DECEMBER 3, 2012
Yes, of course, I still regret not having been able to find those pumpernickel bagels in 2000—a setback I wrote about then in the tone that was becoming fashionable in memoirs of people confessing their dismal failures. My search had been inspired by a conversation I’d had with my older daughter, Abigail, who was living in San Francisco but had returned to her childhood home in Greenwich Village for a visit. “Let’s get this straight, Abigail,” I’d said. “If I can find those gnarly little dark pumpernickel bagels that we used to get at Tanenbaum’s, you’ll move back to New York. Right?” And Abigail had said, “Absolutely.” Then I couldn’t find the bagels. Although Abigail hadn’t yet married, I could already envision her and her family in the downstairs apartment—a style of multigenerational living that I have always identified, warmly, with the borough of Queens. I could see myself at the kitchen window, watching my grandchildren, as I had watched my daughters, troop off to P.S. 3, and then answering the phone (or maybe even the knock of a broom on the ceiling of the apartment below) to find that Abigail was wondering if a grandparent might be interested in coming down to have a cup of coffee and deal with the bagels that the kids had been in too much of a hurry to finish—a sesame, I now know, for Rebecca and an everything for her older sister, Isabelle.
In 2000, as it happened, I was already familiar, in a glancing sort of way, with a longitudinal study that followed the lives of two hundred and sixty-eight men who graduated from Harvard in the years around 1940. It had found, as I understood it, that fulfillment had a lot to do with how the subjects coped with the setbacks that even the most fortunate among them encountered. The book that came out of the study after nearly forty years was called “Adaptation to Life.” Here’s how I adapted to the pumpernickel-bagel setback: On visits to San Francisco—which grew more regular after Isabelle and Rebecca came along and I began referring to Abigail and her husband, Brian, as my granddaughters’ adult attendants—I increasingly appreciated how skilled Abigail had become at searching out Mexican taquerias and Chinese dumpling parlors and Cambodian noodle-soup joints. Also, she knew how to get to them. Remarkably, for someone whose father could become hopelessly lost in tiny towns on the prairie, she seems to absorb the street plan of whatever city she’s in. Once, on the way to pick up my younger daughter, Sarah, at the Oakland airport, I noticed that a wreck had blocked the traffic coming back toward San Francisco on 880, and I phoned Abigail for advice. As I have reconstructed her response, she said, without pausing for a breath, “Take 880 south to the San Mateo Bridge, cross the bridge on 92, then take 101 north to Millbrae, and we’ll meet you at Fook Yuen for dim sum.” Abigail likes her work—she’s a legal-services lawyer for children—but I have told her that she always has a fallback career as a taxi dispatcher. Years after the conversation we’d had in 2000, it occurred to me that, had she been given the assignment, she probably could have found that pumpernickel bagel.
In other words, the adaptation was that I finally began to realize that I had managed to raise a female version of what the politicians call an advance man. It was too late to suggest a career in the Foreign Service—Abigail going from post to exotic post and her father following, after a decent interval, to be taken around to the best places she’d found to eat. I was pleased, though, when she and Brian, who is also a lawyer working for a nonprofit, said a couple of years ago that, while the girls were still young enough to switch schools easily, it would be great to give them the experience of living in a foreign country for a semester. In San Francisco, my granddaughters were attending a grade school that, I have to admit, had some similarities to P.S. 3, except that it had a Spanish immersion program that both of them were enrolled in. Abigail speaks Spanish. I had visited her when she was spending one of her college semesters in Madrid—where, come to think of it, she had led me to a place whose Serrano ham was so good that, even now, when I read about the grim economic situation in Spain, it occurs to me that a citizen eating that ham could, at least momentarily, forget his troubles. Abigail and Brian, who were going to take leaves from their jobs, intended to spend the time in a Spanish-speaking place. Brian planned to take language lessons, presumably having decided that things would go more smoothly when the girls approached the teen-age years if he was not the only person in the house who didn’t understand the discussion. (I am aware that some fathers of multiple daughters would argue that they might have been better off not understanding the discussion—claiming, perhaps, a hearing problem brought on by the noise of hair dryers.) “A Spanish-speaking place known to have excellent food might be nice for the girls,” I said, in the sort of helpful but non-interfering tone that I’ve been told grandparents should use.
