I’m not sure I would even call it comfort food. It’s my favorite meal of all time. If I’m ever to be executed, I will request tacos (cooked and assembled my way) as my last meal.
Oh, sure, I love roasted turkey and all the trimmings; I love Chef Boy ‘R Mine’s pear salad; I love a perfectly grilled steak; and I adore lobster. But tacos (cooked and assembled my way) are the crème de la crème – the very pinnacle of my own personal haute cuisine pyramid.
Cooked my way is a long story.
Half-a-century ago when I was born, my parents were stationed at 29 Palms, California – a Marine Corps base tucked into the Mojave with the nearest place of any size being Palm Springs. As my dad tells it, the only thing in Palm Springs they could afford was gas, because gas was dirt cheap everywhere. [Yes, I remember free “china” at gas stations – anything to persuade you to buy their gas – attendants who pumped it, washed your windshield, checked your oil, and topped your tires. I remember the outrage of $1/gallon gas. I’m digressing.]
For fun, the parents would drive into Los Angeles – quite a distance – and splurge on hamburgers. I came along and ate up what disposable income they had for hamburgers in L.A. That’s when the folks discovered tay-cos (rhymes with pay-toes). Now when I was 7, you could get tacos, um, tay-cos, 12 for a $1. I imagine they were even cheaper 7 years earlier.
My parents were from the Ann Arbor area of Michigan. My mother was a picky eater. My father was not, but he’d grown up poor so there wasn’t much variety. Southern California cuisine was about as exotic as they’d ever encountered. It could only have been the abject poverty of a private’s pay and the desire to have some sort of nightlife that provoked them to try them there tay-cos.
Well, my brother came along and 10 cent a gallon gas (plus china!) and 12 tay-cos for less than a buck was Too Much Money.
Here the adventure begins.
They decided to make them at home with my dad dreaming of becoming the King of Franchised Tacos. (This was way before Taco Bell.)
Being in Southern California, the ingredients were easily enough purchased – the ingredients as they derived them to be, anyway.
Armed with tortillas (tor-till-ahs), ground beef, onion, tomato, cheese, and iceberg lettuce, they commenced.
There was an immediate snag.
After a few failed attempts, they couldn’t for the life of them figure out how to fry the tor-till-ahs so that they could be filled without a) the tor-till-ahs breaking, or b) the tor-till-ah sticking to itself once folded.
They set to thinking. [My parents are not stupid people. You won’t believe this after the following paragraph, but, really, they’re not.]
Now I told you that my mother likes to sew. I’m not sure which of the two of them came up with the idea, but she got out the sewing machine and sewed those suckers.
[I’ve had nearly 50 years to wrap my brain around this and I still can’t fathom how they thought that was going to solve the problem. The both of them get to laughing so hard, their explanations can’t be understood. I did ask them about the thread. They manage to gasp that it pulled out easily enough once they were cooked. And then they collapse into fits of maniacal laughter again.]
About that time or a few years later, my dad developed a friendship with another Marine who was married, they say, to the world’s stupidest woman. Isabella was a good-hearted woman, friendly, loved her husband and children fiercely, but, to hear tell of it, her husband and my parents lived in real fear that she was going to accidentally kill someone with her stupidity. [This from the people sewing tor-till-ahs to make tay-cos.]
I’m not sure how it came about, but I imagine it was because Isabella was Mexican, but one of them grilled Isabella about tay-cos making or, perhaps, Isabella happened to be around when they were being made. After snickering a bit (I’m sure), she corrected their pronunciation and showed them.
[To this day, I’m not sure if Isabella was made privy to the sewing debacle or if they kept that to themselves. Probably not – I get my ability to laugh at myself from my folks. A good story is a good story.]
After my having talked to a couple of Mexicans and learning what a proper taco is, Isabella probably sneered at what they were filling those tacos with, but if she was she kept that to herself. [I don’t think Isabella was as stupid as she was made out to be though I’ve heard some doozies of some stories from the tay-cos/tor-till-ah people. Isabella is a legend.]
I’ve had authentic tacos. They’re okay. [Trust me on this – there is no place in West Virginia you can get an authentic taco. If Mexicans weren’t the fastest growing ethnic group in Appalachia, I’d go so far as to say there is no place in Appalachia to get an authentic taco. I will say that anywhere other than the just north of the Mexican border is going to prove difficult to find an authentic taco.]
So. I grew up on tacos that were an amalgam of Isabella’s teaching and my parents’ food preferences. They were my favorite food long before my first day of school.
Thursdays at school were always tacos in the hot lunch line. I almost always took my lunch, but on Thursdays I had my 15 cents firmly clutched in hand. We moved from California to Hawaii and tacos at school ceased. That was kind of okay, because they didn’t do them right at school, but a bad taco is better than no taco. I begged tacos all the time; and, if dinner was at home, I always had tacos for my birthday.
Tacos started moving into the mainstream and our at-home tacos morphed and changed (with some aspects inviolate). We went from unseasoned ground beef to packets of taco seasoning. We went from shredded American cheese to sharp cheddar. At some point, “taco sauce” (the precursor to mass produced salsa) was added. More importantly, I’m not sure what Isabella taught them about frying tortillas, but what I grew up with was corn tortillas fried very briefly (just enough to make them really limp) and then stacked on paper towel to absorb the grease. (No folding.)
It has to be CORN tortillas. Those flour things are dreadful – ack, spit, ugh.
Once, we bought one of those taco kits at the store and were appalled.
Half the fun of tacos is the assembly. We all do it differently.
I’m insistent that the proper order is as follows:
Fold the shell in half and while keeping it folded but open with your left hand, spoon in seasoned ground beef followed by iceberg lettuce, THEN tomatoes, THEN onion, THEN cheese, and finally taco sauce (or salsa, these days). Any other ordering of the ingredients changes the taste, changes the texture, and makes me cranky.
My mother insists that the cheese be put directly on top of the meat, followed by the salsa and the rest of it whichever way the bowls are going around the table. Dad, too, likes the cheese on the meat and is just as persnickety about the order of the rest of it. My brother doesn’t seem to really care.
I can flat out put away some tacos. I love ‘em – grease and salsa dripping down my chin, the cold of the cheese, the hot of the meat, the crunch of the lettuce. I’ve been known to groan with delight.
My parents have switched to those crunchy, nasty things in a box that are called tortillas, because real corn tortillas get harder and harder to find.
I eat a lot of tacos in the summer. Homegrown ‘maters turn an already perfect food into something that rises beyond what words can describe. In the winter, I’ve taken to using those canned diced tomatoes. Like I said, a bad taco is better than no taco.
If I’m really jonesing for a taco and can’t, for whatever reason, make them myself – I’ll do a run through the Taco Bell. Though I order “crunchy tacos,” I don’t delude myself into really thinking of them as tacos. It’s akin, I think, to alcoholics and those alcohol-free beers. It’s better than nothing and wards off the shakes.
Today I just had to have a taco. I absolutely had to go out and get some groceries (I was down to green bean omelets) and decided to get the ingredients and make them tomorrow. But while putting away the food, I kept looking longingly at those tortillas (tor-tee-yas) and decided to make tacos (tah-cos). Even if it was late. Even if I had things to do.
I do love tacos. The kitchen is a mess and I’m too full to move. I will not embarrass myself by enumerating the number of tacos I had.
I’ve got enough stuff left over that I can gorge on tacos for the next two or three days. I’m a happy woman.