Mom’s scalloped potatoes in a creamy grey milky sauce looked like something you’d see coating a Paper Mache monkey, or what I would later realize in an “oh wow” moment, covering the android Ash in “Alien” during his barf and whacking scene (Actually, the scene reminded me of both Mom’s potatoes and spaghetti).

The grey goop sat in a steaming rectangular CorningWare dish with little polka dots of pink spam poking toe-like at every angle. Mom’s cooking was always a sort of building caved in on itself. Splashes of pink in food could have been anything. Anyway, she had cut the spam into brick shapes. Odds and ends. Curves. There was never any real order to her cutting anything. I couldn’t even say her bricks were stackable, which is why they looked like toes.

A big heaping spoonful on my plate meant watching a soupy gooey mess slop off the potatoes, not much unlike flesh caught in a flash fire and falling apart. I figured if potatoes could scream they would. But they didn’t. And neither did I. Not for the first fifteen years of my life anyway.

Seconds, please?

When I think about Stevie Wonder sitting at a grand piano tink-tink-a-tinkling those keys and singing about whatever is on his mind, I imagine he still sees beauty. There’s still a gorgeous world, right? You know, Mary Ingalls, she imagined beauty too while standing at the window in her family’s little house in Walnut Grove, or on a street corner, just gazing, like pretty stars were everywhere (and big angel wings on everyone). It was all beautiful.

I know it’s just TV. But the blind can see beauty. Yes’m.

Then you take something like food. If you’re blind to the nuances of its varied bland tastes practically your whole life (until you’re a teenager) then you’re really messed up. The good thing is, when I was around fifteen, food became epic as the fast-food nation craze in the Eighties saved my ass. And I have to say, thank God my parents’ relationship fell apart in the Eighties. Mom’s cooking disappeared and Carl’s Jr. was the Buddha. And thank God for Asia Market, because as greasy as that little store’s kitchen noodles were, it was my first foray into exotic foods. Moo shoo salvation.

Back to the Seventies.

Sure, those years often revolved around TV dinners. Little foil trays filled with goodies cooked in the oven. There was lots of Swiss steak. Mountains of it. Talk about another soupy gooey mess. Mom made her version of it too. Only, I’m not sure anything covered it but some weird gravy and onions. And the meat was tough and probably ripped right off the cheek of some cow (Pops was always finding a deal, and he carried lots of big knives and a gun).

Come to think of it, Swiss steak was a real delicacy in our house. As plain as it was and as canned as the mashed potatoes were, it was just a fucking treat. I gobbled the shit like it was straight from some old fat European cook dumped right on my plate (I’m a quarter Swedish. Mom was half. So maybe she loved the Swiss! Wa-la! Wasn’t like she was going to get to sleep with one).

And yes, her delicacy smelled a little like dog food. But that could have been because our fat sheltie’s dog dish was always a big splattered mess under the kitchen table. Every dinner smelled a little like Alpo. Or the generic equivalent.

It was great preparation for the years I worked in a dairy.

Now, Mom’s corned beef hash made me gag. I wouldn’t touch the shit. Give me her crummy attempt at chorizo and eggs anytime over that plate of dog crap. I’m half Mexican… Warning: Never let a white Midwesterner from Iowa cook your family’s Mexican food. You will be fucking screwed up for years. Although, why the hell Pops never complained is beyond me. He ate the shit like he was the dog getting a plate of mom’s salty spaghetti. Our dog, Candy? She wouldn’t touch the corned beef hash either. Poor thing. Probably what killed her in her sleep. I loved the little bitch. But I don’t even know what was in the hash mash, and I refuse to describe its texture, so let’s move on.

A real family delicacy down in the south side of Bakersfield where I grew up could really fill the house (and the neighborhood) with a foul smell. You think Mom’s corned beef hash could turn away a starving army? Or that her chorizo was all that could give an entire ghetto of my Mexican cousins the shits? Try a hot steamy cookie sheet filled with hot dogs carefully sliced down the centers (because Mom took care in slicing her wieners) and then heap (I mean fucking heap) mounds of fake mashed potatoes on top. Take that shit and slam it in the oven for an hour, so that no juice is left in those dogs (By this time every particle is in the atmosphere scaring the little cholos back inside their houses). Then, pull those dogs out of the oven and put those bad boys on the dinner table. That’s where we all sat, Pops at the head in his big wooden chair (us on benches). Once in a long while he blessed the food (Don’t remember what he said because I was usually holding my breath). And then chow time.

You’ve never seen such burnt potatoes slide eagerly down so many throats. I mean, we would have eaten that shit raw Mom’s cooking was so bad.

Oh, man, Pops. He sat there in his shorts (never wore a shirt) with his big brown hairy belly smashed against the table, and he would slop on half a bottle of ketchup. Leaning forward, he ate those bitches like they were some kind of fancy French eclairs some fat fucking Frenchman would buy all warm and tasty on the way to the Paris Metro. And there Pops went, eating three helpings, and the dog whining cause she didn’t get any, and me eating my food, trying like hell to crane my neck to see the TV because the “Wonderful World of Disney” was on and this was a bonafide Sunday evening treat.

I can go on. But I just wanted you to know why I boycott spam, or anything that claims having been scalloped, or chorizo from even the best Mexican restaurants, and most skinny noodles (Mom cooked Fideo and it looked like some poor soul’s brains had been cooked with the meninges melting away into a noodle stew).

Ah, the delicacies. I sure hope it’s dinner time for you. Word to your mother.

As children, my sister and I would fight mercilessly for the dining room chair with the armrests. My parents had a mismatched set—2 chairs with them, two chairs without. One of the prized chairs went to my father, always. The other one remained up in the air. We had to devise our complaint plans carefully. If things escalated past a certain point of shrillness, or, heaven forbid, reached for tears, the up-for-grabs chair with the armrests would go to my mother.

