Last night I cooked Mexican food—read: burritos—for Esa and a group of her friends (the number for which I was cooking remained a mystery until 9pm, so I did the best I could with what information I had). What I want to be clear about first is that the meal was generally very well received, and the kids were polite. That is my disclaimer. She and some of her girlfriends worked as sous chefs, cutting onions and dicing tomatoes, and I made “Mexican Beans” (kidney beans dubbed Mexican, with a landscape of cacti on the can) and cooked ground beef with only two cloves of chopped garlic. We had tortillas, which were made in Holland; to be fair, their overall quality was the same as the packaged kind in Safeways, I believe the brand is Mission or something similar…they’re flour, but not like the handmade ones we eat at home, that can also be easily found at a grocery store. Ah, I miss tortillas. We served it buffet-style, and twelve (rather than the 8 I had bought portions for) showed up. We ran out of meat promptly, and almost all the tortillas were gone by the end of the night (we had a stock of 24). They also liked the makeshift “nachos” I had made, which really was just melted provolone on tortilla chips. Oh, yeah: cheddar, American or Mexican cheese is un-findable in most places here. I made do with the provolone, and it was fine.
What struck me as most interesting was how funny they were about the food. Okay, so I understand the concept that certain cultures are more habituated to eating certain flavors. Fair enough. I would suppose that more Italians than Americans enjoy anchovies, and cook more with capers, certain bitter flavors we are less accustomed to. (Those are only two that come to mind, though there are tons more, of course. If anyone wants to share their observations, feel free.) What struck me as so odd was that onions and garlic were two ingredients that they seemed to avoid. In American-Italian cooking, garlic is abundant. Perhaps it is also that they use garlic more in the South of Italy? I have no idea, because the original bruschetta recipe is just toasted bread with garlic, olive oil and maybe salt and/or pepper.
Onions, in retrospect, I have seen less of in dishes on menus, although I am going to keep my eyes peeled to confirm this suspicion. In any case, some of the boys came in and one of the first things one kid said was, “che puzza!” (What a stink!) More than one commented on the odor of the cooking meat, and it must have been that—and the miniscule amount of garlic added—that so offended his sensibilities. Perhaps, too, the wafting scent of the chopped onion. I think I was the only one who added onions to my burrito. Granted, onions perhaps would have been better sauteed and put into the meat, but that was objected to adamantly by the co-hostess, whose tastes were not partial to onion. I promised her we could leave them on the side for them to choose whether they’d put them in their burritos. Personally, I adore the scent of onions cooking, and don’t mind at all when the kitchen smells that way for hours after. Apparently this is not a shared opinion in Italy?
When we finally gathered around to the table to serve ourselves, I introduced the dish and just said what we might normally put in a burrito, which was, essentially, everything on the table. I granted, of course, that they should eat how they wanted to, and they did. The beans were mostly left to the side, as were the onions. In a way, I guess I almost felt like the remaining food on the table was evidence of some sort of Italian hypocrisy—if I eat something “wrong” at an Italian table, trust me, I’ll hear about it. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve been chastised by friends for either mixing food on a plate (God forbid the balsamic vinegar from the salad touches the stray sauce of the pasta! Pasta must have its OWN clean dish!) or even eating things out of order (for example, eating another snack of olive oil & vinegar with bread AFTER the dessert/fruit course. OMIGODTHEWORLDISENDING! I can still hear Giovanni: “Ma, Sara, fa schiffo!” “But Sara, it’s gross!”). As much as they have my best interests at heart, I say this now and will forever believe that my dining experience is not lessened by those choices. I promise. Attribute it to my brutish Americanness, but I speak the truth. Part of me wanted to say, “But this is how it’s eaten! You have to eat it like this! Put some cheese on it, darnit!” because that seems like how things run in this country with their food. Not like burritos have specific rules or anything, and really you can put whatever you want in them, which is also part of their beauty. However, the food was enjoyed by all, and I was glad to be able to share it with them.
The reminder I got out of the experience was this: I am American. There are certain things that, no matter how many times I come here, will never change, just as there are certain things for Italians that would never change if they went to the States. Eating habits—other than my conversion to preferring aqua frizzante—I haven’t found to be very flexible for me. I’m happy to do things as much their way as I can while I’m here, so I can’t help but be a little sorry that a love of onions and garlic is not shared by people worldwide. One thing I am certainly looking forward to eating when I get home is a nice, real Mexican meal!