It would pain us, years ago, not to touch one another. In Key West, maybe a couple months after we met, Louisa and I celebrated an early-love sort of holiday—you know, the eight-week anniversary of the first French kiss, or something blissful like that—with a dinner at the now-defunct Cafe des Artistes on Duval St. Atypical for me, I remember little about the actual food, though snapshots of warm foie gras, port wine reductions, diver scallops and saffron decorate the memory, accurate or not. More than anything, I remember the size of the table, a massive dark wooden number, way too big for a two-top, Louisa and I perched at opposite ends. It took our full wingspans to reach one another across that expanse, surely dodging fresh flower, the vase that held it, and burning candle. All for a mere brushing of the fingertips, an actual, if chemical, recharging of our batteries, our blind feet searching in vain in the gulf beneath the white linen tablecloth.
It was a window table, and I remember looking through it at her standing in streetlight on the sidewalk, enjoying her mid-meal cigarette, her blonde hair glowing orange in the night. Somehow, even though it was Key West, and probably at least 70-degrees, I impose, in memory, snowfall on this scene—some dramatic anomaly, some fictional meteorological introspection, the kind of nostalgia that, for a Midwestern boy, can only reside in light ice falling beneath the orange pool of a streetlamp, smoke pouring from the lips of an early lover in the dark, through a restaurant window, at a too-big table pushing flutes of hazel champagne into the air.
Often, it’s still like this—how we’re driven by the need to touch, how our memories are inflamed sometimes by this lack, the distance we must breach. Here, on the other side of the Zócalo tracks, there is no distance at all to breach; we are wallpaper-glued together and we cling to one another not out of need, but incidentally. Actually, we cling to a whole bunch of people, the streets jammed with the chaos of familiarity—the kind that represents a close-knit neighborhood. Really close—like someone’s-knee-in-another’s-tailbone close. I think of my ancestors in the Jewish ghettoes of Poland, the wild social structures and hierarchies within. Here, in Mexico, land of living ghosts, I commune with them. Some apparitional great-aunt with ham-hock arms juggles pierogies, catching them in her mouth before they fall. Her smile bears the sheen of sour cream, bridging Poland and Mexico with a single ingredient. I want to wrap my arm around this burly ghost, sway, gather the streets into a frenzied We Are the World.
But all we can do is succumb to the rhythm, decide not to fight the current. My great-aunt’s ghost fades into the multitude. In these streets, the Cafe des Artistes two-top would be ground to sand. The undertow carries us into Tamale Alley, literally an entire street lined with outdoor food-stalls, each of them peddling their unique takes on the corn-husked delight, not a single one stuffed with huitlacoche. When we ask for it, utter those four corn-smutty syllables, we are, each time without fail, greeted with wrinkled foreheads and dismissive waves. We are obviously absurd foreigners, belted with occasional bursts of tamale steam as the vendors lift the tin lids of their water baths. Crowds of mid-day eaters huddle six-deep, eating together in front of the stand from which they bought their food, pulling bits of golden cornmeal stuffed with mole negro chicken, carnitas in salsa verde, whitefish in mole amarillo, from the corn husks wrapped in greasy crinkling waxpaper, laughing, arguing, working things out. One portion of the alley prepares only mole negro, another the amarillo, another the verde. Tamale Alley has cliques, cornmeal turf wars.
Cars, bikes, mopeds, garbage trucks, skinny shirtless guys hauling cardboard boxes on dollies cascade around the standing diners, swinging wide to avoid them, snaking sidewalk and street, wherever there’s a breathe-hole, a crack of space through which to push. No table gulfs here. No place to put your elbows except against your ribcage, your wrists doing the all the work, fingers pulling strings of meat from the husk, dripping with psychedelic sauces. The smells of garlic and diesel commingle overhead.
Commingling beneath, Louisa and I push to the front of a tamale stand, dare not ask for huitlacoche. Deep in her handbag, our stone knife is surely twitching, longing to halve some brave foodstuff. From a fat old woman we purchase two mole negro tamales. An old sinewy man in a dirty Chicago Cubs baseball cap begs two pesos from us for a tamale of his own. And we dine together silently, the three of us wrapped in crowd on the street. Louisa croons. The old man smacks his lips. I save my energy for the unwrapping of the corn husk, wet with a tawny grease that runs along my wrists as I lift the pillow of cornmeal to my mouth. It gives easily to my teeth, bursts with an outer earthiness—the smells of the Midwest, drives along the farm roads of Central Illinois, Indiana, the sun reflecting from armies of silos. But inside, it’s all Mexico, the molasses sap of the mole negro, penetrating as fresh oil, tar, all sweet burn and toast, the threads of chicken soaked with the charred sauce, lingering flavors of grassy chile, sesame, almond, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate. This is a tamale to span the length of all meals—it is amuse bouche and appetizer and entree and dessert. It is a four-hour meal at a giant table, and your lover pulling the last drag from her last cigarette beneath some final moon. In this tamale, the swings of Buffalo Grove’s Tartan Park regress, go squeakless again, and the tornado slide cleans itself of the old purple of all childhood blood. In this firecracker mole negro parents live forever.
With one hand, I snake Louisa’s thigh. With the other, I raise the tamale to my mouth for a second bite, wondering what this one will evoke. Louisa, nearly finished already, throws her head backward and knocks the old man’s Cubs hat to the asphalt.