Aug 22, 2007
Don't Cha Wish Your Food Blog was a Freak Like Mine? Chapulines y Cuitlacoche. La Morenita Oaxaqueña. Los Angeles, CA.
Wild, wicked Oaxacan.
The tears in my eyes welled up to the point of embarrassment. It was as if my best homeys caught me sobbing quietly in a darkened theatre the moment Charlotte leaves her temporal body and heads up to the big cobweb in the sky while Wilbur pathetically beseeches her to wake up. Poor little pig. But the tears I was shedding weren’t sorrowful tears. I would gladly take those over this. No, instead, they were agonizing ones inspired by hardcore Oaxacan cooking. Grub so tough, only a warrior nation of Aztecs could dream up, eat and enjoy culinary creations like chapulines and cuitlacoche.
Welcome to the restaurant La Morenita Oaxaqueña .
Chapulines are grasshoppers that are fried or barbequed and then seasoned with garlic, chiles and lemon. If the grasshoppers aren’t cooked thoroughly, your chapulines quesadilla could include extra squirmy surprises like parasitic roundworms. Make mine well done, por favor.
However, if eating insect is only child’s play to you, then might I suggest the cuitlacoche. If you got the money, honey, this is your disease. Corn smut. A plant fungus called Ustilago maydis infects an ear of corn via the ovaries and turns the kernels into tumors or “galls” and expands them to the point of becoming mini volcanoes of erupting black pus.
This was exactly the point of my meal when my acid reflux started seriously refluxing. This was also the point of my meal when I seriously considered refocusing my culinary interests in more mainstream directions. There are so many palatable options in the foodie universe, why do I insist on self-flagellating myself with this masochistic, exotic “food” crap? I mean, why can’t I do something sweet, something about desserts, I don’t know, something cupcakey? You know like a cupcake or dessert blog. I’d even swap recipes and whatever else is mandatory in that sweet, sweet world.
Or I could eat and blog about the fabulous food in one of my favorite cities in the world, San Francisco, like Pim and Posh. I’d be a tourist: rides on cable cars, Dungeness crabs at Fisherman’s Wharf, Irish coffees at the Buena Vista Café. Now that’s livin’.
Or I could do the Ratatouille thing and get some cooking gig at a big time eatery in Paris, get used and abused and, of course, blog about it.
Or maybe I could browbeat a legendary Manhattan restaurateur into dolling out a free four-star meal to my mom and me. I could get used to that kind of maniacal powerblogging. Where do I sign?
These options all sounded so good to me at the moment because both my chapulines and cuitlacoche empanada were staring me down like a couple of Luncha libre masked wrestlers foaming at the mouth. My lunch was about to do a painful piledriver on my boca and belly if I didn’t somehow get out of it. And this wrestling, my friends, would not be faked.
Quick! — how about if I change my obsession to just pizza or burgers? I could even eat ramen all the time. Yeah, just like back in junior college. Maybe swallow Pinkberry till I turn blue? Give me the delicious life! Anything!
I know! I know! I’ll drink. Booze! All kinds. Lots of it. I’m good at that! And then…blog! Drunk blogging!!
Whatever it takes to get me away from another meal where the taste for the food has to be acquired. I’m sick and tired of “acquired”. I need a vacation from acquiring any more tastes. I’m all stocked up on those. What is this figuring out if there’s some taste or aesthetic or other confounding quality that makes something like, say, hákarl i.e. Icelandic rotten shark, worth sticking in your mouth? You know, after you get past the intense, barf-inspiring ammonia and rot factor, it’s sorta mushy and fun! Can’t it just taste good? I’m totally over searching for the goodness. So tired of pondering about what I’m eating. I want a day off from all that. I need to eat something that will make me sputter the words “this is delicious!” and not have to justify it for pages and pages.
My taste buds don’t deserve this torture. I’m positive even Dick Cheney would consider some of the strange foods I eat a form of torture, so they must be horrible. But nobody is detaining me in a secret prison and forcing me to eat grasshoppers and corn smut. I ordered them special for me. In fact, you can’t even get chapulines (grasshoppers) at La Morenita Oaxaqueña anymore because LA’s Health Department decreed it unsanitary and illegal to serve. I was lucky(?) enough to get the final serving of chapulines here.
FYI, grasshoppers are not like crickets. Sure, they both hop but that’s where the similarities end. Crickets are cute. They chirp. In the Disney universe Jiminy Cricket is iconic as Pinocchio’s conscience guiding the blockhead to a path of virtue and righteousness. People in Asia keep them as pets and good luck charms.
Grasshoppers, on the other hand, represent the plague on a Biblical scale. They’re locusts. They symbolize misery and famine and disaster. “U R fuct!” is the message from these fiends.
As food, crickets (typically cricket nymphs) are as delicious as they are darling. They are ideal for cooking. They are extraordinarily tender and take on whatever seasonings they’re cooked with. I’ve had stir-fried crickets and it was like snacking on a bag of greasy chips with a nice garlic finish. Just try not to name your crickets before you eat them like my daughter did.
Grasshoppers as food are something else.
Banned in LA.
