Their attempt to please

A number of my columns have dealt with food. Growing up in this area, I’ve become accustomed to the real spicy stuff many moms serve several times a week.

But first, let’s define some terms:

  • “Señor Taco” is a term that should never be construed as an insult. It simply refers to a kind of amateurish way of cooking that adds tomato sauce and calls it chile.
  • Sopaipilla is spelled with two “i’s,” not one.
  • “Chile should never be pluralized; it’s chile that’s in your bowl, and yes, if we must put an “s” at the end of the word, we’re referring to individual peppers which add nothing but heat to the meal. So remember, the delectable stuff has only one “s.”
  • And it’s a big offense to spell the stuff “chili.” That’s only for flatland touristers.
  • Chile rellenos should not be confused with the common local surname “Arellano.”
  • Using the name “hot tamales” is redundant. By their nature they’re hot (or should be), and any tamale that is not hot (or calls itself hot, comes in a can.

As an inveterate eater of southwestern cuisine, I’m continually amused when I read recipes for “Hot Chile Sauce.” First, it’s not a sauce; chile is a food in and of itself, and the only modifications can be “red,” “green” or “Christmas, which gifts people with two distinct flavors.”

One recipe I came across listed the proper ingredients: a bit of oregano, a bay leaf for flavor, stew meat and the rest.Oh, did the recipe preparers forget the crucial ingredient: chile? There it is: This recipe calls for a teaspoon of chile powder. That’s not enough even to activate one sweat gland on my late uncle Juan’s forehead.

When Billy Wilder directed “Some Like it Hot,” starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, many of us southwesterners assumed the ‘60s movie would be about unending trips to restaurants in big cities. Instead there was a lot of music and cleavage (which I don’t object to.)

Wilder’s movie was based in the big city; I lived near one, Chicago, at the time, and told myself, “Self, why not take your girlfriend to the State-and-Madison area and search for some genuine chile that you crave so much?”

The one restaurant, whose menu and neon signs were solely in Spanish, seemed like a good place to start. The crew spoke only Spanish. I started with a bowl of red.


A can of Campbell’s Soup with a single speck of pepper would have been spicier. When I asked for something to jump-start my dormant sweat glands, I got a bottle of Tabasco Sauce, which increases the heat but not the flavor. My date, Carol, liked the food. Of course, she grew up in the Midwest and therefore lacked my gustatory experience.

Visits to a handful of other Spanish restaurants in that ethnically diverse area yielded other places whose management must have swiped their red chile recipe from the first Señor Taco place we visited.

Carol’s parents, who’d often invited me for some Polish/Bohemian/Czech fare, soon heard of our woeful tale and made amends for the Toddling Town’s lack of genuine ethnic restaurants. The elder Kucias did a lot of research in preparation for a feast as good as my mom used to prepare.

In those days, microwave ovens were a novelty, but what was called “Mexican food” was available only in the frozen-food section at the A&P. It was called a TV dinner.

Point No. 1: It was tastier than the chicken-soup-with-Tabasco-sauce concoction I once tried;

Point No. 2: It was still miles and millions of taste buds away from what we got in New Mexico.

Of course, I made merry over Carol’s parents’ substituting tamales for kalachkee and tacos for kartoflanka, but the substituted version didn’t cut it.

In anticipation of my arrival, Carol’s parents borrowed some Mexican LPs, by 101 Strings. And Carol’s younger sister even wore a rose in her hair and a fiesta dress, to seem authentic.

I realize I’m looking back 50 years, and that Carol’s parents had good intentions. I was appreciative of their efforts. But now that decades and Carol’s parents have all passed, I’m free to express my opinion.

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