Indulging my Inner Texan: Tamales

This has been the Year of Complicated Recipes.

I’ve known people who cook intricate things as a means of precise, mechanical distraction. I get it, but that is not quite my style. Distraction in cooking for me requires a sort of fugue state of whimsical iteration at 350+ degrees. There are two rules: spice liberally & wear a fancy apron.

I’m not sure why I finally decided to make tamales. Something about simulating a sense of home in what has been a half-year of aimless flux. They are tangible and stolid, process-oriented and no-nonsense, but with ample room for inspired wandering. In a pinch – or for the culinary minimalist – they provide a complete set of essential amino acids. They required less solid fat than August’s croissants, and slightly more than March’s Moroccan bastilla. There is a sort of self-sufficiency about the simplicity: should society as we know it collapse and send modern cookware up in flames, they are the one food I am nearly certain I could manage to wring from the earth and shepherd from seed to table.

Anyone who has cooked with me knows and/or has been frustrated by how awful I am at actually following recipes to the letter. With that in mind, what follows is the gist of what I did. Continue reading “Indulging my Inner Texan: Tamales”

Indulging my Inner Texan: Tamales

Southern Efficiency, Northern Hospitality

My friend Alex, upon finding out I was in DC for the summer, told me that this is where she had imagined me living permanently – I believe the term “puzzle piece” was employed. I like the idea of fitting here very much: D.C. connected with me a very electric way (I’m tempted to use words people use when explaining why they love New York, which I could never understand). I like the youth and the energy, the wide boulevards and the grand structures provided for government buildings, and the pressure to work, constantly. The southwest may have a permanent grip on my heart, but this is undeniably where my head needs to be – at least for the next few years. SO: here is a collection of things I enjoyed doing, and might suggest to other people making their way here for summer months. Consider it an epitaph to infatuation – when I’m back next, I expect it’ll grow to something more thorough.

D.C. Summer Intern Bucket List

Activities

1. Run the monuments. There is a way to do this at every skill level – the loop to WWII from GW is a perfect 5k, and the Capitol to Lincoln Memorial and back is just over 5 miles, which you can extend to 7 if you swing around the Tidal Basin (the way to meet up with TJ & FDR). Add on three more miles by swinging across the bridges to Roosevelt Island, which has fantastical things like real trails and tree cover. Or cut wherever you’d like. In any case, I loved making a habit of this; it’s the best way to be an early-morning patriot.

2. Eschew private transportation. This is coming from a girl who treats her car like a person, who will agree to drive 14 hours at a stretch without blinking: I adore the Metro. I get the same feeling of awe from the arched vaulted ceilings that I get from approaching a tangled loop of Texas highway interchanges – a sort of gasping pride that people managed to create this. Wait until a thunderstorm in off-hours and snag a car to yourself. Run up and down like this guy.

3. Watch 4th of July fireworks form the Lincoln Memorial. I can’t say I remember this, but the pictures make it look lovely.

4. Spend a hungover Sunday strolling through Eastern Market. Try on a bunch of jewelry, and revel in items of absurd political kitsch. I bought these ridiculous portraits of the city stylized a la Van Gogh…

5. Visit the monuments at night. Jefferson at night is particularly spectacular, as is WWII when the fountain is working. The place fills up with fireflies.

6. Watch a motorcade. I can’t provide actual instructions, but somehow managed to catch both Obama and Biden. Even too-cool-for-school Dupont halts, giddily.

7. Tour the three branches of government. Indisputably a must; I was lucky (?) enough to hit the Capitol on the final day of debt ceiling proceedings.

8. Shop in Georgetown. Dress up. Laugh at the Ralph Lauren café (why is that there??!). Wish all streets were so cute.

9. Wander by everywhere you want to work. In addition to providing some solid motivation, most of the buildings (Ronald Reagan!) that ought to be in question are lovely.