“Settled!” she would yell, plopping herself down as my sister and I, defeated, scowled at each other and struggled throughout the meal with where to put our stupid little arms.

Here, in México Viejo, I feel like I’ve won for good, been granted the lifelong vindication with which I can now, via my penchant for self-satisfied teasing (a characteristic necessary to any successful older brother), torture, if only in some unspoken way, my sister back in Illinois. The armrests here are huge enough to house our old seven-year-old bodies comfortably, and I feel compelled to use the space, soak up the luxury, slide my arms from the inside edge to the outside and back again.

“Why are you doing that?” Louisa asks, “You look like some demented chicken.”

Through a screen of pickled nopal cactus salad with tomatillo, garlic, and cilantro, I muster my best, food-drunk, “Bok-bok-bokaaaaaahhhk!” to Louisa’s shaking head.

The cactus leaps in my mouth quite unlike any chicken-feed, food-drunk or otherwise, gives-in to my teeth like something vaguely marine, the soft interior organ-gum of some aphrodisiac crustacean, reached only through a sharp, poisonous shell. I soak the nopal salad’s skinny juice with the remains of the corn tortilla that once held my roasted chile rajas taco, crowned with paprika-crusted goat’s milk queso anejo and blackened mushrooms. The chilies and mushrooms held within them that clandestine cooking aqua vitae soaked up from the surface of the comal; the serum released from countless meats, oils, spices, vegetables who came to perfection on the hot griddle, leaving trickles of their best selves behind. With each bite, these juices stream into my mouth like some liquid encyclopedia of culinary history. Chapter One: Fuck, this is good. Chapter Two: Oooooohhhh…

Louisa and I work our way through, as if in competition, mounds of pickled pigs’ feet with onion, chile chilaca, and epazote; pink-rare tuna in tomato-jalapeño broth; miniature corn tortillas topped with red chile beans and cotija cheese… As we move from the bottom of the L-buffet to the table equivalent of the letter’s vertical pillar, we fill our plates further with chilaquiles en salsa verde, what the taco lady refers to as, the classic Mexican hangover breakfast—strips of fresh tortilla cooked in oil with tomato, onion, garlic, chiles and eggs. We heap the slow-roasted marrow-sticky blackness of barbacoa de borrego next to the chilaquiles—marinated pulled lamb shoulder packed with the vegetal density of its cooking accompaniments—carrot, celery, onion, poblano chile, garlic, tomato, cilantro—all enfolded into a banana leaf and cooked over low heat for ten hours.

Eating it, our lips bear a sheen that teeters on the verge of the sexually aroused and the sexually satisfied—right there in the middle, where all the good stuff is. I want to kiss marrow residue from my wife’s lips. Thank you, Mexico City! I stand, woozy, Louisa stares at me in disbelief.

“You can’t possibly be going back for more,” she says.

I respond in the only way I can, full to the point of stretch marks, intoxicated on chile spice and fruit vinegars, but determined to taste two more things, two more tacos: with a lisp.

“I can pothibly,” I muster, and make a beeline for the taco lady.

She must be about my mom’s age, but packed with a compact vitality. Everything about her is bright and small—her eyes like dimes, ears like dwarf Seckel pears, a nose I can swallow with nary a sip of water. She explains in a unicorn voice my options: lime-marinated chicken, carne asada… I choose this time one taco with chorizo and queso fresco, the other with flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower). As she prepares my tacos, a little cuerno pastry of a girl—she can’t be more than eight years old—approaches me from my blind side, taps me on the butt-cheek and sings, “I can speak a little English.”

My heart leaps. I look down and see her scalp first, her hair perfectly parted down the middle, held into place with yellow beaded tree-frog barrettes.

“I can speak a little Spanish,” I say, “Por ejemplo: pollo, carne asada, queso…”

She giggles, “You can only say food?”

I shrug and she asks where I am from.

“Los estados unidos,” I say, “La ciudad de Chicago.”

“I hear of Chicago,” she says, “It is very big?”

“No tan grande como aquí,” I say, indicating with my hands that Mexico City is bigger.

“Your Spanish is not very good,” she says, and takes her plate of tortillas and beans back to her table.

I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed, and I turn back to the taco lady, who smiles at me, lips like a silkworm. She holds her hands toward me, fingers balancing the two finished plates. I take them from her, our hands brushing, and in our touch, something sparks; something in me, as if emulating her, reaches for smallness—not heart or appetite, but resolve, my already diminutive ability for restraint. I am a little afraid I will not stop eating.

As the chorizo’s allspice and apple vinegar run into my mouth, the corn tortilla heavy with its orange grease, Louisa holds my hand as if I am on a gurney, having a piece of me excised, sans anesthesia, with a scalpel.

“Whew…” I say, and finish the pumpkin flower, the delicate flavors of soil and sweet summer plant coating my tongue, stirring some childhood memory—the first taste of zucchini perhaps, or the happy winning of the armrest chair. I swallow and see long-dead constellations.

“You are done,” Louisa commands, a leaf of cilantro plastered to her front tooth.

I smile. I decide not to tell her.

“Yes,” I say, sputtering into my chalice of carrot juice.

We lean back in our chairs, arms reclining like spent suntanned lovers, watching the restaurant become more and more festive by the moment. Toward the rear of the place, a massive wedding table hugs the orange wall, and twenty people pound their fists on its surface, rattling the clay bowls of caldo de res beef stew and menudo tripe soup in red chile brew, as the bride, in her white gown and veil whips her napkin like the blades of a linen helicopter over her head, lifting the dress train to expose the full mahogany of her gartered thighs.