It was November 1987 in Michigan on a cold day that I ventured outside the rental until I was sharing with my friend Tyrone (we were both 17 and emancipated) and walked two blocks to a payphone to call my mother in Texas. I had moved out over the summer but I was calling back to get some vital information, specifically I needed to know how to cook tacos. When I say “cook tacos”, I don’t mean using some pre-packaged spice mix in a bag that is marketed toward Americans who want to eat something vaguely ethnic, I mean the real deal stuff that is prepared every day in kitchens every day by people who probably pick your vegetables and manicure your lawns.
The funny thing is that up until that time I had never evinced any interest in cooking. My mother was a very good cook but as a dude I had never really given cooking a second thought, that was until my roommate and I, living a block from McDonalds, had filled up on burgers and fries for the better part of three months. One day I had really gotten the urge for home cooking which is why I was now making the call to confer with my mother in Texas.
The basic recipe of ground beef, chili powder, onion, garlic, salt, and a jalpeño, has remained with me virtually unchanged from that day aside from minor tweaking on the amounts of the aforementioned ingredients. I also now make my own salsa on the side which involved using a mortar and pestle to pulverize a clove of minced up garlic, some onion, and about five boiled jalapeños after which I add a can of stewed tomatoes and salt as well as a little cilantro if I have some handy. I always fry thin corn tortillas myself (the thick ones do not work and using pre made Ortega taco shells is something I’m sure lands people in Mexican Hell, the details on which I’m kind of hazy but I’m sure it’s pretty hot). Add to that some cheese and refried beans if you are so inclined and those are the kind of tacos that are both very easy to make and authentically TexaMexiganian. I hunger myself even thinking about it.
Fast forward more than 23 years and the other day I found myself on the receiving end of a phone call from my son who recently moved many states away. He was calling to confer on (what else?) the recipe for tacos as he was going to try his hand at cooking some for the first time in his life (I had given him instruction a little while before that as I had him watch my cooking in action but this was to be his first solo attempt). We conferred, he began cooking and, still on the phone, he remarked that the kitchen was beginning to smell like my cooking. The results of his first attempt were this: he said his tacos weren’t quite as good as mine but he said his friends all agreed that they were very good. One guy, he said, ate seven of them. In case you were wondering if your friends were simply being polite, there is your answer, I said. People will politely eat a small portion of sub-par food in order to be polite. If they ate seven of them, that means the food was damn good. The oven mitt has been passed.
As an interesting aside, I just noticed that some of the Spanish words I use for utensils are not only the only words I use for them (I almost never say griddle or mortar and pestle), I’m not even familiar with how to spell the words in Spanish. Comal? Mocajete? I’m illiterate in Spanish!!!