10. Walk. DC is a city of neighborhoods and townhouses and shops crammed in between – you miss it by taking the metro.


11. Creep. Creep so much. I wandered Georgetown hoping to see Maureen Dowd, who lives in one of JFK’s old bachelor pads (this eventually happened in an ENTIRELY different way – as in someone on our nonprofit’s board is her neighbor – but that’s a longer story). I got to be the mayor of the State Department on 4square for two days before someone who actually works there figured it out (this is basically the only thing 4square is good for). Eavesdrop on staffers at happy hours, deliberately leave for work early so you can pass Foreign Service employees walking from Foggy Bottom, smile at the attractive ones, go on runs by the Pentagon. This may be a tragic example of my poor taste and general nosiness, but I like important people who are good at their jobs and it’s exxciiiiittting with all the extra letters.

12. Become reacquainted with trees on Roosevelt Island. Real trails! Genuine shade! A statue of Theodore! I had never been so excited.

13. Arlington Cemetery. One way to grasp at immensity.

14. Visit the National Zoo. GIANT PANDAS! Giant pandas giant pandas giant pandas.

15. Go on lots of random dates, because during the summer this place is swarming with twenty-somethings in suits with interesting jobs, and if you’re like me and simply here for two months you never have to see them again. This is also the best way to eat in nice restaurants.

16. Bus to New York for a weekend. It’s twenty dollars one way; there is no excuse not to.

17. Listen to Secret Service agents having normal conversations. He was turned away from the crowded street outside the White House, speaking furtively into his walkie-talkie: “No, honey, the five grain bread.

18. Houstonians: keep quiet when locals complain about the heat and humidity, for they are naïve and know no better.

19. Browse Kramerbooks. 1) There is a bar in a bookstore, and that is great 2) They have an excellent selection of niche works likely of interest to anyone who would get a summer job in DC. There was an obscure development travelogue I had spent months passively searching for – it was sold out on Amazon and missing in every chain bookstore I visited. They not only had it, they had TEN copies and more by the same author. Fantastic selection of works in international development and counterterrorism and wine.

20. Watch a lot of West Wing. Be inspired by fictional retellings of things happening down the street. Shrug off cynicism, relish tiny victories.

21. Recognize obscure policy makers in your field of choice. Become momentarily star-struck. Get over it and introduce yourself if appropriate (Peter Hotez after a talk he gave about moving to Houston? Yes. Kal Penn looking scruffy outside the White House? Rajiv Shah hurrying home? No.)

22. Check out the White House protestors. Some of them are crazy, and some of them seem too sane to be spending their time where they are. My favorite was actually a counter-protest: two old men with “ARABS are people, too” written in incendiary red letters, standing next to your typical “kill the Muslims” stock. In any case, they will likely be more interesting than the fenced-off rose garden across the boulevard.

23. Get out of town. Unlike Texas (where three hours will take you from Houston to San Antonio, and perhaps 12 will allow for a state-wide crossing), here there are not quite so expansive stretches between places of note. Hiking in Great Falls, MD is accessible by public transportation, Charlottesville is two hours southwest, and Shenandoah NP is a scant 90 minutes away. I opted for the latter two – vineyards in CVille, Appalachian Trail runs and BEARS, OH MY! in the park.

Restaurants

24. Order a Rickey, DC’s official (yes!) cocktail. Preferably at The Passenger, as they managed to make one that landed in my top 10 list and the shadowy train-car atmosphere makes for a unique venue.

25. Founding Farmers. I can’t get enough of this place. Stuffed French toast, butternut squash ravioli, locally grown food, brilliant decorating and more LEED-certified than Duncan.

26. Peregrine Espresso in Eastern Market, right behind Capitol Hill, unequivocally provided the best latte I’ve ever had. There is and never will be a contest: I took one sip and realized I’d peaked.

27. Amsterdam Falafelshop on U-Street is open all of the hours you would like it to be, with a fantastical variety of toppings.

28. Julia’s Empanadas, anywhere. Size of your hand and warm and delicious. I got into an awful habit of running here for dinner, eating, and running back. There are worse zero-sum games.

