Monday, February 14, 2022

El Salvador Day 3: Quesadilla and the Death of Enlightenment

El Salvador Day 1: Strong Start with Grandma Rice Pupusas
El Salvador Day 2: Típicos

Pupusas weren’t the only long-time favorite foods I needed to try in the motherland. I'm also a huge fan of Salvadoran quesadilla, a coarse-grained rice flour poundcake with cheese pounded into the dough, ala rugelach. It seems a little like cornbread, but Salvadorans have been making rice seem like corn for centuries. It’s their big trick. Another genius touch: it’s sprinkled with sesame seeds. Guatemalans make vaguely similar cake, but with no sesame. Bah.

In New York, you can sometimes find quesadilla reasonably fresh, and it's terrific, but more often it’s stiff, cheaply shrink-wrapped blocks, sold in Latin delis and bakeries, nearly too dry to swallow. Back home in El Salvador, the quesadilla would surely be extraordinary!

A digression re: Latin and Hispanic food terms: Most Americans think of quesadilla as a Mexican dish. No.

There aren’t “dishes" in this part of the world, or in other parts - the major exceptions being France, Italy, and Canton, which is a major reason snobs take those cuisines much more seriously.

Quesadilla means "cheesy thing", and anyone who tells you what, exactly, that means, is lying to you. There are thousands of virtually unrelated cheesey items called "quesadilla" throughout Mexico alone, and Salvador has a whole other cheesy thing. If you melt Velveeta over a bagel, you can absolutely call it a quesadilla. No one can tell you otherwise.

Similarly, enchiladas means there’s chile in there, that’s all. Super vague! Tacos means meat conveniently pre-rolled so you don’t need to grab at meat with shreds of tortilla. So tacos aren’t a dish, any more than “sandwiches” are a dish.

I know you own cookbooks which say otherwise. They're wrong, written either by clueless gringos, or by natives who associate these loose terms with whatever style evolved in their families’ villages.

There are exceptions (e.g. chiles en nogada), but they are rare. In most places on this planet, when you've enjoyed some dazzling fish presentation, and painstakingly jotted down its name, you’ll later find out that you've written the local word for "fish". Or something like “Lenny’s fish” because that's the guy who cooked it for you. Few people realize any of this.

The confusion started when the French launched a new model (aka Classical French Cuisine) a century+ ago which caught on big in America and elsewhere. It’s obvious how entranced American gourmets were by the fact that we still call them gourmets. And we still falsely project this Frenchie model everywhere.

That wizened Guatemalan grandma is not producing some dish. Grandma, brilliant though her stuff may be, has been pounding corn all day. She is serving you corn, likely with beans, and, if she’s flush, some protein as well, in one of an array of cooking methods - not “dishes”, but cooking methods. "Broiled salmon” or “poached eggs” are not dishes, though similar terms in other languages - and describing less unfamiliar methods - strike our gourmet ears as Dishes.

So San Salvador doesn't make "a different version of quesadilla" any more than chicken noodle is "a different version of soup" from split pea. Both the latter are watery, hence soup. Both the former involve cheese, hence quesadilla. That's really about it! Just 'cuz you hear a familiar word doesn’t mean there’s any correlation. Or even any meaning at all (Mexicans have no idea what burritos or nachos even are, at least the ones who don’t work at tourist restaurants).

So I polled Facebook El Salvador groups, data-mined Google Maps reviews, and otherwise sank hours into pre-scouting the quesadilla place, and, fortunately, it’s unanimous. Every Salvadoran passes La Posada en route to the beach, stopping there for hot, fresh, steamy quesadilla from Neolithic stone ovens.

I pulled in, parking under the benevolent guidance of a half dozen workers - labor's comically cheap, so there are always swarms of worker bees around to help and to answer questions. Since it was a weekday, and no one hits the beach on Wednesdays, the place was deserted. But you could sense the lingering reverberations of stampeding quesadilla chaos. The place must seat 500 people, maybe more, in multi-levelled huts, treehouses, and patios, and the overwhelming majority never sit and eat (in extremely heavy, expensive, Chinese chairs), they just grab their slab of quesadilla and hightail it. So I bet they process a thousand customers per hour.

Tri-level quesadilla pagoda!

