Education By Fork

Aurelie Sheehan recounts her culinary education.

November 1, 2014

Issue 9: November/December 2014Last Bite

My first Mexican restaurant back East was called Viva Zapata’s. It was in a Connecticut town you’d associate more with country clubs than revolutions. Mostly I remember drinking my first underage margarita there. At least someone was rebelling against something, right?

A few years later I tried huevos rancheros in a café in Houston. I was a teensy-weensy bit hung over (it was the morning after my father’s wedding). The egg dish was extraordinary, possibly even life-saving.

Fast-forward 13 years and I’m in Alexandria, Virginia, sitting in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Old Town with a new love, my soon-to-be husband. We plowed through two or three big baskets of chips in a matter of minutes. If only people still smoked while they were nervous, we’d all be thinner.

When we moved to Tucson, our idea of Mexican food took a serious turn toward nuanced—or at least we thought so, amateur enthusiasts that we were (and still are). The first restaurant we tried, La Parrilla Suiza on Speedway, was Mexico City fare. We’d never even conceived of a lovely avocado dip like theirs, and we’d never had bacon in our tacos, either. Hello, yum. Goodbye, generic notions of Connecticut girl and North Dakota boy.

Aurelie Sheehan

Aurelie Sheehan

We knocked back cervezas with new delights: chicken mole at Café Poca Cosa and Sonoran hot dogs at Ruiz Hot Dogs on 22nd Street and chiles rellenos at Mi Nidito (on my birthday I tried prickly pear cactus there, mmm … yeah … no) and the basic bean burrito at Nico’s (open 24 hours). We’ll now jump into the fray with any Tucsonan to defend our favorite restaurants, blindly and wholeheartedly.

I thought of my history with Mexican food last spring when Chipotle Mexican Grill started what seemed like a cool thing, printing very short stories on cups and bags. Fantastic idea, but it rolled out the initiative without any Latino authors, therefore messing with my ability to full on enjoy the literary fun. Seriously: the words of Toni Morrison and George Saunders on my ice-tea cup and bag of burritos? But sadly, the sleight remained.

In response, a popular Mexican restaurant in Berkeley began passing out cups and pens so all their customers could tell their stories. Writer Michele Serros posted a list of possible Mexican and Mexican American authors for Chipotle’s next round on The Huffington Post. Alex Espinoza, an author and associate professor at Fresno State, said: “Take our food, ignore our stories.” Ouch, but yeah.

I love the idea of stories on cups. I love Mexican food. I’m an Anglo.

Embarrassing as it is to admit here, my family has had a tradition of going to Chipotle about once a week since forever. The child was always partial to quesadillas. A few months ago, one of the women who work there told me she remembered when my daughter was a baby. In the corporate Mexican, failed-literary-avant-garde joint, we smiled at each other, mother to mother.

I don’t expect my cultural revolutions to start at Chipotle, but it’s worth noting that a cultural revolution is, as per usual, necessary. I have another conviction, which is that the real story isn’t actually printed on the bags and the cups at Chipotle or anywhere.

The food is the story. Or at least it can be.

Let’s take El Charro Café, established here in Tucson in 1922, our go-to restaurant for years. The food is made with lime and cilantro and chilies, but it’s also infused with the history of Tucson, with the people who built this town and made it what it is. Here in my adopted city, I’m educated by the forkful. I’m a new person. Made, in part, of the memory of my first slice of tres leches cake, and my desire for more tres leches cake (and soon).

If there’s hope for humanity, it begins with a shared meal.

Aurelie Sheehan’s newest collection of stories, Demigods on Speedway, is out this month with the University of Arizona Press. She’s the author of two novels and two story collections. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly, Conjunctions, Fence, New England Review, The Mississippi Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review. Sheehan is an associate professor of fiction at the University of Arizona.

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