Ode to the Taco
Five of the state’s most creative minds pay homage to that which makes the taco great.
by Carrie Fountain
Dusty and moon-smooth,
the pages of a good book
no one’s written yet.
We had strict parents.
In photos, we stood up straight,
wide eyes, earth-toned clothes.
we load you up with longings,
then fold and eat you.
100% whole wheat
I wish to live life
with far fewer desires.
But then again no.
What if aliens
come and you are all they know
of Old El Paso?
Palm to palm to palm.
A kind of praying to it;
a kind of answer.
Carrie Fountain, a writer-in-residence at St. Edward’s University, in Austin, ate so many Tacodeli tacos when she was pregnant with both her children that she is sure they have Doña sauce in their DNA. Her most recent book of poetry is Instant Winner (Penguin).
The Blessing of the Cheese
By David Searcy
I’m talking here about the taco as a received idea. Essentially received, derived. That stamped-out crispy consequence of something more authentic and immediate, enfoldable and true. I’m talking popular and corporate and, in a sense, abstract. Refined, reduced as a communion wafer. Possibly as satisfying too, since both provide the greater comfort in the bleaker circumstances. Both abstracted to about the same degree, and toward the principle that comfort food—divine, mundane—conveys more through the gesture than the substance.
In my bleakest circumstances, when I worked in a grim, acidic battery warehouse, I would hit the Taco Bell for lunch—three regulars with tomato, please—without much time to grab, return, and find a peaceful moment. It was critical that my order make its way to me down stainless rails with blind inevitability, untroubled, unimpeded by reflections as to truth and authenticity. We need our consolation like a stream—unquestioned, constant. And impersonal—as we would sense our circumstances shared. And yet at the point of dispensation, let there be a little flourish. Let some touch of human kindness come into it. I remember how this guy would fling the bright orange shredded cheese into the shells as they were coming off the line. The cheese, of course, itself derived, abstract as anything. So all the more important in the gesture, in the benedictive lifting and descending of the hand. Queso vobiscum. It was enough to take away. Sustain the faith. And maybe bring you back tomorrow.
David Searcy claims no particular wisdom regarding tacos, nor do tacos appear in his forthcoming book of essays, Shame and Wonder (Random House, January 2016).
I Always Say Yes
By Sarah Cortez
Carmine red and cobalt blue, the neon sign—winking, proclaiming TACOS in all its bold and blatant block-letter glory—is the modern siren song. I am called to stop and eat. Resistance, useless. Part curiosity, part genuine appetite, my desire to survey a menu’s choices, then crunch or lick my way through filled tortillas—it never abates. As with every true passion, this brief encounter will enkindle prolonged daydreaming afterward; cumin-scented meat, crunchy onion, and grassy cilantro in the cave of my mouth only point me toward future feasts.
When you see the five-letter sign blazing its promise against the sky’s black velvet and decide to pull over, you won’t be disappointed, but you won’t be satisfied either. You see, that first hot plateful, it just summons you onward to the next and the next and then the next, on down the road to some other day or star-filled night. But, hey, it’s okay to succumb. That neon TACOS, as much about the allure of the next plate as the fragrant reward of your current fix, is there to lead you always.
Sarah Cortez has never met a food that can’t be improved by being put inside a tortilla with copious amounts of jalapeños and their fiery seeds. She recently edited the anthology Goodbye, Mexico: Poems of Remembrance (Texas Review Press).
So Hot . . .
By Carmen Tafolla
It rises up from the dirt, seeps through our soles.
Warms this place like an extra sun,
a hidden history that whisper-haunts when others have
gone home from the officialness of day,
a secret breeze that wafts a flavor
Tejano hills cannot forget.
This bright green fruit of fire, centuries sturdy,
steals citizenship from the rocks behind us,
claims permanence with basted layers
of piquant smoke painted onto everywhere we walk,
claws its potent mark
on anything within sight, or smell, or spirit.
Even when ground past pulp in a rough-stoned molcajete,
beaten rhythmically into nothingness
and joined to tomatoes, garlic, onions
till the fragrance sings from rooftops
and every now-open door,
even then, my tongue too tender for its bite,
With chile or without? the waitress with chile-green eyes slurs.
Her lip rings steam from the heat of a second shift.
Green or red?
I shrug, Or green. Either works.
Volcanic lava flows claim another victim.
Taste buds simmer a small death
from this kiss of power and place.
Maybe that’s why it burns so long and deep
with just a drop on the tongue.
Maybe it’s politely trying to kick your butt
with its well-worn boots
until you notice it is your elder
has been here long before you
knows more than you do about
how to burn forever,
how not to be
Carmen Tafolla is this year’s state poet laureate and the owner of three chile pequin and two serrano plants, a molcajete, and an antique bathtub filled with cilantro plants, the better to control the fires of unspoken histories. Her latest book of poetry is This River Here: Poems of San Antonio.
Our Humble Soothing Bean Man
By Robert Earl Keen
Our humble soothing bean man is up before the sun
Screening pounds of pintos for cockleburs and rocks
Inspecting jalapeños and onions one by one
To find the perfect partners for his freshly cut ham hocks.
He fills his pot with water and then adjusts the heat
As the morning light unfolds across the yard.
He adds his precious pintos, fresh vegetables, and meat
A pinch of light-brown sugar and a healthy lump of lard.
Our humble soothing bean man, he sings a little song
To his beans as they simmer in repose.
There is romance in his tenor, canta esta canción . . .
“¡Los frijoles son regalos de Dios!”
Now the beans are only ready when the bean man says they are
Then he’ll mash ’em up and refry them in grease.
He’ll smear a warm tortilla with his border caviar
Then cover it in bacon, eggs, and cheese.
So as I leave the drive-through, my order is all here.
I’ve emptied out the pockets of my jeans.
Peeling back the tinfoil, I whisper this short prayer,
“God bless this breakfast taco and the man who cooks the beans.”
Singer-songwriter and breakfast lover Robert Earl Keen ate a lot of breakfast tacos while recording his latest album, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions.