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.

This is mariachi operetta, nervous breakdown, a broken spirit stitched with corn silk. And this is breakfast. Breakfast after losing ourselves in the streets, after shedding the snakeskin of the guidebooks, dodging glass and flying water. Perhaps we will find our huitlacoche one day, but it won’t be today. Perhaps that’s the last anniversary a couple has before they die, no matter their age: the huitlacoche anniversary, attainable only on the verges, rendering in a smear of its black smut, the others obsolete: paper cotton leather linen wood iron sugar steel huitlacoche huitlacoche huitlacoche…

Louisa and I nearly fall from the street into the restaurant, México Viejo, Old Mexico, and are berated by its pottery, its orange walls, contained pockets of steam kicking like the tar pits into the yellow film of iron chandelier light. This is, after all, the best buffet we’ve ever seen, and the place is stuffed with patrons—families with freight trains of kids, business-suited groups basking in the lunch break, old men eating alone, old women staring them down from behind blue clay bowls of caldo de res.

The host, a barrel-chested man with a thick moustache, comes at us with a puzzled look. He stands about as high as my sternum, and I am only five feet, seven. He says nothing, carries no menu, and shrugs. I look to Louisa for help and, miraculously, she says, “Dos.”

“Una mesa para dos personas,” I say, needlessly, forcing my remedial Spanish onto anyone willing to listen. Yes, I am a gringo, I want to tell them, but not one of those gringos, you know? ¿Verdad?

The man nods, his moustache appearing to take flight, leave his face like some hirsute moth and flit about the room. He sits us at a wooden table as squat as he is and gestures, almost dismissively, toward the buffet with the back of his hand.

“Muchas gracias,” I say.

Here, the man stops and manages a smile, his moustache returning from its flirtation with some underage mamacita in a corner booth, once again perching on his face like some gothic canary. He parts his lips. His moustache flaps for dear life.

“De nada,” he says, or growls, or rasps. The words sound forced through knife-cut vocal cords and tracheotomy, plopping into our ears, rheumatic, robotic, phlegmatic, sweet. And we do, we do feel welcome.

Our waitress, a young, curly-haired woman in a flowing brown dress so diaphanous, she should be our waitressssssss, steps to our table with two mugs of coffee before we even order it. This is assumption of the highest working order and I want to stroke her hair, if only to test the perfect spring of the curls. Louisa blows her a kiss and descends into a clatter of South African-accented “Gracias, gracias, gracias…”

Our waitressssssss laughs, her voice carrying into the air like a coffee percolator run on helium, and disappears again into the psychedelic madness of the restaurant. Louisa and I look to the buffet, an L-shaped number covered in white tablecloths, different stations manned and womanned by the staff, clad in purple button-down silk shirts bearing white irises, the women with red flowers pushed behind their ears, flattening masa dough for fresh tortillas, searing various meats to order, juicing papayas and carrots, unraveling spools of white cheese, roasting green chilies until their skins blacken and blister, this tiny opera of food played out on a pot-bellied guitar, and we don’t now what to do, how we can accommodate all of this food, taste everything made to order, taste everything premade and marinating in pottery pots and bowls, painted garishly with fat women hauling grapefruit, with Jesus bleeding on the gustatory cross, his crown of thorns replaced with a mass of seething beans. All the juices, all the soups, each diner bearing a calm that we can’t seem to enforce upon ourselves, our hearts festering in pots of their own, the gas-heat turned up way too high, burning to the bottoms.

“Oh my god,” Louisa says, and she’s absolutely right. The best of nervous breakdowns. Of broken spirits stitched with corn silk. We stand. We step toward it, this burbling beast of breakfast. It opens its arms to us like the obese aunt, over-make-upped, over-perfumed, we only see at holidays. This buffet, before we are done, will surely pinch our cheeks red. I feel off-course, having jumped the tracks. I don’t know where to begin. Louisa slaps me on the ass, and rights me with a word.

“Taco,” she says.

Again, she is absolutely right.

 

**NOTE** Please forgive me if I do not respond to your comments.  I am presently on the road for my BAROLO Book Tour.  If I’m coming to your area for an event, I’d love to extend you an invitation!

Tour schedule here: http://matthewgfrank.com/?page_id=101

Info. about the book here: http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Barolo,674189.aspx

Thanks!  -MGF

We’ve been on the sidewalk for five minutes and have moved about fifty feet. Pedestrian traffic on this main thoroughfare near Mexico City’s Zócalo is at its rush hour peak. We turn around, as if searching for a way out, some secret exit ramp, some side alley that will carry us like the matron saint of shortcuts, to a breakfast table and a bosomy pair of steaming mugs. Instead, over the tight parade of purposeful people, we see fat-handed Juan Pérez, beaming his biggest smile of the day, leaning against the doorway of the Rioja, watching our backs.

