“When it’s done properly, taco should be a verb.” — Jonathan Gold
“It is nostalgia. Everyone knew what that Old El Paso box meant.”
So said the ever-wise Jessica Crockett as we conducted a conversation about last night’s dinner.
I had had a hankering for tacos. But not al pastor tacos. Or lengua or chorizo. Heck, not even chicken. The truth is, I didn’t want today’s terrific tacos at all.
I wanted tacos from the ’80s.
You know, the ones with cheddar cheese. And iceberg lettuce. And taco seasoning poured from a pouch.
I’ve long had a recipe from “Cook’s Illustrated” that pays homage to this kind of taco. Its goal is to replicate Tex-Mex circa 1984 but use better ingredients. You make your own taco seasoning, for example. And it shows you how to fry your own taco shells.
So I happily got to work making all the fixings for what I was sure to be a lovely dinner. Along the way, all the memories I had stored up of this meal were unleashed.
As Jessica indicated, there was something about coming into the kitchen as a kid and finding out that you were having tacos for dinner.
First off, you felt just a little bit worldly. You weren’t traveling far, granted, but you were leaving Winnipeg, Manitoba, with all of its meat and potatoes and corn niblets. There was a good buzz inside that feeling. As you sat looking at the black winter window made white only because wind had pushed a slope of snow against it, you knew you weren’t actually in Mexico. But you were closer to it than you had been an hour ago.
Then there was the novelty of getting to put your meal together yourself. I mean, what kind of heaven was this as a kid? It was practically as exciting as make-your-own pizza (which, I’ll argue, was more exciting between assembly occurred pre-cook).
One big question was: how were you going to build your taco? And, just as important: could construction be perfected?
Particularly when it came to cheese, there were different ways to go. You could put the cheddar directly on the hot meat so it could potentially melt. Or you could add it at the end, after the lettuce, which was risky because it increased the potential for cheese fall-out, but celebrated the cheese more because it wasn’t overpowered by the beef.
Then there was the issue of refried beans. As a picky kid, I never stopped congratulating myself that I actually liked something so unsightly. The question was: did you only use beans? Or did you add both beans and beef? If so, did you add them before the beef? Or right after? Or did you add them at the end, post lettuce?
I was kidding with that last question, of course, because we all know that you never add beans after lettuce — unless you purposely want to make your taco fillings fall out. And no one wants that.
Because we weren’t that worldly, after all, we used our fingers to pick up the fixings we wanted in our tacos. This, also, felt remarkably freeing and novel. And because my dad was Ukrainian, we dolloped sour cream on our tacos, which I still do to this day.
And then, once everything was piled neatly together, I angled my head in a way that I never did when I ate, and I had my first bite. That crunch, right? It was about that crunch.
Of course, that came with a touch of anxiety because those Old El Paso shells had a tendency to crack. Boy, was there anything more heartbreaking than finding out that the last shell in the plastic tray was already broken in half? Even if you decided to be a trooper and make a taco salad in response by crumbling the shell into shards, it was never the same as an intact taco.
However, last night, I learned that not everyone agrees about that. In fact, as I sat eating my 1984 tacos, so pleased my eyes frequently rolled back in my head, I got the distinct feeling I was alone in my ecstasy.
I finally focused and saw husband was not happy. Or at least not as happy as I was.
It was then I remembered how, years ago, we’d all been at his parents’ house and his sister Teresa was standing in the kitchen crumbling Doritos over ground beef, lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, onions. Then she squirted Thousand Island dressing over the whole mixture and we’d all sat down to dinner.
They spent the meal discussing just how often they’d had this dinner growing up and, while I hadn’t, I could certainly relate to the power of culinary nostalgia.
So I guess, in the end, not everyone knows what it feels like to walk into the kitchen and see the Old El Paso box sitting on the counter. But everyone does know what it feels like to love the food you used to have.