Monday, February 28, 2011

When in Doubt?

Whenever I traveled through non-English-speaking countries, my first inclination was always to speak Spanish. Considering that most of my travels had been in Spanish-speaking countries such as México, Puerto Rico, and Spain that seemed only too logical. Even when I traveled in Portugal I relied on tried and true Spanish although I had very mixed results.

Then I went to England and thought I was leaving Spanish behind. My two extended visits to England were mostly in the West Country, that is, Devon and Cornwall. I assumed that speaking and understanding English couldn’t possibly be a problem. Well, speaking it certainly wasn’t, but understanding the local lingo? Good grief! My host and his daughter spoke impeccable Brit English but when we ventured into the countryside and the small villages I discovered that at times I didn’t understand a word that was spoken. They were speaking English, of course, but with what I assumed to be a Celtic accent. I remember my joy once in a pub out on the moors of Dartmoor discovering that someone in the room was speaking Spanish. I searched the environs and saw a handsome, touristy Spaniard regaling a group of friends with his adventures. Spanish tourists in Dartmoor? Well, why not? I, a tourist from Oklahoma, was there, wasn’t I?

When I was with my hosts I didn’t have to worry about understanding the locals—they interpreted for me if need be. But when I set out on my own, that was a different story. One day I rode the bus into downtown Plymouth, that bustling city by the sea, from where the Mayflower supposedly set forth. I walked around the busy outdoor mall, inhaling the salty sea air and shopping for spices and herbs, especially cilantro, in the various Indian shops and markets that abounded there. Finally the aroma of baked goods enticed me into a shop where I noticed a long line of people [a queue in England] waiting patiently to order pasties, those delectable confections of pastry filled with meat, cheese, potatoes, and vegetables such as onions, leeks, turnips, and rutabaga. I took my turn in line and waited. When finally I reached the counter the clerk asked me something but I couldn’t understand what she said. Naturally she must have asked what I wanted but I was so surprised at her accent that I felt compelled to reply in Spanish. Since neither of us could understand the other, I finally pointed to the pasty I wanted. When I asked, ¿Cuánto es? she looked at me as if I were a deranged lunatic. Then I held out my wallet and pointed to it. She picked out, hopefully, the right change and I left with a most tasty pasty [please note that those two words do not rhyme).

That evening I related my tale to my host and his daughter who laughed heartily at my misadventure. “But,” said the daughter, “you both spoke English. Even if you couldn’t understand the clerk, she would have understood you.”

Well, of course, I should have known that.

When it was time for me to leave England, the daughter and a friend accompanied me to a travel agent to make my reservations for my return flight home. They asked my name and when they couldn’t understand me, I spelled it out for them—H-e-r-n-a-n-d-e-zee. My host’s daughter burst out laughing. The travel agent looked at me in a perplexed manner.

“It’s zed,” said the daughter.

“What is?” I asked.

“The last letter in your name.”

Now I thought I was using the English alphabet. Since when did x-y-zee become x-y-zed? Of course, in reality, I supposed, it was the other way around—somewhere in American history zed became zee. Perhaps I should stick with equis-y griega-zeta.

Then a few years later came my trip to Hong Kong and I knew that if I were in doubt what to speak there, it definitely wouldn’t be Spanish. Or would it?

Hong Kong, December, 1995—a year and a half before the British relinquished control of the colony to the Chinese—I assumed that everyone would know how to speak English. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, the hotel employees and the tour guides spoke English but everywhere else Chinese dialects were the languages of choice.

Although this was bustling, hustling overpopulated Hong Kong, the stores displayed Christmas wares everywhere. On both sides of Victoria Harbor, tall buildings were decorated in bright, colorful lights with Christmas trees, Santa Claus and reindeers, angels, manger scenes, the Three Wise Men—everything and anything that one could conjure up as Christmasy. At night these Christmas lights danced their reflections on the harbor giving an even more festive holiday mood. And everywhere I went I heard the sing-song tones of the Chinese dialects resonating with traditional Christmas music filtering out from the open doors of the stores. A strange but pleasing mixture of two very different cultures.

