Spring in East Harlem: The evenings run late and warm enough for horchatas and lengua tacos. At El Aguila, the chef's got a whole beef tongue going on the flattop. As he fries it and slices off thick chunks, it drips broth and fat. The sun coughs a few last wheezes against the train tracks, and in three months it will still be light and too hot for anything except beer or raspados. The air smells like pork, hot wax scrubbed on hot rods, budget skin lotion, and onions. The cook slaps down six tortillas. They warm up, puff—quick flip, flip, flip—then the cook stacks them double and pinches in tongue with effortless gestures. I ask for cilantro and limes. "That's a tongue, lengua, you know." The short guy waiting behind me points at his own mouth and stretches his arm like pulling taffy. I also ordered a chicken taco and a barbacoa taco. While I watch the cook, two girls come in and ask for tamales, but get turned away. "No tamales tonight." They look disoriented, so sad, and leave hungry. Over the counter, I can hear the barbacoa getting crispy. Forget "spicy, shredded beef, slowly braised for hours in a blend of chipotle peppersin adobo sauce, cumin, cloves, garlic, and oregano until tender and moist." It's goat—and it smells like goat, and it tastes like goat. El Aguila's barbacoa transcends feel-good politics, because it has no need for corporate authority. The corporate food experience depends on tautology. Chipotle's barbacoa burritos taste like Chipotle, not barbacoa burritos. Where tautology squeezes out difference, particularity, and irregularity, ideology finds room to pitch a tent. A brand symbolizes a flavor, and its flavor contains a pre-packaged and disingenuous politics. Thus, political non-choices—pre-scripted, unremarkable, and already habitual—are sold as ethical decision-making. Despite the fantasy of deliberation, the corporate food experience offers no opportunity for genuine reflection. Instead, the corporation determines and disciplines everyday thinking. Although El Aguila lays claim to many everydays—it is embedded in neighborhood life—it never enters everydayness. That is to say, it does not reduce ordinary living to a set of mindless, meaningless, and aesthetically impoverished routines. The next morning, I walked the same stretch of 116th Street, passing congested streets and a burned apartment crowded round with fire trucks. I permitted myself a rubberneck but no lingering: my belly begged for breakfast. Like tourists waiting for Sunday Baptist church services, the lines at Capri Bakery double back by 10 a.m. I joined two cops, stringy and mean hoppers, a psychotic homeless man who ogled birthday cakes, and old ladies wearing nutria and beautiful nasolabial folds. I reached the register and tried to order pan dulce. I asked for pan dulce and the cashier looked at me like a fool. A helpful, wizened man mumbled to her. She looked back at me and said, "bread and butter." I nodded and asked for coffee, and my voice cracked. Next to a brutal griddle, I saw a 20-pound block of salted butter. With a wooden spoon, she dug out a nugget. She cut a loaf of bread in half, tore my piece open, smeared the butter along its spine, and kneaded it down. In that mad smoking griddle, my bread and butter sandwich flattened into a quarter-inch thickcaramelized pancake, too hot for bare hands. On the walk back, I drank cafe con leche and nibbled dense, burnt sweet bread around the paper. I took small bites and forgot routine for a mile and a half. Jason Bell is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. In Defense of Delicious runs alternate Fridays.
Columbia Spectator Staff