I learn words in many ways… but the best may be in eating. The words on the menus and in the cookbooks I have from around the world have helped me conquer at least ‘parts’ of foreign languages. I have a good knowledge of French, Italian and even some Japanese…if you allow that food is the central most important aspect of understanding a people’s tongue. My vocabulary was broadened by at least seven new words in Little Havana just the other day at a place blandly named, “Viva Mexico”. To Spanish speakers of Mexican origin these words may not seem like much. They are ordinary nouns. Oreja, buche, maciza, cuerito, lengua are common to those who also know them in English as ear, stomach, leg, skin and tongue. But as a person discovering most of these words for the first time…at least now they would stick in my memory because I was eating these anatomical parts. I am not a Hannibal Lecter! But I am a carnivore. You may also label me a pig eater too. It won’t make me mad. I invite you to join me in fact. All of these words…and parts…are found on the menu at “Viva Mexico”.
A small woman walked up 12th Ave and came straight up toward our table. She was holding a cooler in the crook of one arm. With her free hand she was bearing clear plastic containers. One held a wobbling flan and the other a kind of multi-colored fruit cocktail. Her face was deeply tanned from working in the sunlit skies of Miami. She did not speak but more mimed her offerings. She didn't seem to have a thing to do with the humble restaurant we were patronizing. Our waitress smiled at her with familiarity and did not stop her efforts to ply her trade. As we were just sitting down the timing was wrong for sweet things and we politely declined her offer and waited for our tacos. I’d need some lengua in my buche before I could give her my orejas after all…
I learned another word there. Surtida. It means ‘mixed’. This porky presentation picks up where many other carnitas cooks quit. Most carnitas are pork butt compilations. But the lusty “Surtida” is a mix of tongue, ears, skin, ribs, rind and slowly cooked in pork fat for a leisurely period of time. When I bit into the first Surtida Taco I was taken back to a time eating with Chef Daniel Boulud in his kitchen in New York and experiencing classic ‘Lyonnais Confit of Porc’. Daniel was raised amidst a family that farmed and cooked. The clarity of his confit was pitch perfect. The Surtida was also. Though I will bring some flaky Maldon salt next visit. I nodded at Janet, my wife, who was a tad less dive right in than me … but willing to take a taste … if I seemed to be doing well. I was doing great! I eyed the four salsas placed on the table in what is normally a tray that bartenders use for olives, cherries, lemon curls and other cocktail garnishes. Our server told me the heat level was hottest on the left and moving down the fiery scale as one moved to the right. I went far left and added a few carefully distributed drops from the plastic spoon provided. I took another bite and my memories of Chef Boulud were relocated to the Mexican State of Michoacán. The owner of this taco place hails from there and he’s determined to bring the real deal to our lucky town.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of doing a cooking class that the author of “Silence of the Lambs”, Thomas Harris was in.
I wonder…would he like Surtida?
Or is he more of an “Ear Man”?
I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s…. My Word on Food ©.
Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2014