Lightplay 017 – Taco Story

What drives us to cook the same foods over and over and over?

When I was a kid, tacos were the consolation prize at the end of hour-and-a-half-long custody exchanges where Mom and Dad each drove to a carefully-determined midpoint and handed me and my brother off for the weekend. These handoffs were always a bit melancholy, especially on winter Fridays when the sun was already well down by the time we made it to dad’s house out in the middle of nowhere. We’d walk down the walkway to his house, a million stars spread over our heads, and feel very distant from our lives and friends back in the big, light-polluted town up the coast.

But once we hauled our backpacks inside, dad would build a fire, turn on the digital projector, put on a John Wayne flick (my brother was obsessed), and head to the kitchen to fix dinner. Soon a haze of burning butter and caramelizing corn tortillas would waft in, crossing the cone of cinematic light and making its way up my nostrils, into my brain. A few minutes of salivation. Then, finally, the tacos themselves. They arrived crispy and hot on the outside, warm with cheese and salsa and green onions on the inside. We’d been apart for two weeks, but as we sat together on the couch eating tacos and watching The Searchers, we felt reconstituted, at least for the night, back into a little family.


If you’d prefer an audio version, you can listen to this essay on the Lightplay podcast:

 


Maybe it’s because today I myself want to be a parent that I tear up a little, remembering those times. The memories, filtered by two decades, are potent, like a tawny port. I feel sympathy for all three of us, each hurting in our own ways. And the distance especially helps me see how my dad put as much as he could into making those forty-eight hours he had with us count.

Of course, like probably any single dad of his generation, he could also be ridiculously bad at keeping the three of us fed. He’ll never live down the time he admonished us, “Don’t think of me as your father. Think of me as the guy who can get you food. Sometimes. If you ask.”

In a way, it was this very incompetence—or, more generously, inconsistency—that helped me develop as a cook in my own right. My dad had this wonderful, generous, teacherly quality where he would invite me to join him, to help out, and together to treat cooking as a fun experiment. Sure, there was an element of Tom Sawyer to this, but maybe all teaching is just tricking someone else into doing it themself. At any rate, it worked. With his guidance, I mastered his style of making tacos.

Then we kept on going. Every other weekend, tacos. More tacos. Summer tacos. Winter tacos. Good tacos. Bad tacos. Tacos. Tacos. Tacos.

Over about a decade we developed and grew our taco technique as collaborators. There were many breakthroughs, like when my sister introduced us to Herdez salsa and Tapatío hot sauce, or my dad’s insight one night that he could melt the cheese right against the pan, caramelizing one side. There were also more gradual refinements, like my own technique of putting pungent aromatics (garlic, onions, jalapeños) directly in that grilling cheese. Together, we decoded how to pan-sear poblano peppers to perfection without choking on capsicum smoke. And then there was the legendary, years-long development of a tofu preparation technique my dad nicknamed “to-fries.”

We ended up with a dish that was complex and satisfying and fun—and all our own. Until my dad went vegan in 2018, we made these with each other every chance we got. And I still make them for myself and my partner a few times a month. They’re not really like any taco I’ve been served in a restaurant, Mexican or otherwise. They’re probably well-described as “Cali-Mex,” though in California we just call Mexican food, well, “Mexican.” Ultimately, they’re the product of one particular family.

Also: they’re devilishly tasty and, once you get the hang of the different steps, pretty quick to make. Try ‘em out. And don’t be afraid to put your own spin on them. I know there’s still more to discover.

Recipe: Henderson-Style Tacos

Makes between three and twenty tacos. Estimate the amounts on everything until you get a feel for what works for you.

Ingredients:

Essential

Soft corn tortillas (king size)
Soft melting/grilling cheese (usually sharp cheddar) Green onions
Spicy, tangy hot sauce (classically Tapatío)
Avocado
Lemon or lime
Butter or cooking oil
Salt

Main Filling (use one or two or all three)

Firm tofu for “tofries”
Black beans (cooked or canned)
Poblano peppers

Optional (depending on mood and season; don’t use all at once)

Tomatoes (especially little ones)
Cilantro
Garlic
Red onion
Salsa (classically Herdez brand in the little cans)
Sour cream
Whole pickled jalapeños in escabeche (preferably La Morena brand)

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1. Turn the heat on under a cast iron.

