Every now and then, meals can take on a life of their own. Rather than merely satisfying our hunger, they send us on a voyage of pleasure to a place that exists beyond the realm of the senses. It isn't about organic ingredients, or a Viking stove or a five-star restaurant. The pixie dust that makes these moments magical can't be purchased at Publix or even downtown's new Whole Foods. When it happens, it just happens, as it has for me on four or five memorable occasions, in very different places and under very different circumstances.
The most recent was a few years ago when I went to see my old friend, Lee, who was living in Eunice, La., while working on a documentary there. A group of us gathered at his trailer, then drove on a long, straight road that cut across flat rice paddies that stretched out to a horizon that was changing from pink to purple before disappearing into absolute blackness with only the tiny lights of DI's restaurant visible in the far distance.
It was the weekend before Mardi Gras, and DI's was packed. We ended up standing along the hallway, our backs pressed against the wall, drinking cold Budweisers and cultivating our hunger while listening to a Cajun band. DI's is part restaurant, part roadhouse, and is just this side of exotic. We watched the locals come and go while we talked of the days when we all used to hang out together. One of the last times I had seen Lee, he was being carried away after being shot in the head in the streets of Port-au-Prince. And the last time I had seen Virginia, which was the first time I met her, was at a festival in the South of France. We were at a party and she kept making out with the waiters in exchange for bottles of champagne, which we all drank right from the bottle while dancing to foreign rock songs we had never heard before.
Together again, we soaked in the atmosphere of this unique corner of America: families, neighbors, friends, everyone dancing and laughing, celebrating their own lives. The waitresses glided between the tables carrying large trays of steaming, boiled crawfish and cold longneck beers over their shoulders. A little boy, about seven years old, joined the band on the stage with his accordion and everyone rushed to the dance floor. The entire restaurant was engaged in the Cajun two-step.
After we were seated, pound after pound of boiled crawfish arrived at our table. And what a feast! Reach, pick, break, peel, eat, suck, toss and repeat, and repeat, and repeat...and repeat. All of it between laughter and dancing and music and long sips of beer to cool the cayenne and quench our burning lips. Crawfish, those luscious little mud bugs, are perfect for communal eating. They force us to share, everyone working from the same plate. That night we all came together like a tribe of happy eaters.
And food, like alcohol, can fuel the slow weaving of a new friendship. It can soften the rough edges of our personalities and draw out the goodness in us, the way the right amount of salt can amplify the taste of a prime steak.
On a frosty April afternoon, Paul and I sat down for a few beers and a four-dollar bowl of green chile stew at Maria's in Santa Fe, N.M. Maria's, with its old wood floor that creaks under your weight, whitewashed walls and heavy dark rafters on the ceiling, is part joint, part Santa Fe landmark, percolated with a subtle warmth that makes you feel welcome even on the coldest day. But we weren't expecting this to be more than a quick lunch.
At the time, Paul and I didn't know each other very well. We were making a run for construction materials. We were getting hungry, and he suggested the green chile stew at Maria's. Who would have known? The stew was hot and spiced perfectly, as if the cook knew me personally. The steam rose to my face, loosening my sinuses and stirring my stomach with hunger. As we ate, I listened to Paul's stories, about what it was like when he used to ride with the Hell's Angels; when he lived in a teepee and dealt blackjack at a casino in Reno; and how he had gotten busted for stealing dimes from public telephones using an acetylene torch to crack open the coin drawers.
Paul leaned forward and back with his sentences, pausing here and there so we could take in some of the stew, dipping the warm tortillas into the rich broth while shoveling spoonfuls of potato and meat and all the spicy goodness of the green chile into our mouths. He told me about the ingenious plan he and his friends had concocted: They cruised the streets of Los Angeles with the Acetylene tank in the trunk of the car. Whenever they found a public telephone (this was in the 1950s), they hopped out, used the torch to break open the coin drawer, took the money and replaced the drawer so that when the cops drove by they wouldn't get wise to the theft. It was perfect, except someone screwed up and left one of the hoses dangling out of the trunk and a cop car pulled them over.
Paul leaned back on his chair and stroked his long, gray handlebar mustache, which reached down the sides of his chin like the tusks of a great old walrus. Robbery with explosives, that's what they charged him with; and he spent the next two years in the state pen. He was released just after his 21st birthday, and now, 40 years later, we were becoming good friends. That afternoon the green chile stew was the best it ever was.
Yet, despite all the magic and mystery that accompanies these unique and spontaneous moments, sometimes it's as simple as the food-plain, everyday food that's just there waiting for us to appreciate how grand a meal it can be if we only gave it the chance. I grew up on the outskirts of Mexico City; and years later, a bowl of pozole (pork and hominy soup), at a home in a small village in Guerrero, Mexico, came out of nowhere and brought back a vivid image from my childhood. That's part of the power of food-it can transport us to another place, another time.