29. Ben’s Chili Bowl. Classic, crowded drunk food. Veggie dogs! Veggie chili! Oh, the joy.

30. Crepes A Go Go, Dupont Circle. I wandered in randomly, mostly because of the similarity in name to my favorite Houston taco place, and then came back…and came back…and came back. Whatever they put in the batter kicks ass; going back to Coco’s will be a struggle.

31. Baked & Wired, Georgetown. Stop in post-shopping for…honestly, anything I’ve had there could be described as impossibly delicious. The menu changes based upon what they bake that day. One standout: an espresso brownie the size of my face, loaded with chunks of dark chocolate and made with still-detectable cream cheese.

32. Market Lunch, also in Eastern Market, provides a damn fantastic breakfast. A line out the door at 7:30 on a Saturday morning should speak for itself (but if it doesn’t, the buckwheat blueberry pancakes were killer).

And for the moment? I’m stuck in limbo – San Antonio – feeling homesick for both D.C. and Houston. One of those is going to come up much more quickly than the other!

Southern Efficiency, Northern Hospitality

The best type of food, ever, of all time, of all time…

…is Tex-Mex, and undeniably so. Having grown up in San Antonio, I have been an avid consumer since birth, and as such feel qualified comment upon the various subsets of the genre:

Tex-Mex
This is not that place in downtown Philly that my friend thought was tex-mex when he was growing up because they had menu items with too many l’s in a row and a very thin bowl of ketchup on the table. It is not, for that matter, anywhere north of Dallas or east of Beaumont; there is usually (though not always) a tortilla lady making tortillas thicker than 1 mm, and your chips do not – do not – break under the considerable weight of your spice-laden guac. El Real is the best new example I can think of in Houston. Puffy tacos! Recipes that taste like the Rio Grande Valley, which in my imagination exclusively produces food from the 1970s! Also, an orange building – all the best capital-t-capital-m Tex Mex places are orange, as a rule.

Sketch-Mex
It’s 1 a.m. and you’re really not sure if the room is blurry or is that just how that wall looks or is it you? and the TV is on, maybe, because there are only four other people here and it would be too quiet otherwise, and you’re trying to figure out the plot but all you see are girls and businessmen gesticulating a whole lot in an exclusively Mexican language of hand-motion. You figure out how to read again when handed a menu, and then figure out that the first two pages of the menu are filled with margaritas and obscure tequilas, and then decide to order whatever the fuck a “chimichanga” is. You see cracks in the windows, realize you’re eating on a plastic table, hear the stiff drone of a portable air-conditioning unit, and begin to wonder about how your car is doing in the gravel lot out back. Behind the back entrance. Which was covered with a tarp. And then there’s a flutter, and thirty people storm in! Bars have closed, but this place is still open, and every single person here is drunk and in desperate, desperate need of greasy food from a waiter who may or may not speak a language that they also speak. And then your food arrives! It’s a burrito the size of a baby dipped and oil and fried to hell and back! You tip gallantly, and do not return until very, very early the next Saturday morning.
I will defend Chapultapec’s performance in this category slightly over Ruchi’s until my dying day. Tapatia? Don’t even touch it.

Austin-Mex
Food truck? Maybe. Attempt at Korean fusion? Also that. Crumbled and spiced soy protein as a ground beef substitute? Definitely.

Tex-Mex by Analogy
When eating Ethiopian food, there is a fantastical lack of silverware: you pick up various chucks of meat and vegetables and things using a thin sheet of vaguely sourdough-esque bread. Savory filling wrapped in bread = taco, and this analogy can be extended indefinitely. Does your kolache have egg and sausage inside? It’s a breakfast taco. Russian pirozhki: bread wrapped around stuff? Taaaaacoooo. In this sense, every culture – every single one, except maybe some places in Asia? – is obsessed with tex-mex, and it’s great.

Not Tex-Mex, or Sketch-Mex, or Honestly Anything Worthwhile
Taco Bell.
Also New-Mex, because damned if I’m going to call a taco a burrito.

The best type of food, ever, of all time, of all time…