This, my dad taught me, is the first step of all cooking. Only once the flame is lit do you take the ingredients out of the fridge and begin prepping them.

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2. Get your main filling(s) cooking up:

If using beans, heat them in a pot.

If using poblanos, sear them in the cast iron pan over high heat: coat the hot pan with a bit of high heat oil, place the whole poblanos in the pan, then press them with a weight (I use another cast iron topped by a full water kettle) till they hiss and spit; rotate the peppers every few minutes so that all the sides get charred.

If making “tofries,” cut the firm tofu into extruded squares that are roughly the same dimensions as thick homefries or, say, a long thick Lego brick, then fry in a hot pan coated with high-heat oil (I prefer peanut), carefully flipping so each side becomes golden brown; once the tofries are evenly fried, I like to splash a bit of soy sauce into the hot pan, hastily stirring the tofries around so the sizzling soy sauce kisses each tofry with its salty, umami soyness.

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3. Get your cold ingredients prepped.

As you have a free moment, prepare each cold ingredient so that it’s ready to slip into the prepared tacos at the perfect moment. (This can be done during or even before Step 2 and may continue up to the moment of Step 6; the key is to be in continual, purposeful motion, never idle when there’s a task to be done.)

Slice your green onions into thin-thin medallions, on the bias. If just using a few green onions, start by cutting them into thirds, then consolidate, then slice. (My dad’s trick; it halves the labor.)

Halve or quarter your cherry tomatoes and be sure to follow each tomato’s anatomy, cutting down through where the stem is attached.

Macerate the avocado by making careful slices while the flesh is still in the skin, then squeeze a lemon or lime over it and maybe a pinch of salt. When it’s time to put it in the taco, lift the slices out with a wide spoon.

Crush then mince a clove or two of garlic.

Cut thin slivers of red onion.

Pick cilantro leaves or, if lazy, just whack some off with a knife.

Stick a serving spoon in your sour cream.

Cut pickled jalapeños into thin strips.

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4. Cook the tacos.

Starting with a hot cast iron pan, put a tiny dab of butter or oil in, then arrange three tortillas around the pan so that half of each tortilla is touching the pan’s bottom (the other halves will be sticking up the sides, almost out of the pan). Allow the parts of the tortillas touching the pan to cook and grow golden, then rotate each tortilla 180 degrees and wait for the second half to cook.

Now that one side of each tortilla is cooked, flip the tortillas so the cooked sides face up. (This cooked-first side will form the inside of each taco.)

Now add the cheese along the edge of each tortilla that faces the center of the pan, arranged so that half of the cheese is actually off the tortilla and directly touching the pan. (The cheese from your three tacos will melt together; we’ll fix this in a later step.)

Place your spicy/aromatic ingredients atop the cheese so that as it melts they fall in and cook slightly: green onions, garlic, red onions, pickled jalapeños. Don’t be too precise.

Next add your other warm ingredients, which might include beans, tofries, and pasilla peppers. I usually add my tomatoes at this point too.

NOTE be cautious not to overfill your tacos. Less is more here, and if you’re that hungry just make one more than you were planning to!

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5. Fold your tacos up and finish cooking.

After a minute or two, your cheese will have melted and grilled to your preferred level of golden crispiness where it touched the pan, and it’s time to fold the taco up into something deserving the name. At this point, your cheese will likely have run together. You may have to use a fork and a serrated steak knife to cut the cheese apart. Urse your implements to flip the cheese up onto its taco. (It ends up kind of gluing everything in.) Then, at the same time, close the taco up and flip it over onto the final side that has yet to cook. This side should now be touching the pan.

Cook this final side till golden and crispy, too. Then remove to a plate.

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6. Put the last cold ingredients in the cooked tacos.

You may have to gently crank the tacos open to slip in a slice or two of avocado, a modest dollop of sour cream, and a generous big pinch of cilantro.

Now the tacos must be eaten immediately, from the hand, with a bottle of hot sauce nearby and perhaps also a cold cerveza. Meanwhile, the taco maker will already be deep in the cooking of the next batch, on and on, till everyone has had their fill.

