When to the southern star my heart does yearn
And absence long does cause that heart to ache
Then southward must every step drive, to earn
The rewards of long nights’ sleep…to wake
The spirit and the mind and tell
Of ancient sacred spells to cast:
Shelled egg, warm and spicy gold,
And cheese, grated fine to soften well,
Potatoes fried and crisp, and last
Tortilla grilled and warm, all enfold.
There are a lot of things that have made their way out of Texas and onto the national stage. Some of these things are wonderful, like barbeque rubs and chili. Some not so wonderful. Texas politics is best when it stays in Texas, where we understand these things. It doesn’t translate well to the National Stage, and provides nothing but Prime Grade Fodder for Yankee pundits wishing the criticize the state. Just try explaining Ma and Pa Ferguson to a New Yorker and getting any response other than a derisive look. Or Bob Bullock. People just don’t understand these things outside of the state. As Molly Ivins once said, “Good thing we’ve still got politics in Texas – finest form of free entertainment ever invented.” People who aren’t from Texas, I think, take Texas Politics more seriously than Texans do. And that’s fine, for at-home. In Texas, we don’t hide crazy, we put it on the front porch in a rocker and strike up a conversation with it. But that’s a different matter than sending it out to the world on a book tour.
I’m back home for a visit – a happy event, a wedding – and it’s been a couple of years since I was here. Too long, in fact. When I’m away from home – say, living in my home-away-from-home up in New England – I feel like I spend half my life getting Weird Looks, or explaining myself and then getting Weirder Looks. This is because, as the Texas Tourism Board had the Moral Strength to let the world know, Texas Is A Whole Other Country. Up until 2000 or so, I reckon a lot of people assumed it meant that Texas was huge, which it is – it is approximately the size of France. Texans, I think, considered that this slogan referred either to the astonishing natural diversity of the state’s ecological areas, or to the viscerally-held belief that Texas can secede from the Union at will.
When I left home in 2002, I understood it on a different level: it’s just literally true. Texas is part of the Union, yes, but it might as well be a foreign country given the yawning gulf between Texas and just about every other state or region in terms of culture, values, experience, and language. It’s not like I lack a basis of comparison. I have lived in the South (Florida and South Carolina), the Mid-west (Wisconsin) and now New England. I’ve traveled more extensively than that. And yet I haven’t encountered any place that is more foreign to just about everywhere else than Texas. I speak mostly the same language as the people in California, Oregon, Kansas, Wisconsin, Virginia, Vermont, New York, North Carolina, Georgia…in much the same way as people from Britain speak the same language that they do in Hawaii. (Actually, I suspect that Hawaii is a Whole Other Country as well, but I don’t have any evidence for that. And quite possibly Alaska is also a Whole Other Country. But that’s as far as I’ll go.)
These cultural difference cause a great deal of trouble for me, because no one expects them. Texas is part of the Union, no reason to expect the people there to be substantively different, after all. And yet…there we are, all of us Texan Expats, getting Weird Looks or Weirder Ones, every time we turn around. I learned early on that as soon as I detect a Weird Look, it’s a good idea to offer the simple blanket statement: “I’m from Texas.” This isn’t really an explanation, but it somehow is usually followed by a Clearing Brow and the Sparkle of Enlightenment coming to rest in the Dubious Eye. A general sense, you might say, of someone saying silently “Oh, well, that explains it.” The fact that this is sufficient to explain (if not excuse) virtually any kind of aberrant behavior, tells me that Texas must have been exporting at lot more than margaritas and beef.
NOTE: The omission of “Tex-Mex” from any list of Texas exports herein is because I cannot consider Tex-Mex to have been exported, since it is fundamentally unavailable at any level of minimally acceptable quality, north of Dallas.
One of the things that I am eternally surprised that Texas has not exported is the Breakfast Taco. While this falls under the very general heading of Tex-Mex and thus should not be exportable, it is an item of such stunning and beautiful simplicity and elegance that even a Yankee shouldn’t be able to screw it up. I know, to my eternal sorrow, that all too many people are completely unaware of the scintillating brilliance of the Breakfast Taco, which consequently deserves an introduction. A better introduction than my ghastly Ode, above.