The manager - bored out of his skull on a weekday - took me on a tour of the sprawling facility. I told him I’d seen the same scenario all over the world: a good, honest, family place getting more and more and more popular, expanding and expanding and expanding, while somehow managing to keep it all together. La Posada hadn't lost its soul; hadn’t turned into a Big Box sterilized shadow of its former self. They’ve hustled diligently to handle massive scaling. And I can personally relate!

I approached one of the dozen stone ovens scattered around the landscape, and its smiling oven goddess raised a draping heap of colorful hand-weaved blankets to afford me a peek at slabs of shimmeringly beautiful, hot-to-the-touch quesadilla. This was the moment!

They urged me to order pupusas, and I should have done so, there being zero chance they’re not great in such a proud stickler of an operation. Also it was lunchtime and I hadn't had a bite to eat. But while I did grab an horchata, and it was the best Salvadoran - i.e. very cinnamony and sweet - horchata I've had, I took off, utterly fixated on my quesadilla. I hadn't consumed it there because I don’t like to be watched while I eat, especially when I might do so uncouthly. It's a rare phenomenon no one would want to witness.

Climbing the beach road back toward town, I figured I'd stop at the first turn-off, but was reminded that "pull off" is not a thing you do in the Third World. You either stop dead smack in the road (and likely get rear-ended and die) - which applies, also, to any road you might turn onto - or else you go the hell home and do whatever you need to do there. So it took a while, and I was trembling like a junkie.

Finally having spotted the nation’s only 25 feet of reasonable shoulder, I braked in a hail of gravel, and went on the attack, peeling away the outer paper wrapper, ripping apart the stabilizing cardboard quesadilla sleeve, and removing the plastic film, exultantly feeding morsel after silky tender morsel of quesadilla into my waiting gob, vanishing nearly an entire slab in a fugue state, remembering nothing.

Fortunately I had the foresight to document the unboxing. And the final, larger shot captures it all. If there’s a God, and He speaks to us, this is his medium of communication. He reveals Himself through quesadilla. Also Sprach Cheesy Thing.

Peak experience.

The next day, en route to yet another adventure, I noticed I’d left a small morsel. I didn’t expect it to be as great cold. Leff’s Law of Baked Goods, after all, states:
Anything tastes great right out of the oven. Pencils, styrofoam...anything. (So ignore any tips for baked goods that are "only good right out of the oven".)
I popped it in my mouth, and it tasted exactly like the shrink-wrapped stale quesadilla you find in Salvadoran delis around NY Tristate. Maybe a little worse.

Most of you will want to exit here. The following lengthy epilog is less about quesadilla and more about aesthetics and still loftier crap.

You can read this story in two ways: as the shaggy dog story it appears to be, or as something with broader implications.

Salvadorans would say “Duh, it’s better hot. So what?” Hell, they all know Leff’s Law of Baked Goods. They’re not ignorant.

But they’d also say, oven freshness aside: “It’s quesadilla. That’s what it is. The stuff you had in New York was proper quesadilla. This, too, is proper quesadilla. What were you expecting?"

Commoditization is defined as "the action or process of treating something as a mere commodity". A soybean farmer does not view every bean as a distinct individual. And the soybean market, as a whole, doesn't distinguish between farms, or regions, or anything else. Soybeans are soybeans, period. Indistinguishable economic units. One doesn't hunt for good ones.

Commoditization is a creepily alien concept for 21st century food lovers, thanks to a movement, which I was part of, at the end of the 20th century pushing a fervent faith that a knish is not just a knish, and that there are muffins worth driving an hour out of your way for.

It’s hard to believe that these were ever radical notions, but the shift has been so powerful that (much as middle-aged progressives sincerely falsely remember being pro gay marriage in the 80s and 90s) we've completely forgotten how different it all was not so long ago. And, boy oh boy, were things ever different.

I could write a book about this, and probably should, but we've experienced a deep shift in our aesthetics that no one appears to have noticed. And this shift reflects a broader tectonic movement, also unnoticed, toward neo-Romanticism.
Quick glossary/cheat sheet:

Romanticism is all about inspiration, subjectivity, idealism, and other loosey-gooseyness that can't be accounted for via meters or spreadsheets. Think of poets in meadows, weeping lightly 'cuz they feel so much.

