Random Reminiscence of the Day

We’ve been chatting on the WELL about Mexican food and when we first encountered it (I won’t even try to explain how the topic drifted there — we were talking about sustainable food practices and somehow we veered to this), and I wrote the following, and I feel like cutting and pasting it here, too.

I grew up in Southern California and can’t remember back far enough to know when I first had Mexican food. It was very much part of the landscape — tacos were a regular meal at home and in the school cafeteria, quesadillas were an option for a simple quick snack, there were nice restaurants where my family went sometimes and there were hole-in-the-wall places where I’d get a cheap lunch on my own or with a friend.

When I moved to New York City in the 1980s, there seemed to be one Mexican restaurant in all of midtown Manhattan, where I worked, called Caramba I think. I ate there once — very pricey, even allowing for everything in Manhattan being more expensive, like three or four times what I’d expect to pay for the meal back in California, and the food was very plain and bland. I was astonished.

Eventually I realized that Mexican food was an exotic novelty in Manhattan, not a genuine part of the local mix of cultures. And New Yorkers didn’t seem to be used to spicy food — I remember bringing homemade guacamole to a party in my first months in NYC, and I was feeling apologetic because it had come out a bit on the bland side and if I were at my own apartment I could stir in some more Tabasco or something, but our host didn’t have anything like that in the cupboard. But before I had much opportunity to express my apologies, somebody dipped a chip in the guacamole and took a bite and a moment later starting fanning her mouth and saying, “Wow! That’s got a kick to it!” Everybody loved the guacamole because it was on the hot side but not unbearably so for their tastes, and I had been thinking it was a botch because I could barely taste any heat in it. So I stopped apologizing and just accepted the compliments and figured I’d learned something about cultural differences between So Cal and NYC.

And I also discovered that Indian food, which was pricey and an exotic novelty in Southern California in those days and which I hadn’t eaten much of, was part of the local culture in NYC, and it was all over the place and very inexpensive, even for very good Indian food. So my diet underwent some changes in NYC.

So it turns out that Patrick, who likewise grew up with Mexican food (he’s part Mexican), lived in New York City at the same time I did, and remembered “that horrible place Caramba’s with the god-awful blue margaritas”. He said that the best Mexican he knew of in New York City at the time was in Astoria, Queens, in the back of a pizzeria. My response:

Oh, God, I forgot about the aqua blue margaritas. I never actually had one — an experience in my freshman year of college going out with a few friends and being persuaded to order an “Adios Mama” has caused me to distrust all aqua blue drinks ever since.

I lived in Astoria in ’88 and ’89 but don’t remember any Mexican food. On the other hand, it was my first real experience with Greek food. I lived half a block from a restaurant with a Greek name that translates to something like Papa George’s All-Nightery or Papa George Never Sleeps or something, and one day I got up the courage to go inside. Not a word of English to be seen or heard, including on the menu, which was a chalkboard on the wall. But I became a regular for a while, and the waiters got to know me and stopped wincing when I asked them to translate the chalkboard for me. Though most of the time I got the lamb with spaghetti — anything else, half the time the waiter came back from the kitchen to tell me they were out, but they never ran out of lamb and spaghetti, so after a while I usually just ordered that in the first place — and a glass of retsina.

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