By that time, they were already beginning to think about Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca, which is in the narrow part of southern Mexico that bends east toward Central America, is sometimes known as “the land of the seven moles”—a mole being a thick sauce made from as many as thirty ingredients, in a process so laborious that it puts most complicated Continental dishes into the category of Pop-Tart preparation by comparison. Having spent some time in Oaxaca many years ago, I knew that it also turns out an astonishing variety of the small treats Mexicans call antojitos—many of which consist of something in or on masa, the dough made from alkaline-treated corn kernels. Oaxaca is also known as a place where artisanal mescal thrives and tequila is spoken of as an inferior commercial tipple that might as well have been produced in the Coca-Cola bottling plant. In recent years, Oaxaca’s food scene, largely based on the traditional ingredients and methods of its indigenous people, has been celebrated by some icons of the American food world. Once Abigail and Brian decided on Oaxaca, I was quick to say that I would soon be visiting. “I’ll just give you a couple of months to find your way around,” I said to Abigail. “If you find your way around to a spot that serves a superior mole negro, all the better.”
Even before I arrived, Abigail had prepared a schedule of restaurants and markets we absolutely had to visit. In my first market visits, I was reminded that the intense interest Oaxaqueños have in eating includes insects—particularly grasshoppers, known there as chapulines, and maguey worms. In Oaxacan markets, some venders who seem to have brought a bit of whatever’s in their garden will have a basket of chapulines as well, and some chapulín specialists will have as many as seven or eight large baskets, each piled high with a specific size of grasshopper. (Chapulines of any size are prepared roughly the same way—sautéed in oil that’s been seasoned with chilis and garlic and lime and salt.) I grew up in Kansas City, which, I think it’s fair to say, is not in a major insect-eating area. Where I come from, worms were something you definitely didn’t want to have anywhere near your digestive tract. Grasshoppers were thought of mainly as a threat to the wheat crop.
When it comes to eating, I’m not wildly adventurous. Sometimes I think that I’m too cautious. Looking back at those moments when I wasn’t setting the sort of example a parent should set, I can hear Abigail saying, while the two of us were perusing the menu at a restaurant in Cuzco, Peru, “I guess you’re going to wimp out on the guinea pig.” I haven’t felt inspired by those who talk about having downed a great variety of gruesome foodstuffs. Eating, say, iguana spleen strikes me as sort of like bungee jumping: the point is not to do it but to have done it. When I’m asked about my willingness to eat the ostensibly inedible, I usually tell the story of finding on the menu of a restaurant in Hong Kong an item listed as double-boiled deer penis. “I thought about ordering it,” I always say, “but I was afraid when they brought it to the table I’d take one look at it and say, ‘Maybe you could take it back and have him boil it one more time.’ ”
On the other hand, I usually like to try the local specialty. In Ecuador, I eventually did eat guinea pig. Given my experience with nutria in Louisiana some years before, in fact, I suppose that, if I hadn’t been raised to prize modesty, I could describe myself as a man with relatively broad experience in rodent consumption. As I studied the mounds of various sizes of grasshoppers in the markets, though, I found myself with a question similar to the one that goes through my mind when I see someone in Chinatown reach into a barrel of live frogs and pull one out for inspection: What, exactly, does one look for in a grasshopper? I thought I might ease into grasshopper-eating, following the general rule that anything is edible if it’s chopped up finely enough. That’s apparently the route my granddaughters had taken. Both of the girls had sampled grasshopper, although neither of them seemed keen on making a habit of it. Given Rebecca’s reputation as someone with an almost limitless appetite for corn tortillas—a woman across the road from the house Abigail and Brian had rented makes three hundred a day on a traditional earthenware griddle called a comal, and it’s clear that, left unchecked, Rebecca could put a considerable dent in a day’s inventory—Isabelle, who’s ten, had a simple explanation for how her little sister, who’s only seven, happened to consume grasshoppers, mixed with some other things: “Rebecca will eat anything that’s wrapped in a tortilla.”