When my chapulines empanada arrived it looked innocent and inviting; it was also very big, taking up about two-thirds of the large plate. The tortilla was appetizingly browned. It generously bulged with whatever was stuffed into it. Any normal eater’s Pavlovian responses would’ve activated already. Not me. I’m a pro. I don’t waste my saliva until I say so, and I had a dreadful feeling that this chapulines-grasshopper-locust wrap was going to make me cry before it made me drool.
I carefully unsealed the edges of the empanada like a lover’s Valentine, then I peeled back the tortilla with equal tenderness. Once the empanada’s insides were exposed to the light of day, all my gentle foreplay seemed unbelievably ridiculous for what was on my plastic plate was a small swarm of locusts possibly related to the ones that ravaged ancient Egypt. The display was also oddly primeval with one of the grasshoppers legs entangled in melted Oaxaca cheese like some dinosaur trapped in white, gooey tar. The other grasshoppers were strewn all over the empanada, consorting with slivers of young squash and balls of orange and yellow squash flowers. I was fuct.
The sight of this platter alone would’ve sent most people falling over in their chairs, but what smacked me was the odor – the mal-odor. It was a distinct smell. A smell I haven’t experienced since my days of crashing on tore-up futons and subsisting on 99 cents menu items. It was the unique smell of cockroach-infested apartments like the ones I used to be on a massive waiting list for in East Hollywood. Just in case Paris Hilton is reading this, I’ll quickly describe what cockroach infestation smells like. It’s musty like moldy carpet. There’s also a big blast of barren, dry, dusty weed fields and whiffs of blue belly lizard. What? Smelling this is bad enough, you say? Not for me. So in my mouth they went. Beyond the odor profiles, the grasshoppers were succulent nuggets of intensely sour, stale and mung flavors — baby bouquets of bile bursting after a hard night of drinking. Disgusting. I'm not even factoring in the texture of these bite-sized, armored shards with jumping legs that just can't seem to avoid getting lodged between my teeth.
The man who served this dish to me was very nice. However, this dish was far from nice. So it’s sad for me to say that of all the strange and indigenous foods I’ve encountered in my life, chapulines challenged my gag reflex the most. I swear I was only one nibble away from vomiting the entire contents of my stomach onto the table during La Morenita Oaxaqueña’s lunch rush, which certainly would’ve been bad for business. I had had enough.
My taste buds’ buddy!
Miraculously, my horchata arrived just in time to wash all that foulness out of my mouth like a good Travis Bickle rain. My sweet horchata was cold and thick. The crushed almonds even helped a bit to scrub away this assault on my tongue. I’m no sweet tooth but right now I was never so glad to taste this nectareous elixir of cantaloupe, cinnamon and cactus fruit (which looks like strawberry but has a generically sweet taste). It was refreshing and, most importantly, it gave my taste buds temporary amnesia.
This is when my next empanada arrived – the one with cuitlacoche as the filling. Packed with what US farmers call "corn smut", this empanada looked like it was piled with the diseased corn’s Aztec namesake of raven’s shit. Tumorous, deformed and twisted, it is the Joseph Merrick of corn. Here in the United States, smut is smote as quickly as it is spotted, but in Mexico, it is prized and sold at a premium. Black and slimy, cuitlacoche gives off all the signals in nature that this is something you probably shouldn’t put in your mouth. So, naturally, I took a bite.
Raven’s shit, corn smut or Mexican truffles. You decide.
Remember the tears I mentioned at the beginning of this story? This is the moment they trickled down my face. My sense of adventure was too ambitious for my stomach and the infected corn restarted the tempest in my tummy.
Cuitlacoche’s primary flavor is sour followed by salty then finally an unappealing moldiness (unlike the appealing moldiness of cheese). All of these flavors were bound with a special kind of sludge-like membrane — a sort of texture you only experience in sci-fi slash horror flicks. Unfortunately, I was experiencing this horror show on my plate.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worser than this, it did. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back or, rather, made the camel puke, was the bonus addition of more grasshoppers in my cuitlacoche empanada. So begins the cage fight in my stomach. That special sapor of cockroach infestation seemed to hold me in a shoulder lock as the slimy mold of the cuitlacoche dropkicked my gut repeatedly. It was unbearable.
The tears, you see, kept me from totally losing my lunch. Something had to give. Something had to be released. Thank, Jesus, it was tears. Even though the young guy working behind the counter must’ve thought I was a big pussy for crying in my food, it was still better than the vomitive alternative. Much better.
I’ll admit I may be missing the elusive culinary value of infected corn kernels. I mean, somebody must be enjoying this thing called “raven’s shit” because it’s also known euphemistically as “Mexican truffles”. (I hope the PR rep got a nice bonus for dreaming up that one.) I’m willing to give it another go — not as many gos as Pulitzer Prize winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold might subject his own stomach to, as with his famous bitter melon adventure. But, I am open to revisiting cuitlacoche, especially with someone who understands the nuances of raven’s sh—um, I mean, “Mexican truffle”.
How about Oaxacan grasshoppers? Will I ever take my scrotum out of my purse and give them another shot? It’s like Hall & Oates, sweetheart. I can’t go for that. No can do. They’re just too heinous. They remind me of the Korean delicacy of silkworm pupae and I can’t hold those down very well either.
Okay, okay, if there was enough tequila around, I’d think about it.
Otherwise, can someone please let me know of a really yummy cupcake place in the Valley? How about cream puffs? How does Deep End Donuts sound?