Every Thursday, all over the state of Guerrero, they serve pozole. They call it "Jueves de Pozole"-pozole Thursday. People spend their Wednesdays simmering the hominy and pork-the most important ingredient is the pig's head-and on Thursdays, they open the doors of their homes and serve the soup to paying customers. These are not professional cooks toiling away at restaurants, but housewives and families who are simply following tradition and making a few extra pesos along the way. The result is an honest, home-style soup that is said to date back to the 1700s.
That afternoon in the Sierra Blanca in Guerrero, I stopped at a small "casa de pozole," expecting nothing more than to kill my hunger with a bowl of soup. It was a small and simple house. They had set four metal folding tables and a few white plastic patio chairs on a packed dirt floor. Geraniums and African violets grew in empty Milo and Nido powdered milk cans, and a couple of empty birdcages made of colored wire hung on the side of a wall.
A girl of about 11 brought me a little plastic tray with lime quarters, diced onion, oregano, salt, and powdered chile. She served a round of beers to a group at another table and turned up the volume on a small Pioneer boom box that was playing cumbia pop from an FM station in Chilpancingo.
A few minutes later the girl's mother brought my bowl of pozole blanco. The folks at the other table looked over and raised their beers in greeting. "Provecho!"
I added lime, onion, chile and oregano, while taking in the aroma of the soup. The taste of the hominy, like the beautiful and familiar smell of fresh corn tortillas, took me back to a place I otherwise would never have remembered.
It was a morning in late August. I was 10 years old, and a couple of buddies and I were walking around the neighborhood I grew up in, just outside of Mexico City, looking for something to do. We visited a construction site where we used to play and came upon a group of albañiles (construction workers), sitting around a small fire warming up fresh tortillas on a comal, a thin round metal pan without handles.
The men invited us to sit with them and share their breakfast. The tortillas were still fresh from the factory, wrapped in pink newsprint paper. One of the workers opened a small can of chipotle peppers and we each picked out a tortilla from the comal and poured on a bit of the chipotle juice, or in the case of the workers a whole chile, then rolled them up and ate. Maybe it was the fire of burning construction wood scraps, or the fresh tortillas with their burnt corners, or the chipotles, or even the albañiles passing around that little can of chiles; but the taste of that simple little taco was all Mexico. Sitting in that humble house in Guerrero, taking in spoonfuls of pozole, never mind the pig's tooth I found buried under the hominy and meat, I realized that that simple meal so many years ago had been the exact moment when I fell in love with Mexican food.
How and why these moments happen is a mystery; just as mysterious is how we sometimes refuse to recognize that such a moment is being offered. We are invited to step into this dimension of gastronomic pleasure, yet we can dismiss the whole thing and walk away.
A woman at a restaurant in Viñales, Cuba, kept telling me: "It'll be the best meal you'll ever have," and I wouldn't listen. After all, everyone makes that claim; restaurants even display placards, articles and medals claiming "voted best food." But this was Cuba, there was no fanfare, and the woman had nothing to gain whether I ate there or not.
The problem was that I wasn't very hungry. I just wanted a sandwich, a little something to munch on; and this place offered only a full-course package of all-you-can-eat roast pork, rice, beans, maduros (plantains), yucca, and dessert. I was locked into the idea that later on I would be having dinner at some special place back in town. But her honesty began to seep through with every wave of her index finger as she repeated how this would the best meal, la mejor comida, that I ever tasted. Today, it sounds like a convincing echo, "Le digo compañero, la mejor comida!" But as it was happening, under the palm-thatched roof of the bohío-style restaurant, looking at the busload of German tourists digging into their meal, and out at the giant stone cliff, which rose hundreds of feet with a huge painted mural of dinosaurs that looked like something out of a children's book, I didn't want to believe it. Then the woman seized my wrist, and looking very serious, said I should not leave Viñales until I had tasted the restaurant's pork. She was so concerned, like my loss was going to be her own. How could I leave Viñales without having some of this pork? How could I?
So I sat down, looking across the valley at the cliffs, and ate a huge helping of the best roast pork I have ever tasted.
Later, I walked to the side of the restaurant where half a dozen shirtless men were standing around a huge train-car-shaped metal pit. One of the men took a stick and unlatched the door so I could peek inside the chamber where half a dozen sides of pork were being cooked. They all smiled and nodded at me, proud of their delicious pork and knowing I was the fool who almost left Viñales without ever tasting it.
I sat back at my place and sipped my café. I looked out at the cliff beyond the fertile valley. A short breeze blew though the open restaurant. I felt utterly satisfied, content that I had eaten the pork, its smoky taste all over my body. I listened to one of the waitresses gossiping about her cousin, who had suffered the misfortune of falling in love with a girl from Havana and was now heartsick waiting to travel to the capital to visit her. It was the closest I have ever been to heaven.