Do you know precisely and with no margin of error a dish can be declared … bullet proof? Let me tell you my opinion. It is when you can have it on an airplane and it is not … bad!
Janet and I were flying to Dallas recently to do a dinner with our great friends and celebrated American Chefs Dean Fearing, Robert Del Grande and Wolfgang Puck. When it came time for the in-flight meal …. somewhere I imagine over the Gulf of Mexico …. American Airlines gave us a choice of a Chilled Shrimp and Orzo Salad or Cheese Enchiladas… I am not trusting shrimp unless I know it is from the U.S.A. any longer. It was not lost on me that in Dallas… and especially with the two great chefs from Texas I was going to cook with … a bit ludicrous to have something even if vaguely Mexican on an airplane before touching down in the huge border country to our beautiful neighbors to the south. But damn if I wasn’t surprised when we began to try out the cheese enchiladas. I was certainly … handicapping this meal in the sky. Down at street level in Miami … not known for an abundance of fine Mexican food places this would have been acceptable. But up at 30,000 feet I noted that there were actually chilies in the enchilada sauce. If you break it down etymologically you can note the word for chile is within the word of which we are speaking today. En-chil-a-das. The gooey cheese was Velveeta …. or a close cousin … but it was nice and melty. It crushed the travel pangs of hunger with a gentle, mothering hand. The only part that seemed… ‘airline’ were the wimpy tortillas that surrounded the enchilada’s filling. But that’s also a fault we find routinely at ground level. I asked the flight attendant for a lime wedge and I soon was happier.
One of my favorite books on the histories of food is “Why We Eat, What We Eat” by Raymond Sokolov. The copy I purchased in 1991 is stored in the “Treasure Section” of my library. It is marked with many passages that have taught me a great deal. He reminds us that “before 1492, Mexican cuisine had no dishes with beef, pork, or lamb. There were no dairy products, no milk, no cream, no butter, no cheese”! Can you imagine seeing a menu in a Mexican establishment that was bereft of those ingredients so primary to what we think of Mexican food now. … This show on Cheese Enchiladas would be impossible. I might be having to write on on grasshopper ones. Before the Spanish arrival Mexicans were consuming a lot of them … as well as ants, slugs, frogs and such. We humans adapt amazingly …. because we have to.
When it comes to the specifics of Mexican cooking history I usually head to the books written by Gustavo Arellano. The tortilla begat the taco before the enchilada but probably not by long. In Gustavo’s book titled, “Taco USA” he informs us that ‘the earliest mention of ‘taco’ as a food dates only to the late nineteenth century; previously the word stood for everything from pool cue to hammer to getting drunk”.
Hey…. American Airlines…. take note from these frequent flyers. Your high altitude cheese enchiladas did not… thankfully … crash land.
I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my Word on Food ©.
© 2019 Norman Van Aken