this world needs the light to come into the darkness. Not only do my fellow drivers need to turn on their headlights, but this country of such abundance of wealth and ideas needs to turn a corner so that all of its people (drivers from the state to my north aside) might see even the smallest bit of these riches. Let 2014 be that year.