Enlightenment (a materialist view) is about crisp, pompous, Vulcan logic and SCIENCE, damn it! Think of uptight Victorian professors with pocket watches and private weird porn obsessions. It's the yang to Romantic yin.

The Age of Enlightenment brought an end to the Middle/Dark Ages, which we commonly consider a big improvement because we're still kinda/sorta in it. But The Romantic Era had its fleeting moment a couple centuries later, and continues to pop up, ala George Foreman, long after it's been counted out (we've always visualized the future as more brainy than artsy, which also reveals an Enlightenment bias).

In my view, Romanticism was a sophisticated, highbrow version of the Dark Ages mindset, when everything was faith and God's loving hand in a world of mystery, miracles, and the supernatural. Poet and priest both swoon over (different sorts of) intangibiles, while materialists sneer at both, sternly demanding we cut the crap and ignore any Easter eggs we might glimpse in our peripheral version, which are, it goes without saying, pure and utter nonsense.
One can make no logical case for Romanticism. The perspective is too slippery and nonlinear, and involves too many paradoxes. In fact, Romantics cherish paradox (materialists view them as opiates for weak minds). And a fresh new paradox has recently arisen and been widely accepted, without anyone realizing how deeply it challenges the foundations of Enlightenment.

The materialists still think they've won, having expunged Romantic nonsense from the serious consideration of smart, educated thinkers centuries ago to bring us all, halleluj...well, definitely not “hallelujah”, but maybe “eureka!” into the Age of Enlightenment. They still haven't recognized the significance of the new paradox crashing like a tidal wave.

So here's the fresh new paradox heralding a tectonic shift. The fun part is that you, reader, are likely not just familiar with it, but smack in the middle of its vanguard:

You, like me, probably take it as a given that a thing can be, and even should be, better than "perfect". The idea hardly disturbs you. It goes almost without saying that the pretty girl with the “boringly perfect,” “overly pretty” features can never be as deeply attractive as one with some character; blessed with a lattice of serendipitous flaws aggregating into je ne sais quoi.

To a staunchly rational intellect, this does not compute. It’s utter claptrap and magical thinking. It is patently impossible to improve upon flawlessness. To imagine otherwise is to deny logic and wave away the splendid triumphs achieved through disciplined rationality since educated people stopped seeing witches and fairies everywhere.

For me, the apex of humanity is our ability, when we're at our best, to create wholes greater than the sum of their parts. That's what real magic is. It’s why we drive hours for certain muffins that are not just correct but deep. I surely don't need to persuade you, because this is a fundamentally new era, where even those who don’t hunt superb muffins for sport at least blurrily recognize they’re out there.

And I think you'd agree that perfect beauty isn’t the most beautiful beauty. Along the same line of thinking, you'll acknowledge that there are wholes greater than the sum of their parts...and the merely "correct" lies well below transcendence in the scheme of things. Until a few decades ago, "better than correct" would have been a head-scratcher. Same for "merely perfect". Flawless beauty was more than enough, and, logically, can't be exceeded. It was a commoditized world where muffins were muffins.

That world is gone. I’ve watched, in my lifetime, educated people come to believe in magic. Wholes-exceeding-parts. The banal inadequacy of perfection. Special soybeans and exemplary muffins. Transcendence pursued. We are Romantics. It's come back, and it's mainstream.

Consider that "cheap eats", until recently, were an unserious topic of discussion. A Dominican banana milkshake is hardly served in quality crystal, does not use exquisite bananas or fresh farm milk from special cows. So why go on about one? Such a thing has patent flaws, so it's not truly great. Call it beautiful or soulful or moving if you’d like, you kookie little gnome, but we’ll take our sustenance in serious parlors of rigorous cuisine like Lutece, where they’ll make an off-menu frappe from Madagascar bananas frozen to absolute zero and served with sophisticated panache. Now THAT'S quality, if quality is your thing!

And perhaps so. But there are strata beyond mere perfection. Strata of greater beauty; of transcendence. This is an entirely Romantic (and strictly illogical) proposition. It’d have enraged a Victorian professor. The proposition of some indeterminate and intangible "something more" quality (transcendence isn’t always fireworks; it lies waiting just an inch beyond the brink) was precisely what the Enlightenment had arisen to squash. It is, yeegads, religious!

