Thursday, May 24, 2007

mexican cooking

One of the most exciting scenes to me in Mexico is the taco meat simmering on the grill in its own juices. I say “scene” and not “sight” because what I see there on roadside stands and stalls (I even saw one on a shopping cart) is the scene where a particular kind of performance takes place. In those round, sunken grills is the performance of a Mexican cooking technique which results in mouthwatering meats out of all proportion to its cheapness and size. These techniques cannot be described in a “recipe.” In fact, I would say at the risk of oversimplification that such roadside cooking scenes represent the triumph and persistence of pre-capitalist and pre-modern technique against a typically modern, American, dependence on written recipes.

A recipe is an abstract idea that gets turned into concrete materials. The American with a cookbook is a dreamer, an idealist. The recipe-user gets off on written descriptions and vivid photographs – he or she imagines adjectives onto their tongues, texture-words like creamy and flaky between their teeth, and goes into the kitchen dream-walking, full of hopes. The recipe starts from nothingness, mandates materials, procedures, and temperatures, and ends up with a casserole, a cake, a souffle.

Because the moment of truth means putting into one’s mouth what one had just recently dreamed. The moment of truth for the recipe cook is almost always a disappointment, or at least a moment of a gap, an adjustment. There is an inevitable comparison between mind and material.

But with technique, one starts and ends with material. One is more devoted to what is than to what might be. Craving means less than knowledge of the limits of a given material. For this reason, Mexican taco masters may not be as bold or as creative as American recipe idealists. Tacos are not made into the culinary SUV’s one finds in Tex-Mex places, mammoths of meat, cheese, and oozing visual excitement. Abstractness and principles allow one room to imagine other possibilities far afield of the material at hand. Ont he other hand, the technician, with an intimate knowledge of the food being handled, can maneuver and innovate more effectively within narrower limits. The loyalty of the Mexican roadside master is to the roasting, simmering, bubbly meat and to the flavors he or she knows very well can be coaxed from it. And it is incredible.

When I stand in front of the pool of bubbling fat and grease, like a penitent awaiting wafer and wine, I know that in it is not just precious flavor but another principle of knowledge than the use of written words. It is the principle of a knowledge closely derived from the body. It is knowledge probably transmitted orally, through a local environment. The taco master uses the senses as well as long experience with particular kinds of meat. The recipe-user, on the other hand, relies on a knowledge long-removed from the senses: abstract words attempting to convey a past and future state, an exact replica in the future of something made in the past. The recipe-user cannot trust the senses, except as auxiliaries, to sense something that has gone very wrong, like burning. The taco technician and meat master relies only on the sensory perception and experiential memory of what is. The recipe user can only hope to approximate such a level of experience – but is not willing to give up the mental flights of imagination for the tedium of subtleties. These mental flights cannot happen, of course, without the iron railing of instructions, like a man in a high wind on a cliff only able to look at the sky with the steady hold of a railing.

I am drawn to these scenes of other kinds of knowledge from that dominant in the American suburbs, and I relish these performances. “She mothers the food,” said my dad, trying to explain why a breakfast was so good. One can only mother something if one intimately understands its qualities. Most of these masters seemed not to relish their knowledge. To our effusive praise these men and women would give a small smile, pursed lips, and return to the griddle. Perhaps they knew how good they were, and know full well this kind of mastery does not correlate with wealth. Their bitterness or regret is my pleasure, and that of Mexico’s poor: to find a realm of culture which is not wholly hoarded for the service of the wealthy

Mexico is, of course, a country that wears the hair shirt of the free market without complaint. Neo-liberalism is attacked in the leftish press, but the government does its duty to the Americans and continues “structural reforms.” Mexico’s more formal restaurants, therefore, fall to the level of American restaurants, since both partake of the same kind of organization and division of knowledge and labor typical of capitalist enterprises. Mexican restaurants of a certain class are like their American counterparts in wowing diners with the shock and awe of bright colors, sparkling menus descriptions, and flattering them with a comfortable image of prosperity which they are wealthy enough to have rented out. But the organizational complexity and specialization kills off the intimacy of food and cook, cook and customer, that encourages unparalleled freshness and individual attention. When the masters “mother” each dish in front of the customer, there is no dilution of technical mastery. In addition, the lesser scale of production means no one level of the process is “outsourced.” In slightly larger places, like “Antojitos Tony,” the stream of customers is so great that, though the food is cooked in front of the customers, the massive prep-work means that the tortillas are bought prepared. They may have been pressed that very morning – premium freshness by US standards – but compared to the lifetime of minutes from a wad of dough to griddle with which a tortilla arrives on one’s table at Pozoles Atlixco next door – one can taste the difference on one’s tongue.