I was delighted to learn that Brian, in addition to his language studies in Oaxaca, was taking the occasional cooking lesson. In San Francisco, Abigail and Brian and the girls live near the Mission, where the stores are replete with Mexican ingredients and where some of the best-known restaurants are taquerias, so Mexican food was already a routine part of their diet. When Isabelle was just starting her immersion program, in kindergarten, she asked Abigail what the Spanish word was for quesadilla. One of Rebecca’s favorite street-food snacks in Oaxaca—an ear of corn slathered in mayonnaise and cheese—is what she liked to get from the food carts that gather at the dismissal bell outside her San Francisco school, where many of the students have roots in places like Oaxaca. Brian was already in the habit of making duck adobo for Thanksgiving. Cooking classes in Oaxaca, I figured, could only improve his technique. I had visions of being picked up at the San Francisco airport by Brian on one of my visits and casually mentioning to him, on the way into the city, that I had a serious hankering for, say, mole amarillo con pollo. When I went with him to cooking class one day in Oaxaca, it was pretty much in the spirit of a class visit by one of those helicopter parents I’ve read about—the type who visit their child’s classroom haunted by the certainty that if the child cannot name the capital of South Dakota at a certain age Harvard is already beyond reach. “Are you getting this?” I said more than once to Brian as the teacher explained how to crush the tomatillos or get the skin off the chilis. “Are you paying attention?”
Before repairing to the teacher’s house for the actual cooking and eating of lunch, we went to a local market to shop for the ingredients. I was drawn to the displays of chapulines—although when offered samples I’d mutter something that was the closest I could get in Spanish to “Just browsing.” Then, at one table, Brian’s cooking teacher, picking a grasshopper out of a tiny basket of samples, said that she always pulled the big legs off before popping one into her mouth. “Well, sure,” I said to Brian. “Of course. Naturally.” I managed to keep myself from saying, “Anybody can eat a grasshopper with the big legs pulled off.” I picked up a grasshopper, pulled the big legs off, and popped it into my mouth. It tasted like crunch that had been sautéed in oil flavored with chilis and garlic and lime and salt. I have no idea what the big legs would taste like.
At the class, Brian and I, working with a mortar and pestle, ground up the ingredients for what the recipe called Salsa de Chile Pasilla Oaxaqueño. We put in pasilla chilis, tomatillos, garlic cloves, and three dried maguey worms—the sort of worms that grow on agaves, the plants from which mescal is produced. The salsa turned out to be my favorite dish of everything we made that day, although I would not throw rocks at the sopa de flor de calabaza. Then a problem occurred to me. “I think that even in the Mission you’re going to have trouble putting your hands on dried maguey worms,” I said, as I mopped up the last of the salsa on my plate with a warm tortilla. Brian said he’d heard that some people sneak them into the United States by wearing a necklace made of dried worms and then dismantling the necklace in the kitchen. Before I could remind him that he was a member of the California bar, who would endanger the welfare of my granddaughters by being busted for worm-smuggling, he told me that he’d rather see what Salsa de Chile Pasilla Oaxaqueño might taste like without the inclusion of three maguey worms. Brian and I have no compelling reason to eat worms; we have eaten them.