But it's won. There are still small pockets of resistance, who'd still insist that crêpes Suzette are commoditized, so the dish is either correct (in which case any two are functionally identical) or it isn’t. Go to any fine dining restaurant and upspend to have them made "properly", and that's your apex. A talented-but-untrained Brazilian chef with half the required ingredients and a frying pan might present a charming and inexpensive eating experience for those of a bohemian bent, and perhaps even offer some serendipitous quality, but, please, don't make an ass of yourself by proposing that her crêpes Suzette would actually stand up.

If you tried to chowhound your way around Manhattan or San Francisco in, say, 1955, asking experts to recommend particularly great clams casino, they’d direct you to the expensive famous place where the fewest errors are made. Where everything is just so. And there you'd enjoy not transcendent but proper clams casino. That’s as good as it gets. The correct thing is the correct thing (remember Platonic forms?), and "transcendence" is the crazy-talk of wild-eyed maniacs.

If you liked clams casino, it’s because you liked the form of clams casino, not because you like some standout (aka transcendent) particular one, because transcendence is silly superstitious nonsense. Everything seemed commoditized - either an adequate unflawed soybean or not one. So when I walk into a restaurant and ask which wine is delicious and the waiter asks which grape I prefer, and I reply that I prefer the most delicious wine more than I prefer any certain grape, that is the two opposing mindsets on full display and at complete loggerheads.

One more example from a 1955 (or 1655) view. That great Italian grandmother cook is easily explained: she doesn’t mess up much. Sure, she "cooks with love", but that’s just a cutesy conceit. She is cooking properly and skillfully, and anyone can be trained to do the same if they simply apply themselves and don't make mistakes. Lesser grandmas cut corners. Their potatoes aren’t QUITE as fresh. If you use totally fresh potatoes, and don't screw up anything, your output will be of the very highest possible level. Commoditized!

This is how it was for all previous history, though it sounds like another world. And it is impossible to make a logical case for the notion that correctness could be surpassed, i.e. for transcendence (though it’s been one of my goals, in this Slog since 2008, to at least explain how transcendence is conjured up, even if I can't possibly make it crisply comprehensible to staunch materialists).

The old view didn't, as I once imagined, stem from ignorance or snobbery. It stemmed from logic. You can't beat "correct", so try to eat in places with well-trained, meticulous chefs. You'll eat best where flaws are fewest. There is no greater good to aspire to. Perfection is the absence of flaws, and, again, nothing beats perfection.

But, as I child, I heard the famous classical pianist Van Cliburn play live. He'd won the Tchaikovsky Competition, and one wins piano competitions by not making mistakes, which struck me as vulgar. Competitors also needed to be "correct" in their tempo, their dynamics, and their "interpretation" and “musicality” (just two more parameters on the check list!). If there are no mistakes in execution or interpretation, you've played the concerto flawlessly. What could be better than that? A proper performance of Rachmaninoff was commoditized, ala soybeans!
“This is proper quesadilla. What were you expecting?”
What could be better than that? Music! Music could be better than that! Van Cliburn didn't move me; didn't inspire me. He missed no notes, and betrayed no flaws one could point to. But he didn't do anything very right, either. And I did not understand what a radical and logically untenable position "very right" was. I just knew I'd spotted a sort of shortfall not everyone could recognize.

Years later, I noticed the Arepa Lady squirting crappy generic margarine on her ambrosial corn cakes (which I never saw anyone ingest without shutting eyes tightly, balling hands into fists, and displaying a nearly painful ecstasy), and materialism caved in for me completely. Flaws and correctness are red herrings. There's something else going on with deliciousness; with real beauty; with art and aesthetics, generally. It has very little to do with the freshness of the potatoes.

Everything I stand for and love and seek in this world (including whatever the hell I was looking for from that quesadilla) stems from an irrational throw-back Romantic mindset, shared suddenly by a majority, heralding the end of Enlightenment.

Note to snarky trolls: I certainly don’t claim to have started it. I’m just an early adopter who’s been riding the wave with particular vehemence.

Go forward to El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound

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