Our tour included breakfast every morning in the hotel restaurant that overlooked Victoria Harbor. That was the only opportunity that my traveling companion and I had to speak English with other travelers. The rest of the time we were left to fend for ourselves in the Hong Kong jungle of strange dialects. One morning we found ourselves seated at a table with two ladies from Switzerland. My companion discovered that one of the ladies spoke English and proceeded to converse with her. The other lady, however, did not speak English. So, falling back on my old standby of when in doubt, I spoke to her in Spanish. [I noticed that my companion rolled her eyes when I did this—probably thinking “There she goes again with the Spanish!”] To my astonishment the Swiss lady replied in Spanish! As it turned out she was from the Italian-speaking section of Switzerland and could speak not only Italian but French and Spanish as well. She was thrilled to find someone besides her companion who could speak a language that she spoke. And, to tell the truth, so was I.

So, when in doubt, speak Spanish—even in Hong Kong? Well, why not?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Taco Talk

Mexican tacos, Puerto Rican tacos, Indian tacos, Navajo tacos, Anasazi tacos, breakfast tacos—I have eaten them all. In the simplest terms a taco is a sandwich made with a tortilla. They are usually made with soft [steamed] corn tortillas or fried corn tortillas folded over. The tortillas can be filled or topped with whatever the cook desires.

[Please note that when I say tortilla in this piece, I’m referring to corn or flour tortillas. In many Spanish-speaking countries a tortilla is an omelet, especially an egg and potato omelet.]

Of all of the tacos I have eaten, the ones I like best are from the street vendors of Mexico, made with steamed corn tortillas and filled with roast pork or chicken or as in Ensenada, freshly caught fish, and topped with a homemade salsa of finely chopped tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, cilantro, and lime juice. Now, that is a taco. Or perhaps they are my favorites because they were the first tacos that I ever ate and I use them to base my comparisons with all others.

However, I also fell in love with Puerto Rican tacos, those spicy, deep-fried meat or seafood pies. There is no comparison between a Puerto Rican taco and a Mexican taco. Each has a different origin and a different taste. Each is equally good.

In the American Southwest, some of the most delicious tacos take on names of indigenous peoples. They were first called Navajo tacos but are now called, for the most part, Indian tacos and are eaten at pow wows all over the country. In the Four Corners region of the U.S.A., I ate an Anasazi taco, which consisted of delicious Indian fry bread topped with pinto beans, grated cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, guacamole, and sour cream. I doubt very seriously that the real people who some refer to as the Anasazi ate anything that luxurious. In the same place I ate a Navajo taco that also started with fry bread and was topped with green chile sauce, beef or lamb stew, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and grated cheese. In other places such as Oklahoma, the tacos were called, simply, Indian tacos, as they are in most pow wows. The Indian tacos that I have eaten In Oklahoma were similar to the Anasazi and Navajo tacos in that again fry bread was topped with seasoned meat and beans, cheese, and lettuce and tomato with salsa on the side. These tacos in some ways resemble tostadas or chalupas more than the folded corn or flour tortillas.

American fast food places compete greatly in creating diverse fillings for tacos with soft flour tortillas rapidly becoming the shell of choice. The fillings usually consist of beef or chicken fajitas, guacamole, salsa, sour cream, refried beans, grated cheese, lettuce, and tomato. However, these concoctions sometimes become burritos or chimichangas, which could be separate topics in themselves. I first ate breakfast tacos in Southwest Texas—soft flour tortillas filled with eggs scrambled with potato or sausage. I always added a great dollop of salsa to each one.

Corn tortillas are considered to be much healthier than flour tortillas but, of course, healthy has never been a mainstay of American fast food anyway. I personally prefer steamed corn tortillas—the flour ones are too heavy and to me not as tasty. Those crisp, packaged things called “taco shells”, however, are [in my humble opinion] at the bottom of the ladder in taco-land. Many people do like them and fill them with cooked ground beef, cheese, lettuce, and tomato—a far cry from the tacos of my Mexican street vendors.

Of course, a taco, like everything else, is an individual choice. Anyone can fill or top the shell [whether a deep-fried pastry, a corn or flour tortilla, or fry-bread] with his/her choice of fillings. A taco can be whatever you want it to be and the taco police have yet to arrest anyone for going beyond the norm. Let’s face it, as far as a taco is concerned, there isn’t a norm.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Say Cheese!