Abigail had done her advance work. In Conzatti Park—which she and her family called chilaquiles park, because it’s ringed with restaurants that advertise chilaquiles as a breakfast specialty—she took me to a stand that she had decided, correctly, served an outstanding torta. At the Abastos market, she led me through an area the size of a football field that held nothing but bread—including pan de yema (egg-yolk bread), a family favorite, which Abigail, slipping out of her Spanish, refers to as challah. At the Twentieth of November market, she took me to a line of venders who grill to order a portion of the insanely thin sheets of meat that they hang over poles like dishtowels. At stands in the various markets, she tried to explain the differences among a dizzying variety of masa-based antojitos—a tlayuda and a garnacha and a memelita and a huarache and a tetela and even something called a gringa (an appellation that I told Abigail she should not take personally). She guided me to a place where the churros, the pipe-shaped pastry that Mexicans like to dip in hot chocolate, are made to order rather than allowed to grow stale in a bin. Having investigated where we’d find the most renowned maker of tlayudas, the pizza-size antojito that is so strongly identified with Oaxaca, she took me to a restaurant that opens at 9 p.m., serves only tlayudas, and has its kitchen out on the sidewalk. She led us to the courtyard of the Basílica de la Soledad, which the girls call the Basílica de Nieves, since it is lined with stands that sell a type of ice cream. On Saturday, she took me to a peaceful, child-friendly market in front of the Santo Tomás Xochimilco Church and then to a market in the center of the city so crowded that it could make you rethink all those derisive remarks you’ve ever made about people who walk around with their toddlers on leashes. When she decided that my visit, not having included any museums, was short on cultural content, she took me to the Palacio del Gobierno and showed me a three-hundred-kilo tlayuda made of real masa and covered with, instead of beans and meat, depictions of life in Oaxaca. A sign informed us that this tlayuda had been certified by “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” as the largest organic statue in the world.
She had even figured out what would likely be my favorite restaurant in Oaxaca—a simple place called La Teca, which specializes in the food of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of southern Mexico. The meal at La Teca began, once a shot glass full of mescal was downed, with spectacular garnachas—masa cups topped with a meat-and-onion mixture. (A couple of days later, while watching a woman prepare garnachas at a market in Llano Park, I discovered one of the secrets of why they taste so good: after assembling each one, she launched it, like a little boat, on a couple of inches of hot lard, occasionally splashing a bit of lard over the gunwales.) With the garnachas were a chile relleno inside a tortilla, and three types of tamales. Then we had two kinds of soup, both built around shrimp and accompanied by flat bread called totopo. Then a course of beef estofado, which is simple to describe: if your grandmother’s brisket, the brisket you always say you miss so much, had actually tasted good, this is what it would have tasted like. The estofado course also included a sort of dressed-up mashed-potato dish and a pork dish and a beef enchilada with mole negro that was indeed the superior mole negro that Abigail had been instructed to find. We were eating with Raul Cabra and Michael Sledge, who are close to the Oaxacan food scene.
“How often do you eat here?” I asked Raul, as I reached for some more estofado.
“About twice a week,” he said.
“If you eat here only twice a week,” I said, “you can consider yourself a person of great restraint.”
The only dispiriting part of the meal was the realization that this stay in Oaxaca was presumably the only foray into expatriate living that Abigail and her family will make. But then, as that longitudinal Harvard study would have put it, I was able to adjust to that setback. Isabelle had mentioned something about how one of the tamales tasted very much like the humitas we’d eaten on a spring-vacation trip to Ecuador—an indication of what I assume the scientists call palate memory. I had already heard Isabelle hold forth, in a rather scholarly way, on the subject of chamoy, a pickled-fruit condiment she liked on her ice cream. I had seen her strip the leaf of a guaco plant and pop the seeds into her mouth for an after-school snack. She was on the verge of being able to explain the distinction between a large memelita and a small huarache. I realized that it wouldn’t be long before Isabelle was ready for one of those student-exchange trips. I’ve never been to Chile. They have a stew down there that sounds intriguing, and I’m confident that, given Isabelle’s performance at La Teca, she’d be able to scout out a source for the Chilean version of humitas. I wondered if, when I return to Oaxaca for the holidays, a nice gift for Isabelle might be a picture book on the Chilean Andes. ♦