In Antojitos Tony, several cooks work each grill, and technique was more slipshod. It was competent by American standards – models of efficiency and replication, putting out X tacos at Y quality (where Y is 90% quality) – but indifferent. At Atlixco, the food springs to life. One woman has shepherded one dish, from scratch to plate, in minutes. The only concession to the pressure of their popularity is the woman employed to set and clear the tables. In any case, this innovation only means the masters of technique are more constantly wedded to their arenas of performance, to their babies. The tortilla is laid by hand, raw, on the warped dry griddle. It blisters. The woman picks at the edge, gingerly, catches it up, and flips it with her bare hand. It is flipped several times, reaching a state of warm weightiness tinged with a slight blackening or singing, a smokiness. And the way fresh bread can overwhelm everything the sandwich contains and become the star of the sandwich, the pre-Hispanic flatbreads of exquisitely simple ingredients can take all of one’s attention.

The capitalist scales of expansion fatally hurt the chains of knowledge and intimacy which makes Mexico’s alleys, doorways, and sidewalks into the premier gourmet stages. But by comparison with the USA, Mexican cooking knowledge is only half wiped out by corporate power. It could be that food staples in Mexico are so cheap and labor costs so low that industrialized, processed food has been unable to destroy traditional cooking entirely. Politically, too, the Mexican government probably still retains some protections of the domestic economy from foreign dominance, inherited from revolutionary times. In the US, the chains of transmission of knowledge by which cooking, as with all culturally available skills, is passed on, have long disintegrated. Once knowledge is stored not in brains but in books, this is a sign that corporate power has done its work. Cooking knowledge does not die, however. Rather, it is transformed into a commodity monopolized by specialists, experts. One type of expert, the chef, services the upper classes. The chef may be intrigued by traditional cooking knowledges, but his work is strictly an elite profession. The other kind of expert is the food technician working for industrial giants; this expert serves his or her employer by devising sugar, salt, or fat-laden formulas for mass-processed food. This crap food is aimed at the middle and lower classes, who cannot afford fresh food cooked by masters and whose chains of cultural knowledge transmission have broken.

The joy of eating in Mexico is not merely the pleasure of taste. The joy of eating in Mexico also consists in realizing how wondrous pre-capitalist realms of knowledge can be. Such traditional modes of production, whose goal is quality (the slogan, and nothing more, of industrial food), must be forced out. People do not of their own free will stop eating good food and start eating crap. This principle holds for other types of egalitarian production as well, such as the Bengali fabric industry which had to be wiped out by the British before industrially produced fabrics could flood the world. What is required is manipulation of monetary policy and nutritional regulation at the national level, to the point that the “playing field” is stacked so heavily against small producers that it becomes cheaper for the poor and middle classes to eat produced junk from 1000 miles away than to eat real food cooked across the street. When that begins to occur, with the collaboration of the national government and American corporations, pre-industrial food knowledge will begin to die. What survives will be “professional” knowledge, a commodity monopolized to the use of the rich.

There is nothing “free” about the free market. In my visit to Mexico, I noticed that Wonder, a brand whose junk bread has nearly died in the US, is now producing tortillas for Mexican convenience stores. Apparently the underpinnings of the market – ie, Mexican politics – have been sufficiently manipulated to allow the conditions under which Wonder can make a profit. Such are the politically forced underpinnings of modernity and the free market. Such is the beginning of the end for quality, but just the beginning of “quality” – crisp visuals, advertising fantasies, and overloads of fat and sugar and antibiotic preservatives – all in a plastic shell.

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