The Breakfast Taco. It’s easier to list off a recipe than it is to describe it. Scramble some eggs. Grate some cheese. Cook up some cut-up potatoes on the griddle. Heat a flour tortilla and wrap everything up in it, then wrap the stuffed tortilla tube in a square of aluminum foil. Sell to the guy at the window of the truck for $1.00. Or, better yet, sell the guy three of them, at which point he now has a hot, moderately low-fat, nutritionally-complete, substantial breakfast that he can eat in his truck or at his desk, all for $3.00.
How could this not be available with the same ubiquity as a Starbucks grande latte?
Having provided that recipe, however, I’ve told you nothing that is truly important. The execution is everything. There are condiments, like salsa, or if you’re going the Luxury Route, guacamole. There are options, like chorizo, or refried beans, or the Poor Man’s Taco, potatoes and eggs only, for $0.75. A lukewarm Breakfast Taco, made with an inadequately heated tortilla, and using undercooked potatoes, is still a more desirable meal than a day-old bagel smeared with fat-free cream cheese.
A well-executed Breakfast Taco, on the other hand, is a Culinary Gem. A treasure. An experience to be savored. Something to write home about. I had such an item, or, rather, two of them, just this morning.
There was a perfect quantity of eggs, perfectly scrambled – neither too soft nor too hard, not wet, not dry. A light sprinkling of salt and pepper.
There was a perfect quantity of grated white cheese, queso blanco, an item for which Monterey Jack is not an acceptable substitute.
There was a perfect quantity of potatoes, cooked until tender but not disintegrating, then fried lightly until crisping on the corners.
There was a fluffy, homemade flour tortilla that had been griddled until it started to crisp in spots, cuddling the eggs, potatoes, and cheese. When I opened my packet, the cheese was just starting to melt over the potatoes and eggs.
And – this is essential – there was a container of fiery hot tomato salsa. Salsa is not the stuff that your Whole Foods is selling in the produce department as “salsa”. That stuff is actually pico de gallo, an entirely different condiment. Real salsa is runny and juicy, and while there may be chopped jalapenos delivering heat, there is almost always some kind of Hot Sauce. Hot Sauce covers a pretty broad spectrum of offerings – I, personally, have ten different kinds in my pantry at home. There’s Tobasco, the “brand” leader of the Hot Sauce world. Calling all hot sauces “Tobasco” is like calling any beverage that comes out of a pop-top “Coke” – and that includes beer. There is so much more than just Tobasco. There’s hot sauces made from habaneros, the five-alarm fire of the chili pepper world. There’s habanero in other incarnations – one of my favorites is habaneros and mango juice. And it just starts there. Pico de Gallo, or “Salsa” as our Whole Foods is calling it, is chopped up fresh tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos. The proper term is “Salsa Fresca”. Fresh salsa. Because “real” salsa usually comes out of a jar. It’s possible to make it at home – and some serious cooks do – but for the rest of us, there are so many excellent and inexpensive commercial offerings available (IN TEXAS) and the volume of the stuff a household can expect to go through is so large (IN TEXAS) that it’s easier just to buy it readymade.
The salsa from the taco truck had originally – in my estimation – come from a large industrial-strength plastic handle of salsa from the Fiesta! (grocery), but it had been substantially doctored up with Hot Sauce in after-market processing. The first dash was All Heat. By the second, the endorphins had kicked in, and by the third, they’d caught up. So you will have to imagine the tube of warm grilled tortilla cuddled around perfectly scrambled eggs, potatoes just starting to crisp, and exotic white cheese melting over the top…and lay in a solid stream of Red Fire to cap it off. Then roll back up, careful to mind the wrap at the bottom of the tube so it doesn’t leak…and eat.
This is an experience that cannot be had for love nor money outside of my home state. You can get something similar in San Diego, or in New Mexico – although there you will have green chiles liberally and suspiciously scattered about in everything. But the pure Breakfast Taco? Nowhere but Texas. (I know someone from Manhattan, or worse yet, Brooklyn is reading this and thinking “No way! The Food Truck in my neighborhood has GREAT tacos!” but – trust me – they don’t. They have better tacos than any other place you’ve tried tacos, but they are NOT great, and you’d know it if you’d ever had the Real Thing.)
Objective One for the trip back to Texas: Eat TexMex and Lots Of It. CHECK.
Now on to Objective Two: Buy Cowboy Boots To Go With My Fringed Leather Jacket. With any luck, I’ll find a decent hatband, too.