Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fiestas, Food, and The Epiphany

There was a confetti explosion in your heart when you read that word.  “Fiesta” stirs up contentment, exhilaration, anticipation – we humans like parties, but LOVE fiestas. 
I know – a fiesta is a party, it’s just the fancy Spanish word for one.  Being a Spanish teacher, I know my Spanish vocabulary…but I also know that if you really want your party to sound Party-of-the-Year-worthy, you call it a fiesta. 
The most common question of my own Spanish teachers in school was not, “How do you conjugate this verb?” or “What does ______ mean?” or “How do you say _______ in Spanish?” – it was, of course,  “When are we going to have a fiesta?”  Fiesta day = Best day ever.
Of course, the only reason anyone wanted to have a fiesta was because of the food.  We had to bring food and materials in for our potluck feast, of course, but it also meant that we got to eat a plethora of foods that others had made.  Of course, the slackers (me NOT included, of course) were the ones who brought in plates, forks, pop (not soda – this is Pittsburgh, after all)…but the “real” students, as my one teacher referred to them (ok, us), brought in a recipe that they (we) had found and made themselves (ugh, ourselves).  Typically, it was something Mexican – tacos (or at least some ingredients for tacos – the shells, the lettuce, etc.), tortilla chips (store-bought – no one was ambitious enough ), salsa (the overachievers made it themselves, but typically store-bought), beans, etc.  One time, my teacher actually made fried ice cream right there in the Home Ec room (it didn’t have that fancy “Family and Consumer Science” title at that time). 
My views of the foods that Spanish-speakers ate were completely off when I visited Mérida, Mexico after my freshman year of college in 1999.  My professor warned me and the two other girls that I traveled with that what we were expecting to eat may not be what we actually eat.  Although that was 12 years ago, my thoughts of the food and smells of Mexico are still quite clear.  Basically, the air smells of corn tortillas no matter where you go.  The cheese is “queso blanco”, which doesn’t have a lot of taste, but goes well with the other flavors of Mexican food.  And given the not-so-adventurous nature that we had back then, Burger King was our savior pretty much every night.  Whoppers saved the day…and our starvation.
During my time in Mexico, we visited a family that my professor had befriended over many years.  They were very poor, and lived in a village called Hoctún, which, up until about a year previously, hadn’t even had running water.  They invited us to eat with them twice, and when a family with hardly a peso to pinch invites you to eat, you eat.  I watched them make corn tortillas from scratch.  We ate watermelon that was surrounded by flies at all times.  Chickens wandered in from the outside (there were no doors in the back, since it was an adobe), and…well…pooped on the floor next to us as we ate.  It was an unusual experience, and one that I remember clearly. 
I also remember the other night that we were invited to eat with them at their bakery.  The food was placed in front of me, and I couldn’t believe my eyes – spaghetti.  Really?  In Mexico?  Upon further inspection of the noodle-y concoction, there was some sort of mystery meat mixed in with the tomato sauce, so I asked my professor, “Is this ham?”  I can’t eat ham – my body can’t digest it properly, and being in Mexico and having eaten many other native foods throughout the week, my stomach was already in disarray.  She looked at it and said, “No, it can’t be.”  So I ate it. 
Guess what?  It was ham.  My body knew, and proved it.
Over the course of college and my Spanish-learning days, I came to find out that Mexican food was WAY, WAY different from the foods of other Spanish-speaking countries.  Unfortunately, I had to read about them in books, magazines, or newspapers, or see them on TV - I did not have the opportunity to experience these foods for myself, mainly because there was nowhere for me locally TO experience them. 
Until recently.
On June 23, 2011, I read an article in the “Food & Flavor” section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette entitled, “Latin-American influence gaining momentum in Pittsburgh restaurant scene”.  In the article, Smoke, a restaurant that had just opened in Homestead, no more than 10 minutes away from my humble abode, was mentioned.  I was as excited as if someone had said the word “fiesta”. 
I had to go. For some reason, one that I still cannot explain, I had to try it.  So I went the next day.
The verdict?
This is how my epiphany began.  Details of the actual epiphany to follow.

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