Mexican cuisine is not for the weak at heart. Any food genre that is capable of making your throat, mouth, and lips burn for extended periods, invoking fits of hiccoughs, and wreaking havoc on stomachs, should not be taken lightly. Learning to eat Mexican is about adapting to change–slowly. The first change is adapting to things that once sounded stranger than anything you had ever previously imagined.
The second change is training your taste buds to stand insane amounts of chile.
The third change is fine tuning your tastes and establishing what Mexican foods you really like and what Mexican foods you are just pretending to like in order to fit in. It has taken me one year of life in Mexico and three years of close contact with the culture to begin to understand the process of adapting to Mexican food.
I still remember my first experience with Mexican food. My college roommate went to Mexico for spring break one year, and she brought us all back a tiny souvenir. We were a group of about five unsuspecting gringas, and we unwrapped the Mexican candy she had brought us with enthusiasm–my roommate said the treat was excellent. I should have known when I saw it that it was going to be something very different. It was a lollypop shaped like corn on the cob. It was reddish brown in color, covered in a powder-like substance. I took a lick. It tasted like butter and corn chips with chile. I was prepared for something sweet, not savory. I later learned that the inside of the lollypop was watermelon flavored. I was glad I had not sucked to the center because the thought of butter, chile, cornchips, and watermelon did not appeal to me.
I forgot about that lollypop for about 3 years, that is, until I met Carlos and came to Mexico. One night Carlos offered to take me out for an elote desgranado. I had no idea what it was, but I figured I’d give it a try. We arrived at a small shop where I spotted a refrigerator stocked with strawberries and cream. Thinking it was something sweet, I let Carlos order me an elote. You should have seen the look on my face when I saw that an elote desgranado was nothing sweet. In fact, it was the real life version of the lollypop I had tried a few years back. It consists of hot corn niblets covered in mayonnaise, heavy cream, cheese, chile, and lemon. I took one bite and was instantly transported back to the feeling I had experienced during my previous experience with a Mexican treat.
The funny thing is that just a few days after the trip to buy the elote desgranado, I had a craving for another one. I had taken one bite and thrown it in the trash, but suddenly I was sure I wanted another one. I forced Carlos to take me for another one, and despite his reluctance to waste time and money on something that I already knew I didn’t like, I was right – this time I absolutely loved my elote. Since that day, my favorite Mexican snack is elote desgranado. I crave the taste on a regular basis. I have also since come to love those damn lollypops that I once hated. I also love chile on fresh fruit. Basically, I love chile on everything. I am not quite sure how this change happened. It just did. I don’t know if it was psychological that I didn’t like it at first, or psychological that I like it now, but the point is, I’d like an elote RIGHT NOW.
Aside from coming to love unfamiliar concoctions, I have also become a chile fiend. I absolutely love them. My father-in-law is a spectacular cook. There is nothing he has ever made that I didn’t like. But he can stand absolutely unfathomable amounts of chile. His idea of a good meal is to cook something so spicy that he ends up crying and sniffling. The hotter it is, the more he enjoys it. Carlos is the same way, and since he and his father tend to be the chefs in his house, I had to learn to eat chile. Since they knew I had a gringa stomach, they took it easy on my during my first visit to Monterrey.
They found it amusing as I wiped my nose after every bite I took of something that, according to them, had almost no chile in it. But because the food was always so delicious, I wanted to eat it, and so I learned to adapt to the spiciness of the food. It didn’t take me very long to adapt. Now I eat as much chile as the rest of the family, although still a bit less than Carlos and much less than my father-in-law. Most Mexicans are surprised by the amount of chile that I voluntarily add to my food. I have come to worship salsa; it is something I truly miss when I go home to the United States.
While my love for elotes and salsa has turned out to be enduring, there are various Mexican foods that I thought I liked but have since realized that I can’t stand. I have to admit I think that I duped myself into liking them. It is not easy to tell someone who has prepared a special dish just for you that you don’t like it. I learned to teach myself to “like” things so as not to offend anyone else, but also so that I wouldn’t feel disappointed in myself. Upon arriving in Mexico, I knew it was like a trial session. If I wanted to marry Carlos, I would have to live in Mexico. I didn’t want to fail at anything, and even the food was a test for me of how well I was adapting.
Carlos has a friend whose family manufactures machaca. Machaca is dried, shredded beef. It is usually prepared as machacado con huevo. I first tried machacado con huevo when Carlos prepared it for me. It is basically the dried beef with egg, onion, and chunks of tomato. It’s served with beans and tortilla. I thought it was great. I even liked the dried beef when Carlos put lemon over it to soften it and ate it just like that – without even heating it. However, just a few days ago I ordered machacado con huevo at a restaurant and hated it. I suspect that after having finally married Carlos, I feel less pressure to like certain Mexican dishes that I thought I liked before. It sounds weird, but I think the power of the mind is a great thing; it can even get to you eat dried shredded beef.
It is inevitable that a gringa’s tastes will change throughout her time in Mexico. I have truly come to love and appreciate most Mexican foods. It’s fun because I never know how I will react to something, even if I’ve had it 100 times before.
Every chile is different, some are spicier than others, and therefore the same dish never packs the same punch twice. Every cook prepares the same dish in a different way, and every time I eat something, I have a different impression of Mexico and my place in the country. Every meal has the potential to be a transcendental experience.