Several years ago, while eating dinner with a friend at Guillermo’s Mexican Restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, I overheard someone say, “Damn! Those are some sexy tacos!” I could barely repress my laughter and almost choked on a portion of carne asada, but I quickly recovered and raised my margarita glass towards the enraptured soul and together we cheered, “Ole!”
Jenny and I were regulars at Guillermo’s, or the Double L as many know it. We liked the music, we liked the vinyl booths, and we even liked the waiter who we referred to in private as El Nez (the nose – he wore heavy cologne). Most of all we liked the moonlight margaritas, and, as we sat there sipping the rhapsodic blue nectar, we gossiped about any number of wacky ideas that came into our heads.
Jenny, a Tucson native fluent in Spanish, taught me Spanish curse words and told me the Spanish names of flowers and fruits, explaining their etymology as well as their slang adaptations. I fondly remember when she told me about the Mexican petunia, which she personally referred to as Espanta Muchachos (scares the children), because the plants grow so tall and thick that children can easily hide in them and scare one another. Mexican petunia blossoms are a rich purple, with long reedy stalks and bamboo-like green leaves; the flowers proliferate all around the University of Arizona campus, where we both worked. I grew to love the sight of them.
During our meals, we salted the hot tortilla chips and asked for seconds on salsa; the wait staff, who quickly grew accustomed to our cackles and chortles, graciously obliged. A dedicated vegetarian, Jenny ordered dishes rich with mixed vegetables, fragrant spicy rice, refried beans, and guacamole. I usually ordered the restaurant’s generously portioned cheese quesadilla, and I slathered it in salsa fresca and sour cream. Mainly, we laughed and laughed, casting off the pressures of the day. Jenny was, in my mind, a true desert spirit. She loved her hometown fiercely and, moreover, she respected that she was a member of its ecosystem, living her out her days in ways that were minimally invasive to her environment. She built a native-species garden oasis in her backyard and rescued animals as if she was a direct descendent of Saint Francis of Assisi. She emanated profound kindness, which made it very easy to laugh with her. She was like a mother to me.
We occasionally varied the Thursday night routine by dining at the unbelievably lavish and beautiful Arizona Inn. Their food was far more refined and artfully presented. The wait staff wore starched black and white uniforms and they answered nearly every inquiry and request with a well-practiced “Certainly,” making guests feel unquestionably important and to-do. (At least, that’s how I felt. I always wanted to ask the waiters some nonsensical question, just to see if they’d break the façade. “Have you ever seen a gila monster wearing a pinafore?” “Certainly.” Perhaps one day I’ll ask anyway… just for funsies.) But eating there simply cost more, so we usually only dined at the Arizona Inn when we felt puckish and our bank accounts weren’t hovering around zero. Then we returned to the Double L. (We never stopped saying “certainly,” though.)
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Tucson was my culinary awakening. In Tucson, the diverse flavors – bright, earthy, and verdant – astounded me. I discovered moles – not on my skin, not in holes in the ground, but in cast iron pots, fragrant with Mexican chocolate and cinnamon. I developed a near-fanatical obsession with Mexican food in general and piquant green salsa in particular.
It took no time at all before I was hooked. Thankfully I have empiric scientific evidence to support my addiction. Alex Shoumatoff notes, “The principal compound [of chiles], capsaicin, triggers the release in your body of something called Substance P, which causes pain, then, by a negative feedback process, activates opioids that turn the Substance P off, and endorphins that produce a state akin to runner’s high, a rush similar to jumping into an icy pool after taking a sauna. The second process becomes stronger with each does of capsaicin, so chiles are mildly addictive: you can become dependent on them for the secondary effect.” Oh, I became addicted to that secondary effect, all right – just ask the folks at Nico’s Mexican Food on Campbell Avenue. For a while, a meal just wasn’t satisfying unless I was crying a little bit.
Need additional quantification? Enter Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. “Research has found that, at least in the case of the pepper and chilli [sic] irritants, there’s a lot more to pungency than a simple burn,” writes McGee. “These compounds induce temporary inflammation in the mouth, transforming it into an organ that is more ‘tender,’ more sensitive to other sensations. A few mouthfuls and we become conscious of simply breathing: our mouth becomes so sensitive that exhaling body-temperature air feels like a textured hot bath, inhaling room-temperature air like a refreshingly cool breeze.”
In Shoumatoff’s collection of essays, Legends of the American Desert, the author refers to the unique process through which people of a certain bent find themselves in love with the desert. Georgia O’Keefe was one who fell hard and fast; DH Lawrence tried, but ultimately he couldn’t hack the virulent health problems that the desert afflicted upon him. When you visit the desert, you either get it – the chiles, the saguaros, the blistering heat and summer monsoons – or you don’t. I had no idea when I moved to Tucson for graduate school how much I would come to love the Sonoran desert. Reading Shoumatoff’s essays reminded me of passion for the place – its culture and, of course, its amazing food.
Mexican food especially lends itself to lust: enchilada, quesadilla, tamale, the wickedly addictive carne asada. One’s tongue rolls languidly around the words; there are no harsh consonants, no awkward guttural stops to obstruct their near debauchery. Say it like a song: chile relleno, the sleeping bag that encloses Hatch chilies in a warm cover of egg and batter. As a word person, the pleasure comes as much from the utterance and understanding of the words as it does from the consumption of that sexy, luscious food.
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One evening, after Jenny and I left Guillermo’s, we hadn’t yet left south Tucson and were stopped in her car at a stoplight. We had the windows down, loving the cool breeze. Two young men on motorcycles pulled up alongside Jenny’s car. The guys bantered back and forth in Spanish for a moment, peering into the car. When the light changed, they rode away. Jenny chuckled. “What?” I said. Never taking her eyes from the road, she said, “They said you have a face like a doll.”
When I left Tucson six years later, I closed the door on a chapter of my life that is forever done: I had my MFA, a 4-month-old son, and business prospects in Florida. I’m sorry to say Jenny and I didn’t keep up with each other like we should have. But some things – some people – can’t be forgotten. Through everything she did and said, Jenny taught me how to become an unforgettable person: how to be respectful, unerringly polite, compassionate, intelligent, articulate, and funny as hell. I can’t think of Tucson without automatically remembering dinners with Jenny and Jenny herself.
On those cool evenings when Tucson spread out before Jenny and me – our appetites sated, our spirits soaring – it felt just fine to sit with a friend and listen to the sounds of the desert breeze. Even now I think back and can feel that comfortable silent desert wind blowing past, imprinting my life with its indelible lessons of strength and beauty.