On occasion, some of my posts result from challenges issued by my students, the proverbial glove tossed on the ground in front of me. This is one of those posts. It involves enchiladas and the color of taste.
I sometimes assign an essay to my students to describe their favorite food. The early drafts usually come back short and simple, but it becomes a canvas for revision, for working on details and using all five senses to bring the food to life for the reader.
One student this semester wrote about enchiladas. But not just any enchiladas—her enchiladas. The recipe is top secret stuff, the If-I-tell-you-I-have-to-kill-you-secret stuff. Her original piece was fine, but I began pushing her to add in the details that would make us beg her for a plate of the enchiladas. She’s a pragmatic student who doesn’t hesitate to tell me she likes staying in her box just fine, so she was hesitant to embellish what was, after all, an essay on food. I encouraged her to play with her writing, going so far as to ask, “What color do your enchiladas taste like?”
Long story short, several weeks after this conversation began, this student appeared at my office door with a pan of her enchiladas. Handing them over to me, she said, “You eat them and tell me what color they taste like.”
In other news: I love my job.
I’ll just lay it out right now—I couldn’t come up with a color to describe the taste. The actual color, however, is gold. Gold with various lighter and darker veins of the same color running through it, punctuated with moments of russet and small shots of ebony. When I took the pan from her, I was surprised by the heft and weight of it. And while I can’t tell you what color it tastes like, I can certainly tell you it smelled like the Hallelujah chorus. I detected the scent of cheddar cheese, ground beef, and—yes, yes, there it was—green chile. As any respectable New Mexican can tell you, the way to Heaven is paved with green chile.
Savannah and I served ourselves a helping immediately. As I lifted the first bite to my mouth, I reminded her, “Ok, I have to come up with the perfect way to describe this.”
And so, of course, it was Savannah who got it. She took a bite, closing her eyes and letting that wicked, wonderful, witty mind of hers take over. She swallowed, took another bite. Then she pronounced, “They taste like a good folk song.”
And she is so right. These enchiladas embody everything folk music does—history, heritage, and life. Some of reason the analogy of a folk song fits is apparent—the dish consists of food like cheese, corn tortillas, ground beef, black beans and pinto beans, and the green chile sauce. There’s nothing uppity about this, no exotic ingredients, no extravagant cuisine or unidentifiable elements. And it’s the structure of the piece, the layers that fold into one another like the instruments of folk music do in a song. This is not techno dance music, hip-hop, R&B, or even classical. It isn’t flashy or fancy or rich or dull. It’s solid food.
In the Navajo tradition, there are two types of rain—the easy female rain that falls gently and soaks into the earth, nourishing the plants and trees. Then there is the male rain, the torrents that crash to the ground and race along, gathering in the arroyos and speeding away. If food can have a gender, this dish is feminine. It insists you slow down and take a seat. The textures of the enchiladas are playful—the smoothness of the cheese, the easy crunch of the corn tortillas, and the roughness of the ground beef remind me of home, of the chaos of the dinner table and the ritual of family.
And that is the tastiest part of this dish. To know someone made these enchiladas with me in mind makes this so much more than just food. This simple pan of enchiladas reminded me that eating is not merely about survival. It admonished me for allowing my food to come fast and easy, prepared by people I don’t know and who don’t know me, communing with chemicals whose names I can’t pronounce, and never once attempting to answer the age-old questions “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas?” Perhaps many of us have lost the ancient memory of spiritual union that food represents-- the yin and yang of preparing the meal for others, taking in the meal prepared for us, feeding body and soul. Bona Vida.
I think I know what her secret ingredient is.