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The way I’ve come to think of these tacos is as big fried dumplings. A neutral dough, wrapping a flavorful filling, fried up and eaten from the hand.

There’s a deeper connection, too. The joy of a dumpling, for me, is the way I can taste the thoughtfulness of the maker, who has put all these ingredients in just the right place and proportion, and has cooked it just so, to guarantee a blissfully perfect bite. That’s especially true of fried dumplings like potstickers or samosas, which require a watchful, tender eye to prevent burning and ensure golden perfection. At their best, that’s what these tacos are, too: condensed care and, yes, love, crunchily giving way to the teeth.

The best dumplings I ever had were in a Christmas light-festooned back alley of Luang Prabang, Lao. (This was around the time I wrote my incomplete “Lost Travelogue.”) I ate in that alley several times that week, in no small part because for about $4 I could gorge on a heaping plate assembled from a long, psychotically laden an all-you-can-eat buffet. The food wasn’t, you know, good, but I was hungry and it did the thing. Even as I ate these massive, mediocre meals, I kept passing by this cart where a Yunnanese man was selling veggie and meat potstickers by the bag: six pieces for the equivalent of $2.50. (From a caloric perspective, a rip-off compared to the buffet.)

I had been sneaking glances at the dumpling cart for the whole week I stayed there, but it was only on my last night I decided to splurge.

The man making them looked to be maybe thirty. He was handsome, with big, smart eyes and strong, pianist’s hands. With his Chinese looks he seemed out of place among all the Lao vendors who staffed the other stalls in the alley.

We talked first in his bad English and then in my bad Chinese. He was a university graduate who had fallen in love with a woman from Luang Prabang and moved there to marry her. But in his new city there were no jobs. So he started his cart. People liked to have a genuine potsticker. And cooking them reminded him of home, which he missed.

I watched him cook. He wielded a pair of long chopsticks, regularly lifting and rotating and testing the dumplings. His focus didn’t waver, even as we talked. He was a true artisan, frying his little dough pouches just so.

When the dumplings were finished—he cooked up batches of thirty at a time—he put my six in a thin little cellophane bag, ladeled some hot pepper oil in, shook it with great precision and restraint, stuck a dainty skewer in the top dumpling, and handed the bag to me.

I started eating from the bag as I walked through the electric city back to my hotel, my mind worrying about packing and emails and what time to leave—the ferry would embark from the outskirts of town at 6:30 the next morning. But then I noticed the dumpling in my mouth, that first bite, and all that chatter in my mind came to a halt. These dumplings demanded my full attention. They were so perfect: the balance of hot and rich and salty and tart flavors, the crispy texture encasing warm soft filling, the wheat of the wrapper, the aroma of star anise and fried dough. Eating them engaged all of the senses, even hearing, through the sound of crisp dough shattering against my teeth. Three dumplings in, I just stopped and squatted on the side of the road and gave myself over to them.

I thought I could taste more than just food—I could taste their cook’s homesickness, his love of his parents, his thwarted ambitions, the way he poured himself into his food cart. It was overwhelming.

When I finished, I walked a few minutes further, and then realized I’d regret not getting another bag. I headed back to the alley.

It was awkward trying to explain why I came back, and I think I embarrassed the vendor, too. It was dark now. He ignored me as he fried up a new batch. My second bag was good, too, and I wolfed it down. But it couldn’t match the ecstasy of the first.

I walked again back in the direction of my hotel. Before going in I smoked a cigarette in the cold night as a rain began to fall. I had to pack my bags. I did need some sort of plan to make it out to the ferry in the morning. But through it all, the taste of those dumplings was with me, that heightened experience. I’m still thinking about it six years later.

When I left the next morning, leaving just enough time to catch the ferry, it was the start of retracing my steps—first back to Thailand, then back to China, then across the ocean back to California. That dumpling cart was about the furthest I ever got from home.

A week or two later, I was back in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I decided to make a special dinner of tacos for the friends I’d made there. I searched the city for tortillas (only found flour ones), beans (dried black beans!), and cheese (surprisingly decent cheddar available…for a price). I went to the fruit market and bought tomatoes and green onions and chili peppers and two different types of avocado, one super tall and skinny, the other simply enormous.

