“Con todo,” rolled off my tongue automatically whenever I approached those beloved metallic carts parked precariously on congested street corners in my hometown of Caracas.
It didn’t matter that it was steaming hot outside, that a distressing amount of flies were on a holding pattern awaiting tasty scraps or that I was standing in a puddle of questionable grey water at the time. All senses were zeroed in on the incomparable meal I was about to have.
The man in the white cap would give me a slight nod, an acknowledgment that I had requested my order “with everything,” and begin creating the best hot dog known to mankind in seven seconds flat.
He’d pluck the link out of murky waters and plop it onto a steamed bun, and then, the expert assembling began.
Diced onion. More diced onion.
A hefty grating of fresh white cheese.
And a huge mountain of shoestring potato chips to top it all off.
If he was a jovial guy, and they all were, he’d drizzle some more pink sauce on top. Because in Venezuela, you can never have too much salsa rosada.
The expertise used sprinkling, drizzling, squeezing, grating, and piling all items with such bravado and fanfare could have easily served as inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character, Brian Flanagan, in Cocktail. Not only were you being given the best hot dog in the world, but you were being given the best hot dog in the world with a show.
It was heaven in a bun. The type of experience you just had to close your eyes for, because your other senses would simply be short-circuited if they dared function at the same time.
I’d block out the horns and the people and, yes, even the flies, and I’d take a big bite filled with crunch and soft and heat and smoky meat and it was the most delightful, delicious six seconds of my life. And then I’d do it again and again and again until I’d be left with crumbs on my lips, a dirty napkin and a small mound of fallen potato sticks on the ground.
I’ll give you the recipe, but, unless you’re on a street corner in Sabana Grande or Las Mercedes, hearing the crazy car horns and the shouts of “epa mi pana!” or “como esta la vaina?” it’s really not the same.
1 hot dog, 1 bun
diced white onion
spicy sauce (use your favorite kind)
Salsa Rosada (Pink Sauce: a mixture of mayo, ketchup and a dab of spicy sauce)
Queso blanco, rayado (in Gringospeak this translates to any of those hard, white Latin cheeses they sell in most supermarkets. Take a chunk and grate it, plop that on top.)
Bread haunts me so.I am not supposed to eat it this week (a Passover thing) and so, it teases.And lures.And promises me I can’t live without it.
The scale reconfirms Jewish law:I can live without it (the scale insists for longer than one measly week).The rolls forming on my gut reconfirm that Jewish law and scale are correct (when did this happen?)But the bread, ah the bread, in all its glorious forms is insurmountable torture to go without.There are warm bagels sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and spread with generous seas of creamy cream cheese or ciabata bread, with its extra chewy crunch on the outside, torn open to reveal those craters of dough forming planet-like surfaces which beckon wild blueberry jam to get trapped and devoured in.And of course, let’s not forget the French epi loaf with thorns of golden crunch running up and down the captivating baguette like an edible spine.I am shameless with this loaf, leaving intellect behind, notions of carbs and calories and such; I just tear at these spines, ripping whole chunks of epi off their vine and devour them warm and whole, slathering the occasional hunk of butter or brie, if I have self-control or time or either. These are breads I can’t live without.
So, yes, the idea of a boxed cracker called matzo…well, pales in comparison.Don’t get me wrong. I look forward to the initial matzo meeting.There is nothing quite like a whole piece of matzo slathered with butter and a toxic sprinkling of salt.This is how my father taught me to eat matzo and almost anything else:butter and a toxic sprinkling of salt.Butter and salt is how the purists do it, the Israelis, or sabras:the real matzo men (and women).Other ways seem pointless after that.And I’ve tried: egg salad, peanut butter, chopped chicken liver.Some work.Some scream out for the real yeast deal.
I admit then that that first, second, even third piece of matzo was delightful, delicious, a real embracing of my Jewish roots and a straight shot back to my childhood, where, finding matzo in the Latin Catholic country of Venezuela was a feat in itself.But then pieces got stuck in my teeth.And I had to pick them out.And I felt I had eaten cement. Lots and lots of cement with butter.And horribly so, the charoset, that lovely Passover delicacy of dates, figs, apples, nuts and wine, ran out.That stuff does wonders to a piece of matzo.Right up there with the butter.But when I went dry on that, the matzo went awfully dry.
