The origin of spiritual sustenance is defined differently by each person. Most attribute it to a divine power or some God incarnate that helps us, limited corporeal beings that we are, relate to a deity or to the infinite. Like billions of other sentient souls, this is a way of "seeing" or believing that I have embraced on some level. However, when I ask myself what sustains me beyond this, I am taken down another path.
That path leads me to the crumbling adobe dwellings or sometimes to the freshly painted stucco buildings scattered across the great southwest. That path leads me to something more tangible or palpable than I can glean from traditional halls of worship. I am led instead to a simple yet profound vision--the sight of a hot plate of Mexican food.
Here is where a slight or perhaps dramatic shift in the way one thinks about the spirit is required. This is not necessarily a new concept but merely my take on it. You have all heard of "Soul Food" as it applies to the cuisine of the African American community or more generically in recent years, "comfort food". Also, some of you may recall me saying at one time or another, truly good junk food bypasses all vital organs and goes straight to the spirit. Let me clarify that last line--it is not that I believe the physical laws of the universe are suspended when one eats certain kinds of food—calories will still be consumed, the food digested and metabolized, etc. Instead, I believe, like so many things spiritual, eating Mexican Food transcends the natural laws of the universe as we know them.
This begs the question, why Mexican food as opposed to some other fare like Chinese or good old fried catfish, a southern favorite? The answer is simple. Some people, because of where they were, who they were, and when they were, are Christians, some are Hindus, some are Muslims and some are witches. I am a worshipper of Mexican food.
My sustenance, therefore, comes not from those in polished marble and stone palaces, clad in clerical garb and carrying holy texts. Instead, it comes from humble servants scurrying about hot kitchens doing what they do perhaps simply to feed their families—from my point of view, a noble endeavor in and of itself.
From the time I see a Mexican eatery through a bug-splattered windshield, I notice its energy or aura. When I open the door and see the gaudy but somehow authentic colors on sombrero covered walls, and hear playful Mariachi, and smell the frying tortillas, I know I have entered one of the houses of the holy. Truly, the colors, the sounds, the sights and the smell all take me to a higher place.
This sounds strange to most readers I am sure, but if I were speaking of a nature walk in dew covered grass among the scent of lofty pines, listening to the sound of songbirds, all could relate to its transcendent quality. We somehow place pristine nature above nature sculpted in a way for human benefit. I do this myself, except when it comes to Mexican food or perhaps a beautifully restored VW van, but that is another story.
To return to my original premise, the spiritual value of Mexican food—when the hot oblong platter is placed in front of me, I first notice its colorful array on the plate. Imagine a platter with red and blue corn chips, gray/brown frijoles covered with white cheese, orange rice, chili verde (green), a golden cheese covered enchilada, olive green guacamole, red ripe tomatoes with rich green cilantro and snow white onions, and last of all deep green jalapenos, forming a colorful tapestry and visual feast. (Contrast this with a hunk of brown steak, pale green peas, and a white glob of mashed potatoes.)
The scent of this feast immediately attacks my olfactory bulb and like so many smells, has the power to evoke startlingly clear memories. For me, I am taken to a place where the door opens to a moonless starry sky. I am in the desert, perhaps for the first time. I am in the desert, being courted by the dark desert lady who still haunts my soul in the night. I go back there so many nights, when all is quiet and my long day’s journey into night is finished. This vast, dark and inhospitable land that has called holy men to it through the ages calls me, a man as common as the cook whose labors unwittingly took me there. I huddle among the cacti, creatures who ask the earth for so little. I feel the endless winds that carry the remnants of a thousand ancient souls across the black Sonoran sky and rattle the door from where I came, as if still asking for entrance to a place where they can no longer dwell. Long ago, they returned to the desert for a final time, and now, a thousand nights and a thousand miles away, they mix with the holy night air as only desert dust can, and for a moment tempt the living, but then return to the black night. I do not yet join them—the door still opens to me. I can still see the colors, hear the sounds and place earthly but heavenly morsels in my mouth, and ask for more salsa.
Outside, in the dark desert, the night waits for me, but I have a few more bites to take, and a few more words to write, and to borrow a line from another, a few more miles to go before I sleep—thus, the spiritual value of Mexican food.
In my profile here at HP, I mentioned that I had written this--it was probably three years ago.