I received a treasure of a Christmas gift in the mail this year: a handmade, well-used napkin holder from a hole-in-the-wall cantina on a dusty back street in Oaxaca, Mexico. It's a quirky, rustic little thing, assembled from plywood and covered with aluminum foil -- an ingenious creation of the kind often found in parts of the world where resources are scarce, and labor and ingenuity abundant.
"El Chepil" is carved on the napkin holder along with a stick figure, arms outstretched in an evocative gesture. It's the name of a tiny restaurant that I was introduced to by an in-the-know expat I met while traveling in Mexico a few years ago. (Chepil is also a flavorful plant used in Mexican cooking.) The napkin holder is a cultural artifact, a functional piece of folk art worn by thousands of fingers in the ordinary act of reaching for a napkin. It's a culinary touchstone -- transporting me to the rich culinary state of mind that is Mexico.
El Chepil is the kind of restaurant I daydream about: honest, real, slightly gritty, turning out dirt-simple, mind-blowing food.
It's confession time: My food fantasies tend to gravitate to this end of the spectrum. When I dream about food it's not about fancy, five-star, butter-drenched meals, but rather, food at its most elemental: Simple ingredients thrown together, often in far-off lands, by practiced, knowing hands.
El Chepil is also the kind of place that, in this country, the health department would shut down in a heartbeat. Talk about an open kitchen. Food is cooked on a grill set up literally on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. The menu is beyond simple: giant corn tortillas called tlayudas slathered with beans, lard (skipped by most foreigners who wander in), fresh cheese, three salsas (hot, mild and tomatillo) and shredded lettuce. Folded in half and cooked directly on the glowing coals (chunks of hardwood actually made from real trees), the tlayudas are ravishingly good, nothing like the stuff that passes for most Mexican food in the U.S. -- simple ingredients under the spell of practiced hands.
It's these kinds of encounters that spur me to new culinary heights. Back from Mexico, I promptly bought an old-fashioned hand tortilla press, a sack of masa harina flour, some dried epazote (score some of this herb to bring your bean dishes to a new level) and started off on another long quest for replication of the kind I always go through on returning from trips that open up new worlds of food.
I now understand the Proust-Madeleine dynamic in a different way. My El Chepil napkin holder (given generously by the restaurant to my expat friend when she asked for it) is a conduit back to a time and a place -- inspiring sun-drenched memories of riotous colors, flavors and smells in a land that revels in food and eating. Sitting at my table in Cincinnati, I reach for a napkin and dream of Mexico.
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