So somehow I found myself traveling to every bakery for every other possible thing one would get at a bakery:truffle mousse at Le Croissant Time, fresh pasta at Doris (strategically placed by their bakery),hazelnut coffee at the bagel shop.I knew this would not end well for me.I understood it was not fair to me.I have no self-control when it comes to food.None. Zero.It is not in my DNA like food and all things food is.Guilt riddles me somewhat, but then that wafting of warm dough sings and dances in my nostrils and I inevitably cave, like I did this Passover, like I did last.
I don’t go crazy on the bread:a fugitive sandwich in a darkened room, a warm bagel incognito in the car on the run.Abstract places for abstract delights.There is no outright celebration of all things yeast, but still, I can’t bear to turn them away, not even for the week.I hope to not have let anyone down:my rabbi, God, my scale.And so I keep the matzo box nearby, just so.And the butter is always soft.
“If you let your leg dangle just a teensy weensy bit off the side of the bed, the bed monster will get you,” my older sister informed a gullible six-year old me many many moons ago.Her steady, authoritative gaze bore deeply into my impressionable eyes and I instantly believed her.Why wouldn’t I?She was my big sister and my guide to survival in life.Whatever she said, stuck.
And so, this freshly seared image of a patient beast (slightly benevolent and cuddly but with a wicked temper that could turn on you in an instant) housed itself in my psyche and settled in so comfortably that it took me years to stop sleeping with my feet safely curled up by my chest…just in case.
I would greet mornings with a quiet sigh of relief and a quick toe count and then eagerly jump out of bed to the welcoming aroma of our nanny Yolanda’s cooking.Yolanda seemed to never sleep, for, walking into the brightly lit kitchen as dawn turned to day was like entering a whirlwind of a restaurant at high peak.Pots clattered, coffee brewed, fresh orange juice awaited, and something always sizzled on the stovetop.
On top of being an amazing cook, she seemed psychic as well, for, on nights that had seemed particularly bumpy (maybe my foot had accidently slipped and my big toe leaned precariously over the side, maybe I had felt a sharp claw or furry paw make its deadly move) she’d erase my troubled, sleepless look with a batch of her famous empanadas de carne, meat empanadas.These would sputter shamelessly on the skillet, ending up as golden crescents exploding with seasoned meat, carrots and potatoes.Crunching into them made my stomach and every other part of me, for that matter, feel happy and safe.
Years later I confessed to my sister the countless nights I slept curled in a ball, not because I liked it, but because I felt my life depended on it.She seemed puzzled and asked me why and I, aghast, reminded her that it was because of the monster story she told me when we were little.A chuckle escaped her mouth and her blue eyes softened and sparkled at me.
“Seriously?” she said,“I don’t even remember saying that.”
I could have kicked her, as siblings do.But instead, I joined her in her chuckle and more than anything, got an instant craving for Yolanda’s meat empanadas.
He kissed me, not a soft kiss, but a forced, hurried one, right between Period 4 and Period 5, we stood there in a secret rushed moment of youth, I, at the ripened age of eleven and him, a much wiser and older twelve, he kissed me.
And it was disgusting.
Not what little girls tucked comfortably away in their pink canopy beds dream about or are read to in tales of princes and peas where the kiss is The Event of Grandeur, ever so tender and complete and enveloping.The girl loses senses.Knees buckle.Long perfect blonde hair cascades between them.A tiny sigh is heard.And life as we know it is renewed.
This is what I had expected, what I’d been promised, in countless years of fairy tale grooming.And even though it was the seventies, an era where women proudly burned bras and demanded from men things that had never been demanded before, this little girl expected to swoon, blush, and feel whole and refreshed by her first kiss.
Instead, oceans of bubble gum grape saliva had infested my mouth.I’d always been a big fan of Hubba Bubba, heck, my sister and I nurtured our reputations based on the proud acknowledgement that we knew the guy who’d invented its unforgettable flavor, but, the critical difference was that I chose when to taste it and between Period 4 and Period 5 in the stairwell that day was not one of those moments.
