Saturday, May 18, 2002

burrito dance

In my excitement, I got up too early this morning. By late morning, the inspiration of my dreams was reduced to commonplaces. Under the intense scrutiny of the afternoon sunlight, I gave up the thought that I could ever be a writer or would even want such a foolish, ephemeral thing. Bending to the practical, I decide to make dinner.

Looking around, I survey the possibilities. I hunt through the refrigerator. I wander around the garden, along the fence where the weeds grow among the raspberry bushes. I look in the lawn. Better use up what's in the refrigerator first, but also look to see if there are bitter greens I neglected to pick this morning. Soon they'll be blooming and not so good to eat.

When I don't know what else to make for dinner, I find solace in the thought of making burritos. The zip-loc bag of tortillas subtly evokes the dense marketplaces of Mexico, piled high with food riches. Like the Mexicans, I like to feed my compatriots with the simple food of dried beans started early in the day, even better soaked overnight, scrawny chickens butchered lovingly in the dust, and the weeds that grew so opportunistically on neglected ground.

I can put whatever I want inside a burrito, and no one needs to know. If I do it with thought and care, they will eat and enjoy. While clearing some of the leftovers out of the refrigerator, I imagine what tastes might meld successfully. The system of making burritos is well-rehearsed. I have the basic ingredients always on hand--the tortillas, salsa, cheese, sour cream or yogurt. I struggle to keep cilantro growing as much as I can.

When I don't have it, I use something else. All I need is the complex of interior ingredients to add to the simplicity of the system.

It doesn't take long to throw the burritos together, but the roots of the preparation go back in time--to the tradition of making them, to the planting of pepper seeds in April, to the early morning ritual of gathering whatever greens are abundant. It can be an act of absorption, as there is a basic system, within which a new combination of ingredients makes a new burrito. Much of the work is solitary and nourishing for the cook. Yet it's done for other people too. When the ingredients are ready and the system has been rehearsed, you can be drunk and still perform the burrito dance.

In the refrigerator, I find some black beans I cooked another day so as to be ready for whenever I need them. Often there are barbecued potatoes that didn't get eaten. A half of one chopped up would make a good filling with eggs and greens. If I'm lucky, there's leftover fish or meat.

Picking greens and other vegetables in the morning is a ritual--like the peace that enters in a church Sunday morning when voices soar. It's the sabbath that comes after all the efforts of the growing season. It doesn't come regular like a Sunday, but when the weather is right you are out there like a farmer picking what is ready. Finding edible "weeds" is one of those graces that grow out of mere awareness without expectation. There are free dandelion greens for a while in April and May; lambsquarters and purslane pop up throughout the garden and along the fence all summer. I pick the largest plants, leaving the small ones to grow some more, if they are not competing with a carefully nurtured tomato or pepper plant.

I lay each plant gathered in the same direction in a blue-wire-mesh harvest basket. That will make it easier to render off the roots back in the kitchen. As I develop these patterns of doing things for whatever reason, the effect is a sense of order, of practicing a ritual--where certain actions are prescribed and the mind is free.

In a previous existence, it was a necessity of survival to gather food when available and to process it immediately. Now it feels a like a deep luxury to have the time to act on the produce the day it is at its freshest. To others perhaps it is an eccentricity. Yet, though no longer a physical survival need, it has become an inner necessity. To some, it is drudgery to pull weeds and sort them according to what goes to compost and what will be saved to eat, and then to pull the small lambsquarters leaves off the stems and wash the leaves. I have become the housewife I never wanted to become in my youth, and then some. In the fifties, my mother was just escaping drudgery. Washing machines and convenience foods were a godsend. I do use a washing machine. Selecting useful technologies and avoiding others is a constant effort. Everyone picks their area of delving deep into the primitive, doing something from the ground up.

Some people need to build their own house from the ground up (maybe I'll do that some day too). Some people have to design bridges and make lots of money to spend on other people's goods and labor. I have to design and grow gardens, gather more food from the wild and spend as little time and money as possible at the supermarket.

My mother taught me the principle of trying to use leftovers. One Christmas she gave me a rubber spatula. "Waste not, want not," she told me, picturing me cleaning out peanut butter and mayonnaise jars in my dorm room. Though I initially scoffed at the inanity of this gift, I've grown to appreciate the meaning behind it and its actual usefulness, now that I'm facing the limits of reality, of myself. It's a growing sense of the necessity of being thoroughly practical, of using what I already have--to have some control, as I try to keep from being strait-jacketed by the systems of modern life--I create my own systems.

The taste of a burrito is a complex of different tastes--the warm wheat tortilla wrapping the rich, spicy filling, sparked by salsa and smoothed out by sour cream or yogurt. Some fresh lettuce is welcome for its fresh crunch. The list of ingredients for a complex Indian curry or a traditional Chinese meal may look daunting. The complexity of such sophisticated cuisines shows a highly developed sense of flavor as well as nutrition by utilizing a wide variety of foods and healthful herbs and spices. With leftovers and whatever is available, complexity is attained by the instinct that comes with experience, and by smelling and tasting while cooking. Following recipes is useful when teaching oneself to cook, but becomes debilitating if the instincts are not developed to begin to improvise. The excitement of cooking unites all the senses into the consideration of what will work--an intersection of economy and maximum satisfaction for all who share in the meal.

The process of making a burrito is part of the practice of moving smoothly and gracefully through life. It's a balancing act--tossing a tortilla on the hot pan, turning to work on loading up the tortillas already heated, turning back to flip the tortilla. Somene walks into the kitchen, and the dance has a subtle shift, but the central burrito dance continues. It's a conversation with more parties, animate as well as inanimate. We move through space; we deal with objects at the same time that we are relating to other people. Everything we do has an effect, not just the work we do, but the effect we have on other people as we move through space, not only to be efficient, but to be graceful and not spill the beans all over whoever walks into the kitchen.

All the ingredients are laid out and ready. The filling is hot. Cilantro and garlic chives are chopped and ready. The large cast-iron fry pan is hot and the first tortilla goes on. It only takes a minute or so to do each side. Put the next tortilla on when you take the first one off. Put the filling in, grate some cheese on it. Add salsa, sour cream or yogurt, some fresh greens and herbs and wrap it up. In the meantime, keep those tortillas cooking and do it all at the same time. Like juggling, it takes practice. You start doing it in slow motion, and pick up speed with each attempt. Doing something for the first time invariably involves a certain humiliation: movements are awkward and jerky; there's a fair amount of back-tracking and correcting mistakes. It all takes so much longer than expected. But without going through such trials, we never get to the joy of doing something well.

The joy can dissipate through too many repetitions. At times, the effort that goes into it all seems wasted. Sometimes it just doesn't come out good, or no one is hungry when you thought they were. Another time, food rots in the refrigerator while people want to go out to eat. I lose the will to cook; other activities are more pressing. The compost pile forgives and makes use of all our failings and the cycle of life and death goes on.

It's getting richer, it's getting thicker--this melange, this unity, this taste. From the complexity that those who share in this meal taste, there is a peace, a sense of unity, of being nourished. That's a start.