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Sonoran food described as "bland"

The Rev. Canon John C. Fowler Aug 17, 2000 05:12 PM

Some good person on these boards has referred to Sonoran/Mexican food as "well--bland". You might as well described "the roast beef of old England" as bland. Cooked by a good English (or Irish) cook, roast beef is not bland--though one might like a little Coleman's hot mustard or proper horsebradish sauce on the side. So, well cooked Sonoran food is simply not overwhelmed with chiles. The seaoning of Sonora is careful, restrained, like most peasant foods around the world. A bit of cummin, a touch of oregano, some green or cooked red chiles, the refined taste of FLOUR tortillas pulled to proper thinness by an expert, fluffy beaten egg whites, grated goat's cheese with its distinctive (not strong) flavor, the green chiles which Americans call Anaheim rather than the burning chiles favored by amateurs -- such things as these are the stuff of Sonoran Desert cooking. Lard is almost its strongest flavor (and lard is essential to Sonoran cooking, since it is what the peasants of Sonora could and can afford). Chicken, beef, pork, all come into it when salaries are good, but they are not bludgeoned by heaps of burning Tabascan-like chilies. Children eat the delicious food of Los Mochis and Hermosillo and Tucson as easily and eagerly as their parents. The part of Pennsylvania I now live in has endless "chile cook-offs", by which they mean chile recipes which burn the hotest, produce eyes that water the most, tongues that sting the most. It is all amateurish and ridiculous. Texas has the same things. They have learned to eat the food of immigrants. Indigenous Sonoran food is not "bland". But it is flavored with care and restraint. It can be eaten daily with the same appetite as one came to it the night before. One never tires of it because it has the widest variety of dishes, all meant to touch the palate with gentle vigor. I can cook foods in the Tex-Mex or New Mexican style with the best of them, and I like it on occasion. It is hearty-rough, with a cert

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  1. j
    John C. Fowler Aug 17, 2000 05:24 PM

    I am sorry my long message of this date was posted in its unedited and incomplete form. Perhaps I have been "cut off" for my garrulousness. I had more to say on the subject, and am sorry it was not printed completely. Wordiness is a fault of old age!

    3 Replies
    1. re: John C. Fowler
      jen kalb Aug 17, 2000 05:27 PM

      I hope you post a continuation!

      1. re: jen kalb
        John C. Fowler Aug 17, 2000 05:47 PM

        I shall indeed attempt to get the rest of my message on the Board if Chowhound will cooperate.

        1. re: John C. Fowler
          Bob Aug 17, 2000 06:15 PM

          I'm not sure why you're having a problem posting your message, as there is no limit on length. There's plenty of space so post away!

    2. t
      The Rev. Canon John C. Fowler Aug 21, 2000 06:10 PM

      This is an addendum to my abruptly truncated message of 8/17 about the mistake of describing Sonoran cooking as "bland", and should be read after one has read the initial message. I was saying I can cook Tex/Mex dishes which are hearty with a certain amount of fun. But they miss the refined peasant taste of Sonoran. (By the way, contrary to Mr. Leff, I have never found Indians to be the best cooks of Sonoran food. My knowledgable friends in Tucson tell me that Indian-cooked meals brought about the failure of the well-intended Papago tribal enterprise called the Yoeme Restaurant in Tucson.) A dinner of Chiles Rellenos, stuffed with cheddar or jack choose, coated with the fluffy whites of eggs and gently covered with flavored tomato/chile sauce (uncooked taco sauce, essentially); a soft taco of meat-stuffed flour tortilla, with garnishes of lettuce, green olives, goat cheese, and a few CANNED peas; a Sonoran enchilda of flat corn cake, red chile sauce, garnished with green chiles, goat cheese, with shredded lettuce and a little vinegar on the side; all accompanied by pinto bean simmered to softness, mashed in their own cooking water, "refried" with sizzling lard, thickened with some sharp cheddar, gently salted (with optional roasted red chiles added) -- all of this is a meal fit for more than a king, but for a prosperous patron and his charro families. On his death-bed, my father asked my mother to bring him an order of "Number Ocho" from the historic El Charro Restaurant (it has suffered a sad come-down). It included the meal I have described above. He ate a bite of each dish, and went to God sustained by the foods of Sonora and the Litany for the Dying of the Episcopal Church. Bland? The word is absurd in this context. From a phone call to a trusted friend of refined chowhound-style palate, I get the following names for the best Mexican food in Tucson. I cannot guarantee their Sonoran authenticity. That may have died in restaurants with the death of the old cooks

      20 Replies
      1. re: The Rev. Canon John C. Fowler
        Canon Fowler Aug 21, 2000 06:15 PM

        My message was again cut off! It included a kindly reference to Pete Feliz who seems to be the only person on these boards who knows Sonoran food. It also includes an invitation to my home in Nazareth, PA, where I can give The Real Sonoran Thing to a limited number of guests, though they must come before my Altzheimer's Disease at last shows up and does me in.

        1. re: Canon Fowler
          Pete Feliz Aug 27, 2000 10:12 AM


          You're too kind. But even MY family's home cooking became "polluted" by modern, labor-saving techniques, such as hamburger instead of shredded meat for tacos, longhorn or jack instead of quesillo for melting cheese. That's the down-side of Mom getting a full time job outside the house. Still, she's never stinted on tamales.

