Would You Like Tortilla Chips with That?

I’m a big fan of Mexican food. I generally describe it as my default meal; if I don’t know what I’m in the mood for, well, I can always eat Mexican. Now I grew up in Los Angeles, and L.A. is pretty well dominated by Mexican eateries, but I don’t think it was when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I ate hamburgers, and pizza, and sub sandwiches and all that other stuff, and while I know that I had Mexican from time to time, with one exception it doesn’t stand out in my mind.

That one exception is taco night. The nights, and they weren’t rare but they were far from common, when we’d have tacos for dinner. In my house, tacos meant frying up a corn tortilla, in hot oil, until it was just crisp enough to hold that important vee shape, then filling it with layers of ground beef, diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese and some sort of hot sauce. It was a simple meal, but it was fun and engaging; it was a chance to not just eat dinner but to build it.

Now God and I went out for Mexican food yesterday and we got to talking about the variety of dishes that all come down to pretty much the same thing. Tortillas, beans, rice, meat, and some basic vegetables. Whether you’re having a taco, a burrito, an enchilada, tacquitos, or even nachos, those are the ingredients. I asked God if these people just had no imagination or if they were afraid to try something new. She told me I was looking at it all wrong. She said that given the few ingredients they had available, they had managed to come up with an amazing variety of dishes.

She also pointed out that there are plenty of Mexican dishes that I was ignoring. What about tamales? I said they were just what happened when you wanted an enchilada but your tortilla press was broken. What about chile rellenos? Again just falling back on the enchilada formula but this time when there was not just a lack of a tortilla press, or the lack of time to use one, but no corn from which to make the tortillas. But God was undaunted. She asked about molĂ©, she asked about albondigas, she asked about the venerated Caesar Salad. So finally I gave in. I admitted that my limited view of Mexican cuisine was no more valid than the foreigners who think that all we Americans know how to cook is hamburgers and hot dogs. But still I’ve had some awfully good hamburgers, some great hot dogs, and a hand-dipped corn dog can be sublime.

Of course, now that I think about it, dipping a hot dog in corn-meal batter has something vaguely Mexican about it.

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