Monday, September 12, 2016

More Than Just Tacos

It started with a conversation about fish tacos and how so many restaurants get it wrong.

“They put cheese on the fish and use lettuce instead of chopped cabbage,” I fussed.

And they miss the whole point of its simple and rustic origin.

Amanda nodded and smiled at my empty plate.

I had just polished off a couple of her spicy “Bang Shrimp Tacos” on homemade corn tortillas with cabbage and lime juice. It was my once-a-week stop at her Honduran taco stand in New Smyrna Beach after the Sunday beach mass.

But as much as I love Amanda’s fish and shrimp tacos, what I truly appreciate is the conversation that happens over plates of real food cooked with real love.

Amanda has been running her little taco and ice cream shop for about two years. It’s something she never could have envisioned way back on the dirt roads of Honduras where she grew up.

Her family didn’t have electricity, so their food was always fresh. There were fresh eggs from the hens and if they planned to eat chicken that day, they’d catch one, slaughter it and have it in a pot stewing for lunch.

“So, how do you catch a chicken?” I asked.

“You have to be fast,” said Amanda with a huge smile.

Amanda’s mother made cheese every two weeks from the cows in their yard, which also provided fresh milk for the kids. Queso blanco, as fresh as you could get it.

Her mother also made her own corn tortillas -- first roasting the corn ears, and then grinding the kernels into a corn masa for the fluffy, slightly fire-tinged tortillas considered a staple in her family’s modest home.

There also was no running water. They drank, bathed and washed clothes by hand in the same river.

Where Amanda grew up, kids went to school from kindergarten to fifth grade. After that, there were no schools in the area, so children either went to schools in far-away cities and stayed with relatives, or found jobs.

Sometimes, it was nearly impossible to go to school and to stay awake because of the jobs they had. Most of the time, girls got married early.

Amanda left home to work as domestic help for a family several hours away. She worked every day from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. She cared for children, cooked and washed clothes by hand on a scrubbing board.

She was paid $20 a month. The family allowed her to go home and visit her mother every two years.

Eventually, Amanda found a better job working in an ice cream shop. That job led to an even better-paying job working in a gas station for a Peruvian owner.

Amanda worked hard and cared about her work, which was noticed by an American who was visiting in Honduras with a church mission program. A mutual friend introduced the two and they began dating.

They married in July in Honduras and her husband took her home with him that autumn to Albany, N.Y., where they had another wedding service.

Amanda experienced her first winter that year in upstate New York. She asked her husband when it was going to be warm again. “In a few weeks,” he told her. Those weeks turned into months and mercifully, finally turned into spring.

Shortly after that, Amanda became pregnant with their first child. Slipping on ice one day during her pregnancy, she fell face first into icy snow as she used her hands and arms to protect her protruding belly on impact. Looking at his wife’s bloodied face, her husband agreed to look for work in Florida.

The two arrived in Central Florida and for the first year, Amanda focused on getting her family settled. Then, Amanda began dreaming about the food from home that she missed.

She wondered if she could transfer some of what she had grown up making back home into this modern world where she now lived? She wondered if Americans would appreciate the nature of something as simple as a taco?

She could have bought tortillas and salsa from the food distributor for her restaurant, but to Amanda, the commercially produced products were not how the food should taste.

Instead, she arrives at her restaurant each morning and chops tomatoes and chili peppers. She doesn’t roast the corn as her mother does, but she makes her own tortillas, turning each one over the fire until flames singe the edges.

She also carefully shapes tamales and stuffs them into the banana leaves that she buys at the local Latin grocery store. There are no banana trees in her back yard and the store where she now shops would dwarf the closest tienda back home.

But Amanda lovingly prepares her food for strangers in the way that she knows. It’s done in the same way that sustained her family, offered comfort and rendered memories.

She doesn’t expect the out-of-town guests who are used to large American restaurant chains and cheesy dishes to always understand her food, but she likes it when their plates are clean.

And she likes it when the locals return, week after week.

After all, what Amanda crafts in her kitchen is simple and basic. Handmade. And every detail is carefully considered as she chops and cooks in the rhythm of her daydreams.

She remembers where she’s been. She thinks she’s now where she’s supposed to be.

And she marvels at how dreams and tacos can turn into friends and livelihood.

Or even how conversation can link worlds and people who thought they just came through the door to eat.

- Lisa D. Mickey, September 12, 2016

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