My kissing mate misread my initial hesitation as a moment of shyness (one of many poor calls in judgement) and proceeded to plunge further into my mouth; his thirsty, clumsy tongue digging deeper and deeper in feign attempts of pleasure he swept my throat for tonsils, it seemed.And I fought this alien creature slivering inside me, eyes watering, mind spinning, I wondered why I’d been fooled into believing this would be the luckiest moment of my life (and with a sixth grader no less!) But instincts are uncontrollable things and mine kicked in after the initial moment of horror wore off. I ripped myself away from my self-appointed courter and, right there, between Period 4 and Period 5, on his Nike-clad feet (coveted shoes hard to secure in Venezuela back then) I spat, spat, spat that Hubba Bubba flavor in desperate efforts to remove the memory from mind.
I looked up to find a small ego staring back at me (for no one had used his toes as a spittoon before) and my eyes winced as my body moved away (wishing now I’d taken the main stairs and gotten a good seat at World Geography instead) and not a word transpired between us, two fallen lovebirds, both equally shocked by the action of the other, we drifted away leaving the stairwell with its memory and puddle of grape saliva.
It recently became fashionable to celebrate our obsession with list taking.You know the books: 1000 Places to Visit Before You Die,1000 Things To Do and even the movie, The Bucket List, a melodramatic journey of Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two old men revisiting dreams and rekindling failed relationships.Even Oprah Winfrey’s O List has a way of magically transforming the item mentioned into an instant best seller, whether it is a book, a product, or a personality like Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz.We are a culture obsessed with lists: little items, thoughts, or deeds we must write down to check off and feel a sense of accomplishment.I’m not knocking it; I am a list queen myself.If I don’t write it down (to then check it off), it doesn’t get done.And then, sometimes it still doesn’t get done!I have pads of paper at my nearest reach:lost in the scary place that is my purse, scattered about my vehicle, fighting for space amongst half forgotten water bottles (baking for hours in the hot Florida sun), and then there is the grocery pad list on the fridge AND the iPhone application lists, iGrocery andTo Do’s, respectively.Lists are a necessity.A requirement.So, why don’t I have one for food, I wondered out loud the other day while tackling the careful balance of tastes in my refrigerator (breathe the wrong way and my leaning towers of food will collapse)?
The answer for this one is a no-brainer for me:my tastes are too erratic, too temperamental, too unconfined to confine them to a list.That is the answer I want to give:it sounds cosmopolitan and articulate, the only snag is that it is, well…wrong.
Whereas I pride myself in being a culinary adventurer (I’ve yet to turn anything down, although I may take pause with the live cockroaches in China), I find myself headed down the road of comfort time and time again, back to meals that intrinsically make me feel better because of the emotional connection I have to them. Meals with a childhood story woven into them have me hooked, regardless if they are far from Michelin stars, and the older I get the more I seem to crave them.
So, while, yes, I do enjoy greatly a reduction of lamb with truffle foam and a sprinkling of fresh dandelion (it’s good, trust me) I am proud to say I happily gobble up a bowl of Spanish rice, not only because it is hot and filling and good, but also because each bite is brimming with stories my mother told me as a youth: stories about her adventures as a young adult in New York City, where money didn’t go far and to splurge on a meal meant to buy ground beef for a fancy dish of, you guessed it, Spanish Rice (always made to impress boyfriends, no less.) These were tales of adventure, resilience, and determination, not cuisine.
My mother, allegedly could not boil a pot of water before she got married, a detail I always questioned and deemed as wildly exaggerated for my mom was not only a cook, but a chef, creating delightful surprises meal after meal after meal. Yet I felt hugged and loved and nourished by the simplicity of her big bowl of Spanish rice which she’d happily plop in front of me, year after year and I’d ask, each time it seemed, I’d ask, for those stories of her in New York with her best friend Virginia and the endless amounts of Spanish rice. And so in my safe, comfortable home in Venezuela, where I would want for nothing and, quite frankly, was spoiled rotten as the youngest of three girls, I envisioned my tall and beautiful mother in her dank apartment on the Upper West Side (and not the chic part) scraping up enough to splurge on this delightful feast of Spanish rice, the same I would be spooning up happily in her company all those years later.
Spanish rice is not fancy. It’s not emulsified.It’s not even on a restaurant menu.But that doesn’t stop it from being top on my list, especially when paired with a nice green salad, a glass of hearty red, and the memory of a great story.
What’s top on your food list? Let me hear from you!