At Li and William and Amelie’s shared house, I took over the kitchen. I made the beans from scratch. I got everything lined up on a cutting board. And then we ate the hell out of some tacos, even as the flour tortillas cracked and came apart in our hands, even as the avocado was strange and leathery, even as there was nothing to use for hot sauce.

I missed home so much, certain moments on that trip, and I tried to be like the dumpling man and pour all that feeling into a bunch of crispy little dumplings for my friends.

My maternal grandfather, Bob Ruffing, died at the beginning of February. He was 93 and led a good long life. It was a natural death, at home. It was also, as death can be, though for whatever reason I didn’t expect it, sad. I missed him. I felt his absence.

Bob was the last of my biological grandparents left on earth, and if there’s something to take solace in it’s the knowledge that I’ll keep thinking about him for the rest of my life—just like I do everyone else I’ve lost.

In a funny way, my love of tacos is one of the things that reminds me of my other bio-grandpa. My dad’s dad’s name was Don Henderson, and he died in 1998. I only really got to know him for a few months, right towards the end. I don’t know if we all ate tacos even once during that visit. My dad and my taco thing really got going a few years later. But last year I was talking with my dad, reflecting on how great our joint taco technique had become, and he said that he wished that his dad had lived long enough to try them.

“Did Grandpa Don like tacos?”

Dad explained that Don was a great appreciator of the taco himself and had indeed been my teacher’s teacher. Grandpa Don’s tacos, he told me, had ground beef in them, and iceberg lettuce, and tomato. They were a white man’s taco of the 1960s. But he was proud of them. He loved tacos. And that love, you could argue, was a beginning place for my dad and my love of tacos. A special, unexpected etymology.

Writing this essay, however, I realized that in fact I did know that tacos were on Grandpa Don’s radar. And that’s because they feature in a scene from the 1969 drive-in classic The Babysitter—the highest-grossing film my grandfather ever directed, and one today usually described, when it’s described, as a standout in the genre of “trashploitation.” And let me tell you, The Babysitter is sleazy as hell. The tagline is, “She Came to Sit With Baby… and Ended Up With Daddy.” There a male-gazy lesbo sauna scene and much inappropriate and overwritten innuendo. It’s also full of deep family lore—too much for any of us to stand watching it. It can be read as a map to old scars.

But that doesn’t concern us here. Instead, just one scene in particular. This is when the sexually frustrated deputy district attorney protagonist establishes the first glimmer of sexual connection with Candy, the hippie babysitter/seductress. He’s decided to drive her home after an evening of babysitting, and at her request they’ve stopped to get… tacos! They sit in the car eating their tacos, and she talks him through his very first experience eating this messy, ethnic-coded cuisine. “So this is what the kids eat,” he says. She tells him to pick his taco up and eat it out of his hand. The camera is outside the car for this, so we’re spared a close-up of the assistant DA messily crunching. But then we do get close, and we see him gaze at Candy longingly, and she says to him, voice sultry, “The light is green. That means you can go.” They drive off.

Grandpa got it! Tacos are sexy. They’re messy. They’re tempting. Certainly they are difficult to eat while driving. Why not put a few in your sexploitation flick?

I’m thankful that Don’s love for tacos was passed down through the generations and reached me, his vegetarian grandson. If I have a kid of my own, I can guarantee that the taco gene will last another generation.

Most of all, though, I’m glad that tacos gave me and my dad a place to bond. We had so many good times bent over his gas range, frying up tofries and trying out something new, discussing what worked and what didn’t and why, and gradually refining our shared technique. Those are sweet memories.

Now when I visit my dad, we work on vegan tacos. I will say, it’s hard without the crispy cheese or the sour cream, the fats that balance and unite the other flavors. We’re clearly due for a breakthrough. Even so, we eat well every time, and we savor each other’s company.

It’s not in search of ultimate mastery that we cook the same foods over and over again. At least not for me. I cook the same foods over and over again because each time I do, I feel a little more whole, a little more connected to yesterday, to yesteryear, to my family and friends and past adventures and, yes, future ones too. When I make tacos, I feel at home.


This essay was originally published on February 26, 2022 as part of Lightplay, a publication available both as a newsletter and as a podcast. Thanks to Hunter Gagnon for editorial help.