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"It Takes a TortillaÖ"
Mexicans Turn to an Ancient Reliable Snack

by Sheila Maynes

Editor's Note - Sheila Mayne is back. With Tacos!

For those of you who missed the poignant and depressing film El Norte a few years back, thereís a scene that shows a Mexican bussboy introducing a Guatemalan newly-hired bussboy to his job. The American hotel allows them a free breakfast before work and the Guatemalan looks puzzled at the croissant on his plate. "Whatís this?" he asks. "Itís some sort of bread," his friend replies. "Itís not as good as a tortilla, but youíll get used to them."

So hereís Sheilaís take on this ubiquitous, enduring and ultimate utilitarian fast food; the ingenious combination of unleavened bread with whatever is within armís reach that was once alive: The Taco!

"My busiest time is 9:30 a.m.," says Paco Lara. "People on their way to work, or taking a break from having worked already a few hours, crowd my stand to get some breakfast."

Out of the back of a clean and polished pickup, Paco amicably greets his customers and pronounces the selection of the day, "Beans, potatoes, and stewed meat." In less than five minutes, Paco hands the hungry customer a plastic plate, neatly loaded with an array of steaming tortillas, each folded and carrying a savory center, ah, the delectable taco, the quintessential Mexican "sandwich."

In the ever-increasing pressure of modern life, Mexicans are relying on the ancient taco to sustain them through their busy workdays. From presidents to laborers, and from desert pueblos to Mexico City high-rises, Mexican people depend on tacos as the any time snack that can carry them over between meals or serve as a satisfying meal in itself. The taco fillings are as varied as there are people and tastes in Mexico, and the tortilla as its wrapper has been its unflagging carrier for hundreds of years.

For a foreigner, it is useful to know that tacos are categorized and labeled according to both their mode of preparation and according to their filling. Taco stands usually have a sign indicating which type of taco, by preparation and/or filling, they sell. For example, Paco's stand has a sign proclaiming Tacos Vapor; that is they are pre-made and kept in a steaming kettle. Other modes of preparation are grilled or fried.

Fillings also vary according to preparation. A simple beef taco cannot be ordered, but a shredded beef, dried beef, stewed beef, ground beef, or beef-off-a-spit taco can. Furthermore, the cow offers more than its flesh-beef-for tacos. One can also enjoy a bite of cow's tongue, or savor a stew of eyeballs, or chew on a cow's stomach. In the northern city of Monterrey, the juicy cheeks of cows are slowly cooked for a popular Sunday brunch taco, called barabacoa.

A rare and considerably more precious beefy treat is that which is called criadillas de res. These meaty jewels are the testicles of a toro and are not so easy to be found as there are only two per bull.

Pork is also used as meat for tacos: spicy sausage with scrambled eggs, tender leg of pig, and smoky cured ham fill golden tortillas producing yet more mouthwatering choices.

The vegetarian need not feel left out. Tacos of napolitos (a common Mexican cactus), fresh cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, and naturally, the most common flavor, beans offer non-meat eaters healthy and flavorful options.

For those with more exotic and adventurous tastes, arthropods, generally known as "bugs," may offer just the right bite. When the Conquistadors arrived in the Americas, they noted that the indigenous people appreciated a variety of insects as food. Today, this appreciation still exists: tacos filled with crisp grasshoppers, succulent maguey worms, and-for a more rare treat, taco escamalies, ant eggs can be had.

Regardless of the type of taco one has ordered, once it is served to the customer, she or he has the pleasure of adding the final touches to its making. Fresh condiments, sitting in dishes along the taco stand counter top, offer delicate and pungent flavors to enhance the taco's rich center. Fresh shredded lettuce or cabbage, crisp radish slices, piquant cilantro, healthy onion and tomato chunks, squeezes of lime, and dashes of salsa are judiciously sprinkled into the tacos by the customer, creating for him or her a unique combination of flavors.

When the daytime taco vendors have closed their stands, a whole other group of vendors set up their businesses for the evening and nighttime customers. In Mexico City especially, a sudden craving for tacos can be gratified and satiated at any time of day. But whatever time or place it is, when one is seated at a taco stand, such as Paco's, and the warm smells of corn tortillas and grilling meat waft through the air, one can imagine that maybe hundreds, or even thousands, of years before someone else sat in the same spot, with Paco's great, great, great, great grandfather, patiently awaiting his or her serving of delicious, savory tacos.

September, 2000
Copyright Sheila Maynes

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