When I first wrote this column for a bilingual website in 2001, it was a mild diatribe about the cheeses used by Americans in international dishes. I havc calmed down a bit since then and don't get so upset when someone uses a cheese from one country in a dish from another. At that time I was especially peeved with Cheddar in Mexican dishes.

Recently that changed when I started to wonder why nachos were called nachos. Nacho is a nickname for guys called Ignacio. So, I did a search and found out immediately that the creator of nachos was indeed a gentleman from Rio Piedras, Mexico named Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya. In 1943 just as he was closing the club where he worked, a group of American women came in wanting something to eat. He hurriedly put cheese (either a Wisconsin cheese or sharp longhorn Cheddar) on tostadas (fried tortilla pieces) and topped them with jalapeños. The full story can be read at After reading that article and a slightly different one on Wikipedia, I realized that I had to change my attitude about how cheeses are used in various dishes.

Many American grocery stores sell an item called Mexican 4 Cheeses--or something like that--but the cheeses are Monterey Jack, Cheddar, asadero, and queso quesadilla. It's true that asadero and queso quesadilla are Mexican cheeses but Monterey Jack and Cheddar? How did they get in there? Monterey Jack was supposedly created by a Scotsman named Jacks from Monterey, California in the 19th century and not someone from Monterrey, Mexico. However, there are some who claim that the cheese came from Spain via Mexico to California and that Jacks simply appropriated the cheese as his own. Whichever story is true, Monterey Jack is now considered to be an American cheese. And Cheddar originated in Cheddar, England!!!

México has many wonderful cheeses. Why then, would someone include an American and an English cheese with Mexican cheeses and call them al Mexican? Now, I’ll admit that I have substituted Monterey Jack for Mexican white cheeses and the taste is similar, I suppose, but that’s because I don’t always have access to Mexican cheeses.

Many years ago when I attended the Instituto Tecnológico in Monterrey, México, the cafeteria there served fabulous meals--my first foray into eating Mexican meals. My favorite dish was chiles rellenos—poblano chiles stuffed with white cheese--queso blanco, cooked in a batter, and served with fresh salsa. Several years later my son and I went to a popular chain restaurant in Oklahoma that supposedly specialized in Mexican cuisine. Noting that the restaurant offered chiles rellenos, I ordered some and eagerly awaited the dish. As I began to savor the first bite, I realized in dismay that the chile was stuffed with, of all things, Cheddar! The taste was not the same, to say the least.

However, I do like Cheddar cheese but chiles rellenos conjure up a delightful memory for me--of a very special flavor from my college summer in Mexico. It’s the cheese that makes the taste so unique. From my point of view, certain dishes require certain cheeses. A Reuben sandwich needs Swiss cheese, an Italian pizza must have Italian cheeses, especially mozzarella, and English shepherd’s pie is made very tasty with, yes, Cheddar. I, at least, expect a certain taste when I bite into certain dishes and changing the cheese changes the taste.

Of course, the cheese police aren’t going to arrest anyone who mixes and mismatches cheeses. According to, Cheddar is the most popular cheese worldwide. I find that rather hard to understand although I love Cheddar in American macaroni and cheese casseroles and there's nothing like a grilled cheese sandwich made with sharp Cheddar.

Americans, of course, specialize in mixing up ethnic dishes (a true melting pot) and I’ll admit that there are many combinations that I love. I’ll eat a fajita pita any day. But if you’re going to mix things up, why not give these dishes a new name? I first ate nachos in Matamoros, México many years ago and, to be honest, I don't remember what kind of cheese was used, but the cheese was not that processed cheese glop that some fast food places use. If one wants to make a dish similar to Mexican nachos with gloppy cheese why not call them glopchos? Okay, I'm being silly. No one is going to change the name. And please don't forget the jalapeños. Or call all dishes that are derived from Mexican dishes Southwestern or Tex-Mex? The new combinations may be as tasty as the old--although that’s open for debate.

A friend once told me that he must have Cheddar in tacos, on enchiladas, and on pizza. But wait a minute, on pizza? Well, to each his/her own.