Yankee Burn

Some folks can't get their food hot enough, and others can't abide the burn. To make it easy here in the United States, people are mostly organized by geographic region: Devotees of the chile are strewn across the Southern United States -- gumbo, pozole, and green chile stew -- while namby-pamby mushmouths stay up north, where the focus is on Ovaltine, chicken noodle soup, and other forms of baby food.

But in these last few years of the 20th century, even Downeast Maine -- my summer home, which might as well be in Canada when you're coming from Texas -- is slowly warming up to the idea of heat in the food. A few Mexican restaurants, boasting half-price margaritas on Sunday, are peppered between the lobster pounds and chowder stands. Enchiladas, al pastor, and chile relleno -- with the best of both worlds, life in Maine was going to be great.

Alas, no. Margaritas are from a foamy green mix. And when my carne asada tacos arrive, they have little wheels of olive sprinkled all over them. If that weren't enough, there's a side of ranch dressing to cool down any heat that might offend the eater. While additional condiments are always a boon, they are never acceptable at the expense of the tried and true, so let's see.

illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

There isn't a lick of chile in the watery tomato-and-onion salsa -- might as well call it spaghetti sauce. I ask for some heat on the side, and when I sprinkle the chopped pickled peppers on the spots where the olives used to be, I get sneered at and called "hotshot."

But at least the restaurant makes the salsa itself, which is a feat all its own since there's nothing in the markets here to make it easy on an ambitious person trying to serve Mexican food. The Mexican section is a few glorified boxes of Old El Paso, a few jars of a big-brand salsa (mild), and some instant bags of guacamole dip. Not a chipotle in sight, and all the jalapeños are canned. No mole, and the tortillas have a sell-by date months after they are produced -- not a bad idea, since tortillas aren't going to be big sellers north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi.

In places other than the area sweeping the Southern United States, and part of California, there seems to be a general consensus that food shouldn't be designed to hurt the eater.

Sweating must be the threat. In the South, sweating is something to look forward to because it cools you off. But unless you're some type of exercise guru, sweating in the North indicates a meteorological dysfunction. When it's only 55 degrees at night, sweating during dinner might be dangerous.

While my pale, Anglophilic family members from the North were receptive to my Mexican friend Manuel coming over to cook his signature dinner -- brisket slow-cooked in beer and jalapeño juice, with homemade salsa and tortillas -- they may never trust a Mexican cook bearing jalapeños again. With so much extra salsa on hand, they froze the leftovers. When it was reheated some time later, the chile action had really kicked in, making the salsa they slathered over their dinner virtually inedible.

Well, virtually inedible to them. Manuel's mother, who has to tone the food down when I'm coming for dinner ... I'm certain she would have loved it.

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Regional Food, Personal Essay

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