A Fox At The Table

A great meal is a wild animal. It is elusive. 

A good meal is your neighborhood dog, friend to all, easy to find and happy to see you. But a great meal is the fox you’ve glimpsed at a distance who decides for the first and only time to come sit next to you as you watch the sun set. 

A brilliant chef may study the fox, bait it, train it, attempt to breed it in captivity, but the animal cannot cooperate. That is not its nature. Even if the fox can be wrestled into submission, something is lost along the way. We are no longer having an unexpected moment with a strange and beautiful visitor. Instead we are asking it to perform for us. 

Where is that fox? It is not in the ingredients or in the kitchen. It’s within each of us. 

We are new with every meal we eat. On some days, the cold and damp may have given us a bout of melancholy. On others, maybe breakfast was too heavy, or a hard workout left us starving, or we miss our mothers. We discover these changes as they come, changes which can turn the food in our mouths into manna or into ash. Perfectly boiled an egg may be, but we cannot control the rest of the world. Certainly we cannot control how it makes us feel. 

What’s more, the greater our expectations, the more challenging it can be to let our guard down and invite magic in. We cannot connect if we merely play the roles we’re used to. Only when we are off script do we make contact with our own irreducible strangeness. Within that strangeness lies our deeper hungers, long left unfed: the hunger to exist, to matter, to break free, to belong. These are the kinds of hunger a great meal feeds.

Not every meal can be great. But if you are attentive and patient, great meals will find you.

This is one of them. 

Once, while traveling in Guadalajara with my friends, we came across a white plaster building. It was stark and small with wrought iron rails. It had just a handful of tables, and only a few people were dining. We sat down for an early dinner. The chef, I gathered, had trained in France but still had a great love for traditional Mexican cooking. Hearing this, I ordered the mole rojo.

A note on mole. Mole negro is, in my opinion, a little too much. It’s so sweet, heavy, and complex that I struggle to follow the plot. Who are all these ingredients, and how did they get here? Where did the baguette meet all these sesame seeds, and how on earth did garlic and chocolate become a couple? It’s a like a family reunion with every aunt, uncle, and cousin, comforting and familiar but with way too much going on. There is a reason it is only traditionally made a few times a year. Despite its dozens of ingredients, the flavor is anchored by chilhuacle negro chilis. If you enjoy those, you’ll enjoy the entourage of fruits, spices, and nuts that come with it. But at such a crowded party, it’s hard to have any intimate conversations.

There is a simpler mole negro, easier to find and far sweeter, which is likely what comes to mind when you think of mole. But there are also many other moles. There are the seven traditional moles in Oaxaca, several prehispanic moles (pipian mole is my favorite), and then countless regional variations in every city and town: from Mexico City’s mother moles that have simmered in the same pots for a decade or more, to the quick and convenient moles that people throw together for breakfast. 

At this particular restaurant, I ordered mole rojo on the chef’s recommendation. I received a chicken breast smothered in red sauce. I took a bite.

Los Guachimontones, just outside Guadalajara

I felt my heart and mind slow as I floated in a warm, deep place, cozy and hidden. The heat of roasted chili peppers rose in a long, gentle wave, suffusing my whole body, as if I was curled up on the belly of a massive dozing beast, rising and falling with its breath, the both of us reluctantly rousing ourselves at the end of a long winter. Mixed in with those chilis were subtle savory flavors, impossible to identify, unrolling a landscape of earth and flowers around me, an indecipherable bounty.

Then, in the distance, an acidic brightness that felt light and thin. The quick nip of tomatillo, heightened by the chili’s spice. Alone, those tomatilloes would be easy to make out. Their flavor is so simple, so clear. But through the sleepy eyes of that great snoring beast, the undulating heat of lard and chili and the surrounding spices, the tomatillo felt out of focus. I could feel the distance of it, sharp and quick but with hazy edges.

From that great distance, I saw a son. He’d left his home, learned much, and brought it home to his family, who didn’t quite understand but still love him.

That is the son I try to be.

I wish I remembered the name of the restaurant. Even without a name, I’m sure I could find it again. I can see it now. At night, in a certain district, not far from the graffitied coffee shop and the plaza they light up at Christmastime, I find the open archway. Through the archway, despite the hour, a miracle: an open table waiting for me.

At that table sits a fox.

I hesitate. Am I welcome at this table? I probably smell like soap and street food. Will that offend the fox? Will I, in my anxiety and excitement, scare it away? Is this the sort of food a fox wants to eat?

The fox looks back at me. I cannot read its expression. It is an animal.

We order off the menu together.


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