You must taste new stamps

All right, students: Raise your hand if you’ve ever had ceviche. Nobody? No, Wise-Guy in the third row, ceviche is not Spanish for a beer.

Then how about sancocho? Still nobody?

Well, don’t feel bad, students. I’d never heard of either of these things either — until I read today’s paper.

We’re talking spicy treats. They’re about to be featured in a dedication ceremony at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque on Thursday. Oddly, Spain is divided, as any country is, into areas of special or local favorites. Don’t try ordering chile in España. And if you order a tortilla, you’ll receive an eggs-and-potatoes omelet. As for the cultural center’s ceremony, I may know when and where it was scheduled to take place, but that doesn’t get me much closer to knowing what I just quizzed you on.

You, Juan, our class clown: You confused “ceviche” with “cerveza,” which is understandable. I remember once when I was your age that a guy who didn’t like being beaten by my team in tackle football, called one of us a “cerviche” — or something like that. In the heat of passion, spurred by an intense football game, we sometimes slur our words, and a word that sounds a bit like “cerviche” almost started a fight.

This week, the U.S. Postal Services is releasing its latest series of stamps, with intricate drawings, representing spicy foods. The headline and the newspaper article stress that these items are spicy. But I hope that doesn’t mean that the glue we lick to make the stamp stick carries the flavor of chile pequin.

Now let’s be honest: Doesn’t everybody on the planet know what tamales are? Obviously! You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a hot steaming tamale, and maybe even slipped one — still warm — into your pocket on the way home, for a late-night treat. It may be stove hot in your pocket, but the chile itself on your hands burns in another way.

How about chile rellenos, flan and empanadas, two other things featured in the buyable set of stamps? My mother, Marie, often prepared the more common items: tamales, enchiladas, etc., and she developed the habit of preparing only what she liked. We loved her enchiladas and her red chile, but her specialties were limited.

Well, for my part, I’d much rather eat them than spend an hour in class defining them and listing their ingredients. But you need to realize that my knowledge these foods pictured on those new stamps is limited. I’d never even heard of some of those spicy foods, certainly not “ceviche,” which Juan over there probably thinks can also be a name you call somebody you don’t like. Or who wins at touch football.

I know about very few of the foods being featured by the Postal Service: tamales, flan, empanadas, chile rellenos. As for the other foods pictured on the new stamps, ceviche and sancocho, I plead no lo comprendo and nolo contendre.

You see, my mom was as Hispanic as anyone in town, but she prepared only what she liked. Few could match her red chile and beans. But possibly because of her personal likes and dislikes, we never had sancocho, which sounds like a saintly ghost.

Maybe I form judgments too quickly. Maybe I mocked the names of the last two items mainly because they’re not common native foods. The article I mention says they’re favorites in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. That could be why they’re not familiar to me.

But back to Mom: Growing up with her taught us to eat and enjoy her red chile with relish. (Well, maybe not relish, but with a good attitude). The yummy sounds around the table must have encouraged her, and nobody ever complained about the heat. In fact, we believed in “the hotter the better.”

We even had a live-in chile-temperature tester. You see — and I mean this with total respect to my late uncle Juan — he became bald at quite a young age. As my uncle ate Mom’s chile, little beads of perspiration would form on the top of his head. The more beads, the hotter the chile. And if the beads became large, we prepared for a heat-fest kind of meal.

Mom’s mealtime offerings tempered as we all aged. When we were younger, on our own, with families, there was never any question as to what Mom would be feeding us that day. And as we aged, the chile got milder; there was less need to have a bottle of ice water at the ready, and the tiny bubbles on Tio’s forehead shrank and eventually went away.

When I lived in Gallup, in my early 20s, I often ate out at ethnic restaurants. I’d once heard my boss, Walter Vivian, editor of the Gallup newspaper, explain, “When I go to a Mexican restaurant, I always tell them I want the real stuff, ‘not the stuff you feed the tourists.’”
I picked up that line, and it served me well. But whenever I’d ask my friends at Gordo’s or at El Sombrero in Gallup why the chile seemed so mild, they’d invariably reply, “The customers complain if it’s too hot.”

I’d usually answer with, “Then why don’t you make a five-alarm batch for the customers like me who complain that it’s too mild?

I’m beginning to understand why temperance is also important. My stomach pays for my over indulgence, and that can be paynful.

As for the rest of you, enjoy your ceviche — I just now discovered it’s a South American fish dish with a steaming bowl of sancocho, a Latino soup.

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