He sees us turn and raises his arms over his head about to take flight, or, flight-lazy, command the sky and its tenants—sun, moon, stars, Venus—to come to him, drop themselves into his ample palms and drive us walkers to some eternal fiery last meal. He shakes his arms, shuddering in their dress shirt sleeves, and Louisa and I do the same, nearly getting trampled in the process. We right ourselves, face forward again, and immediately miss the sight of our new friend, some good luck charm in concierge clothing.

On a lark—Skylark, Crested Lark, Calandra Lark, whichever species croons the most extravagant coffee-song—Louisa and I push a group of teenagers aside, hip-check their outermost member, and turn left from Avenida Cinco de Mayo onto the slightly less crowded Calle de Monte de Piedad. We read in some guidebook that there’s a restaurant near here that, when available, serves huitlacoche omelets.

We became obsessed with huitlacoche in the first few months of our relationship, having supped on it in Chicago two nights after Louisa met my family for the first time. We stole away to Frontera Grill, just the two of us, Chicago’s famed authentic Mexican restaurant, and were lifted into orbit by the plateful of the oil-black huitlacoche crepes with rich poblano crema. Seeking it out with obsessed fever since then in Mexican groceries throughout Chicago, we could only find it canned—still delicious, but leagues away from the explosiveness of the fresh stuff.

Huitlacoche, revered by many, reviled by many more, is also know as corn smut, dirty, evil, guilty pleasure of the fields, temptress blight, husked pornography… It is a greasy black fungus that results from maize disease, routinely cursed and trashed in American farming, but greeted with biblical gratitude in the fields of Mexico. Linguistically, as seems typical in Mexico, the gravity of such gratitude is coupled with an affirming observational humor; huitlacoche directly translates from Nahuatl into English as raven shit. Louisa and I know it as the truffle of Mexico.

We knew this would happen—that we would come here and spend many an hour, most of them likely fruitless, crisscrossing the city in search of fresh huitlacoche, affirming something ourselves: that after a year trapped in Chicago beneath the wet cloak of mother-disease, each action damped by death—driving, watching television, eating—we still have the ability to revise our priorities, to again shove taste upward, and climb, even if over a mountain of bones, to reclaim it.

And climb we do with protesting stomachs, lean headaches whistling for café con leche, along the shopfronts of Calle de Monte de Piedad—doorless convenience stores peddling magazines, thin-wrappered candies, cans of beer, middle-aged women with suckling infants strapped diagonally to their flanks with green scarves selling woven change-purses and belt buckles on the sidewalks in front.

Soon, the crowd clots like blood, the entire city wounded it seems, and it’s up to us, we melee-ensconced foot travelers, to see, with our body heat alone, that it doesn’t turn septic.

“Why have we stopped moving?” Louisa asks, her voice thick with desperation, all sustenance seeming further and further away now, as supernatural demands are placed upon us walkers to do the sustaining.

I wipe the sweat from my forehead and swear I can hear the stamping of combat boots, a massive collection of angry chants. I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, and panicked; I wish Juan Pérez were here to explain, to smooth the edges of this human blanket and turn everything placid again. I wish the people we loved would never get sick.

The crowd pushes together and soon, we’re in the middle of a street protest, bulldozed forward and to the right. I reach for Louisa’s hand before we can get separated and wonder if those feeding infants can make it through this, still cling fast to the breast. She catches my thumb and uses it to scale my arm. The line of people leading the protest pushes through in the street, carrying signs painted onto bedsheets, words that I can not read. They shout into their megaphones, and the following mob repeats their credo in deafening unison. Banners are tossed into the air, along with bottles and water balloons.

All side streets pour into this one, everyone interrupting their day to see what’s happening. Pedestrians—single, couple, family—stop along the sidewalks and curbs to watch. A father hoists his daughter onto his shoulders so she can see the throng simultaneously hoisting their fists into the air as if striking some invisible overhead drum. People stop and take their breakfasts standing up against the shopfronts, arrested, a multitude of tacos, enchiladas, tamales, held aloft, stopped short on the way from hand to mouth. The tiny women on the street corners freeze in front of their hot comals, their fresh rounds of masa dough only half-pressed into tortillas.

The call-and-response continues in rhythm, some of the marchers bearing angry faces, some excited smiles. And in between such extremes, the breaking of glass, and popping of balloon rubber, urgency and innocence commingle and take Louisa and me into their embrace. Our hearts are boiling and our mouths are confused—Scream? Smile?

What they don’t do, is chew, sip, kiss. But they will again, and will again soon. Yes: this is a place of gravity, gratitude, affirmation, humor, and faith. Faith that food will again fill us, coffee will keep us from sleeping on our feet. We will live today to change our socks, ascend the Rioja stairwell, this time as if from the penetralia of the earth.

The marchers pass, the megaphone sparkling now two blocks away. Louisa and I look to each other and don’t say a word. Somewhere above, a big black bird must be releasing into this world its holy shit, carrying with it the essential nature of division and protest, and we know, we just know, bedsheet-less and without bullhorn, still far below all plummeting excrement, that we will find our elusive huitlacoche. Looking up, we do with our mouths the only thing we can. We open them.