This past summer, I worked at a law firm in Los Angeles. One day, all the interns (myself included) went to have Mexican food for lunch. To better inform the story, here is a brief synopsis of my Mexican food experience up to that point:
1. When I was 8, my parents took us to a cowboy themed restaurant in Colorado. There was a show with high-divers and a video arcade. The food was Mexican: tacos and enchiladas. My brother and I stared at our plates dumbfounded. My mother said: “Don’t worry, boys, you don’t have to eat it. We’ll get hamburgers after the show.”
2. When I was 16, I went with my friends to Taco Bell. I had tacos with meat and crunchy cinnamon sticks.
3. When I started Emory, everyone went to Tortilla’s on Ponce. I went with them. They ordered burritos. I ordered a burrito. They loved it. I hated it.
4. As time progressed, burritos were unavoidable. I went with friends to Willy’s and eventually Moe’s. One day I would compose not one but two songs about my experiences. The songs, though, came after my summer internship. Excluding the songs, then, this was the extent of my Mexican food awareness.
We sat down at a large table. Someone ordered pitchers of margaritas. (Lawyers like to drink at lunch). I eventually leaned over to a fellow intern.
“What are you having?” I asked sweetly.
“A tamale,” he answered matter-of-factly.
“What’s a tamale?” I replied.
A siren began to blare.
“WHAT’S A TAMLE!” He leaped out of his seat. “OH MY GOD! ADAM DOESN’T KNOW WHAT A TAMALE IS!”
The interns began cackling with furious laughter.
“HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW WHAT A TAMALE IS? WHERE ARE YOU FROM? QUEBEC?!”
“Actually,” I mumbled, “Atlanta.”
“DO THEY NOT HAVE TAMALES IN ATLANTA? IS IT ALL FRIED CHICKEN AND COLLARD GREENS?”
“Now look here,” I responded with righteous indignation. “First of all, stop speaking in all caps. And second of all, Atlanta is a cultural haven with all sorts of authentic ethnic food, including Mexican. I was just raised in a gastronomically ethno-exclusive household. Our food repertoire was very limited. And my dad hates cheese.”
The interns were unimpressed. I sank back in my chair. I ordered a taco.
I now know–or at least I think I know–what a tamale is. I have also, I’ll have them know (a) made guacamole in pitch black darkness (see Blackout post); (b) attempted to fry my own tortilla chips; and (c) watched “Frida” starring Salma Hayek on DVD. Satisfied?
Tonight, though, I leaped far ahead in my quest for Mexican self-respect. At Moe’s, where I needed to grab a quick dinner, I decided to forego my usual Triple Lindy burrito and to go where no proud Roberts Family member has ever gone. I ordered a Quesadilla.
“Black beans and chicken?” asked the Quesadilla chef.
“Sour cream and salsa on the side?”
“Sure,” I responded.
He then leaned over the counter, his eyes darkening.
“I know who you are,” he said.
I looked around me nervously.
“You are the man who doesn’t know what a Tamale is.”
I turned red. “News travels fast.”
He pulled back and slapped the beans on my Quesadilla with an unsettling thrust. He threw my Quesadilla on the grill and I watched the cheese and beans bubble and sizzle.
So when it was all said and done, what did I think?
To be honest, I liked it. It was perfect. Not as filling as a burrito, but not so light as to be insubstantial. Reasonably priced, flavorful and easy to eat: I am a Quesadilla convert.
I left, kicking my heels, proud of my new step towards self-improvement. Just as I opened the door, someone threw a tamale at my head.
I swung around. A tumbleweed drifted past. The theme from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” played.
“Adios, Tamale man,” said the Quesadilla maker.
“We’ll meet again,” I said, in my best John Wayne voice, wiping the tamale from my head. “What’s in this anyway? Corn?”
A throng of protesters began to chase me, but that’s another story. Til later, buckaroo, happy trails.