Yesterday, as I ate the most delicious tortillas of my life at Itanoni, a casual restaurant that seriously celebrates corn, I thought about Mexican Independence Day, which begins tonight at 11 pm with “El grito de independencia” or the shout for independence in the zocalo.
As the cheese and poblano peppers, with their slight yet sure spiciness, oozed out of my rolled-up taco, as I scooped up the last bit of chicharrones, or fried pork rinds, in red salsa with my bare fingers, I pondered all the ways in which Mexico is so different from the U.S.
When I bit into my tetela, the pre-Hispanic triangular corn turnover filled, in this case, with an intense black bean puree, enhanced by crema, queso, and the anise-scented hoja santa, I sighed and longed for some culinary delight that would link me and my country to a history spanning more than 250 years.
Mexicans domesticated corn 9000 years ago. They’ve probably been eating tortillas for almost as long. Although the Spanish brought smallpox, death, and destruction to the indigenous peoples, Mexicans are still eating the tortillas the conquistadors were given when they arrived 500 years ago.
I imagine most Mexicans take this for granted. Itanoni doesn’t. Its full name is “Itanoni, Flor del Maiz,” meaning “Flower of Corn.” It declares with pride that all its antojitos are made out of maiz criollo, meaning that the variety is indigenous and native to Mexico. (Criollo also means a Mexican of Spanish descent. Confusing and yet revealing, no?) Each plastic table, under its plastic tablecloth, displays a sweet story about the ant that revealed to the god Quetzalcoatl the secret of maiz, thus ending a famine.
Although Itanoni has a heightened sense of purpose, it tries to look like yet another little storefront selling memelas, tacos, and other small treats based on masa or corn dough, with its tin roof and casual, cheap resort furniture. You only begin to notice how self-consciously it seeks to be traditional when you see the menus, artfully designed with wholesome corrugated cardboard and brown paper, the aguas served in old-fashioned, thick glass bottles, and the sturdy construction of the wood-burning, outdoor stoves.
Whatever Itanoni is doing, it works. My tacos, my tetela, were the best anything made out of masa I have ever eaten anywhere. They reminded me that like a sandwich, a taco can be elevated by tasty fillings, but it can never be sublime without a great base. They had subtle layers, as flat as they were, almost like roti but without a hint of grease. They were unsalted and unsweet, tasting purely and cleanly of corn. The outer layers were toasty, while the inner layers remained soft and pliable. Is there anything that smells more innocent and more comforting than something toasted?
Octavio Paz says that Mexico believes in a continuity between its indigenous past and its post-Revolution, independent state, broken only by a couple hundred years of New Spain. Unlike the U.S., whose Founding Fathers plotted for independence without a thought for the Native Americans, the Mexican struggle for independence began with a Catholic priest calling to action angry indigenous groups, mestizos, and criollos, Mexican-born Spaniards who didn’t have the power and status accorded to Spanish-born Spaniards. However false and however strange, as Paz implies it is, to see modern Mexico as a restoration of what existed before New Spain, it’s what Itanoni celebrates, a sense of gastronomic and cultural heritage stretching back thousands of years. I envy it, if only because the food is so delicious. What would we similarly celebrate in the U.S.? Corn-on-the-cob? Roast turkey, when they’re bred to be so big-breasted the poor things end up with sad, sexless, artificially inseminated lives? (Apparently, Mexican Independence Day is now being celebrated in California. Really, illegal immigration is just Mexico’s revenge for having lost California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas to the U.S. only 150 years ago.)
Calvin Trillin is probably right, the best thing that ever happened to America food-wise was the Immigration Act of 1965. When I get home, I am going to comfort myself with a big platter of sushi.