Having just turned 36, I am, of course, looking back. Searching for something from my past that might give me a sign, a meaning for the future. Images of my childhood race by in a sensory love feast. I contemplate asking my parents for one of their Elvis coffee mugs, a tortilla press, or maybe even some of the old wood paneling in the den. But in the end, nothing carries more emotional weight than the absolutely joyful memory of sitting on the porch with my family and a menudo bowl filled with hot, steaming macaroni and cheese.
Growing up in a poor family in downtown Los Angeles in the early '70s, I learned the wonders of getting by. From colorful velvet paintings of dogs playing poker to a dining-room table draped with a plastic Last Supper, one could see that the Alfaros of Pico-Union were the ultimate getting-by family. Not only did we get by, but we got by in what we would now call a puro 99-cent style. On Sunday mornings we would hop in the orange Monte Carlo for the original mall experience, the Rosemead Farmers' Market. On the way we would stop in East L.A. at a a carniceria on Whittier Boulevard, where they still wrapped your hamburger meat in white paper and 50 wieners were a steal in their blue Farmer John's boxes. We never shopped at supermarkets then. Mom was from Delano, and mostly we stood in front of those marquetas with big picket signs that begged our blessed neighbors: Uvas No, Grapes No.
But in Rosemead, something else was going on. Farmers from as far away as Ventura brought their fresh fruits and vegetables, and we tasted every apple sample set out on a tray. We ran through the makeshift stalls while Mom and Dad connected with the Filipino farmers who brought news from Delano and Visalia. Then there was the cheese. Big blocks that were cut with large, sharp Thriller Chiller knives that only the men in the white smocks and little white hats knew how to use. Mom always got the same, a big square of the orange and another one of the white. El Cheddar y el jack, por favor. We stretched every meal to unbelievable proportions. Hamburger casseroles lasted days. Egg scrambles fed the block. Menudo all week. On my father's factory-worker salary, not only did we eat, but so did every aunt, uncle and cousin who always seemed to show up right at dinner time.
The Alfaro house on Toberman Street was what they call a safe house. A place where any recent immigrant from my father's rancho in Mexico was welcome to start a new beginning in los Estados Unidos. Consequently, it was also the original Nuevo Latino Americano culinary center. My mother worked on her assimilation techniques in her Liz Taylor Butterfield 8 hairdo while she taught everyone the joys of American cuisine, all the while making it culturally appropriate as well. Not only did her creations yield huge batches, but somehow they crossed all cultural borders. Every cook has a specialty, and Mrs. Alfaro was no exception. Handfuls of pasta, chunks of the orange and white dairy product, lots of pepper, some milk, a secret ingredient, and voila! Mr. Puck, eat your little corazon out.
The secret ingredient was so simple, and yet so us. It seems like a betrayal to give it away now, but then again, it's so obvious. One that brought great pleasure on the porch with our bowls. As we scooped up our creamy, dreamy macaroni and cheese, we had to do it in small spoonfuls, because the very image of our beloved Mexico dared to expose its dramatic self in each serving. I'm talking about the jalapeno, of course. When its wrinkled green body showed itself, one would scream and look at my mother with a wink. Something along the lines of, Oh you clever Master Chef you. Mom would smile modestly, all Tippi Hedren-like, and my father would reach over, grab that chile and swallow it down in one take.
As time went on, like many Latinos I mistakenly concluded that the jalapeno was holding me back. I rebelled against my mother's cooking in an effort to discover my Americanness. Little did I know that my favorite dish did not originate in Michoacan or, worse yet, Tijuana. Mostly I assumed that it did because the macaroni and cheese of the Los Angeles Unified School District's cafeterias had a completely different texture and color. Americans, those quiet and conservative foodies, ate a much smaller and straighter pasta than I had ever seen. The color of their cheese sauce was a bright orange and was not dotted with the thick peppery specks that my mother overindulged in. That was enough of a sign. I rebelled against my parents and refused the food of my past. Such was the beginning of my journey with macaroni and cheese.
Years later, I came to an even grimmer realization: I was destined to be a poet. My father frowned, my mother sobbed. I stated my intentions loudly, defiantly, poetically. My parents transferred their dreams of a doctor in the family to my younger brother, Armando, who banged away at his drums over loud Led Zeppelin records. Sure enough, the life of a poet was everything I thought it would be. I wore black jeans. I jumped in front of bands at Al's Bar. I lived in a cheap loft downtown. When even cheap was too expensive, I moved in with four wild, crazy artists/fashion designers/band members on Scott Avenue in Echo Park. I was a poet. I had no social responsibility whatsoever. As far as I was concerned, I was going to single-handedly overthrow the government, stop the war in El Salvador and write a four-line poem that would finally confirm my status as the world's greatest rock & roll poet.
Those years in the Scott Avenue house next to Dodger Stadium were poor and desperate. It took only a few meetings as a member of the Starving Poets Club to realize that one dollar could buy four boxes of that famous poet food, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. It was a strange new kind of orange, but I was hungry. I wrote many a great haiku with a generous portion of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese at my side, while my band-member roommates searched in vain for a word that would rhyme with diaphragm.
My journey continued. I can remember an especially interesting presentation of this classic at the Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake. It was a platterful, with just a touch of Velveeta. Well, maybe a little more than a touch. And good toasty bread on the side. Ditto for Du-Par's in the Farmers Market on Fairfax. Slightly watered down and overcooked for the senior set, it's perfect a for such a consumer base. But sometimes I take out the old Visa card I swore I wouldn't use until Christmas and splurge on the upscale version at Mimosa on Beverly. You'd think they'd make it with some smelly French cheese, but no, I think they shop domestically.
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A few years ago, I broke up with someone I loved very much. The one I should never have let go of, but did. You know, the regret relationship. The nights seemed long. I wept openly and I watched too much of the E! Channel. I thought I would never get over Senor Right. And then one night I am walking home from an opening at LACE, and there on Hollywood Boulevard I see the old neon sign, Musso & Frank. I need comfort food. I need really old guys in white coats serving me. I need macaroni and cheese.
Exactly 30 minutes after I order it, a grim-faced old guy delivers the dish of my youth. Slowly he pours it out of a casserole onto my plate. The tears begin to roll down my cheeks. Can it be true? These noodles look mighty familiar. These are not the Melrose Avenue Trattoria noodles of today. These are the noodles of my Mexican youth. Large and thick. The color of the cheese looks mighty familiar, too. A creamy, rich white, with just a tinge of orange Cheddar. Can it be? I look, but I cannot believe it. Thick peppery flakes. The kick of life.
I reach into my cool black Gap bag. Hey, I'm a successful poet, I can carry any damn bag I want to. I call my parents on the portable phone I won with my Pacific Bell Awards Points. Mom answers. I tell her where I'm at and what I'm eating. She says that my Aunt Tita is there with her kids and that's what she's serving. It's my meal, too! As I fill in my broken heart with the thick, cheesy noodles, my mom and I bond together, arteries and souls, while we stroll down memory lane. I interrupt her somewhere in a recollection of 1977 and call for the waiter. His smile quickly vanishes as I order the final touch to this most amazing return to home cooking. He comes back with a small white plate and the object of my affection. Slowly, I place the jalapeno on top of the mound of steamy deliciousness, and press down with my fork until it disappears.
Recommended macaroni and cheese: Bob's Big Boy, 4211 Riverside Drive, Burbank, (818) 843-9334; Du-Par's, Third St. and Fairfax Ave., (213) 933-8446; Mimosa, 8009 Beverly Blvd., (213) 655-8895; Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 467-7788.