          Also our home grown Anaheims were a hundred times more piquant than those sold at market. Our soil, as near as we can figure, was the culprit. But they never lost their sweetness. So the balance of flavor was incredible and intense in salsas and moles.

          Also, again, funny you should mention El Minuto. My late grandmother used to say that El Minuto was the only restaurant that made menudo as good as she made hers. That was many years ago, so I don't know if it still holds true.

          Next time you hit Tucson, try the "Sonoron hot dogs" @ BK HOTDOGS 5118 S. 12th (South Tucson). It's street food right out of Hermosillo. A disgusting mix of a grilled bacon wrapped weiner, with onions, pintos, salsa verde, mayo, mustard, and a chile pepper. Sounds blasaphemous, but it's wonderful.


          1. re: Pete Feliz
            Canon John C. Fowler Aug 27, 2000 11:26 PM

            Dear Mr. Feliz: Thanks for your kind reply. My keyboard was out order for a time. You are the only respondent who picked up on my Sonoran enchiladas comments. To be truthful, after a lifetime in Tucson, menudo could not be prepared by an archangel to suit me. I find the dish indedible, beginning with the hominy! Probably my lack of some wandering drop of Mexican blood holds me back. I ate it once out at Marana in a cotton-field settlement, and only good manners enabled me to get it down because the families who cooked it as a fiesta dish were so proud of it. I could not tell them that it was unbearable. My neighbor, Mrs. Tony Urias' mother, Senora Bareda, the daughter of John Spring, Tucson's first public school teacher, used to fix it over 60 years ago (she would only cook over a wood fire), and she claimed to be an expert. But it always gave me the "jim-jams" to put it in my mouth. The S. 12th Ave. operation sounds intriguing, but slightly repulsive, as you imply. If I live long enough for another visit to Tucson, I may give it a try -- I MAY. Regards, Father Fowler

            1. re: Canon John C. Fowler
              Pete Feliz Aug 28, 2000 08:24 AM

              A high school classmate of mine, Ramon, who was born in Sonora shares your opinion of menudo. I was shocked! I tell you, shocked! "Ray, how could you not like menudo! It's wonderful! With all the garlic, cilantro, salsa, limes..." To which Ray said, "If you put enough garlic, cilantro, salsa, and limes on dog crap it'll taste good, too." He may be right, but I still like menudo. I also know people who don't mind the tripe, but can't stand the hominy.

              More on the issue of Sonoran: I find striking differences in terms. I grew up being told that a quesadilla was a melting or grilling cheese (much like mozzarella (and made the same way)not a Mexican sandwich. And that torta was not a sandwich, but a dish made somewhat similar in technique to egg foo young: Egg batter general filled with things like dried shrimp, then deep fried and finally dipped into a red chile mole. Also "casuelo" instead of being a Mexican casserole was to us a stew made with jerky, potatoes, and green chile.

              Also, a great thanks to Jim. Sonoran has gotten a bad rap for years for it's "blandness" and "lack of complexity," due mainly to some very snobbish Mexicans helped by Diane Kennedy (who is otherwise a Mexican culinary god). If Jim hadn't of gone to Tucson to reconfirm what I've known all my life, Sonoran cuisine would die the death of commercialization (Yo quero Taco Bell).


              1. re: Pete Feliz
                Canon Fowler Aug 28, 2000 11:33 AM

                Mr. Feliz, you have written good, if unconvincing, words on Menudo. I cannot convince my gagging-reflex about the virtues of the stuff. You strike deeply into the exotic mysteries of Mexican cuisine with your talk of casuelos, etc. I am, after all, a native Anglo-Saxon Tucson boy. Mexican food in my youth meant a trip to good local restaurants. My mother, born in New Mexico Territory, lived her entire life of 92 years in Cochise and Pima Counties, and never cooked a dish of real Mexican food in her life. Her chile con carne, while delicious, was the Anglo mixture of pinto beans, ground beef, onions, tomato sauce, water, and Gebhart's Chile Powder (can you remember it?). Indeed, raised in Bisbee, she could not eat true Mexican food, and at the old Carmen's Cafe on S. 6th Ave in the 1930s (a sacred place!), she would choose an American steak, plain beans, and squash. So I learned (and learned WELL) only what makes a perfect taco, a perfect Sonoran enchilda, a perfect dish of refried beans, a perfect totilla de harina (no de maiz!), a perfect dish of juevos revueltos with chile sauce, a perfect chicken pipian, and a perfect almondrado (made in the three colors of the Mexican flag, of course) with its perfect custard sauce. And I learned as I grew up, that you can get any of that only when you eat somewhere on the Sonora Desert, and not always there! (See how Tucson's El Charro has failed!) "Mexican" food anywhere in Santa Fe, for example, is beneath contempt. It reeks of "Spanish-Americanism" and not of Mexico. Regards, Father Fowler

                1. re: Canon Fowler
                  Karen Martin Dec 27, 2000 09:17 PM

                  I have been looking for almondrado for almost 20 years since our restaurant changed owners here in Pomona, Ca.
                  Do you know of anyplace to get it? I would order it on line if necessary and I know that sounds foolish.
                  Thanks, Karen

                  1. re: Karen Martin
                    Canon John C. Fowler Jan 23, 2001 09:34 PM

                    Dear Karen: After some months taking a rest from Chowhound, I have just read your message on Almondrado. Sorry. Though I have complained of the sad decline of the old El Charro in Tucson (their flat enchilado has become an insult to the palate!), some inquiry has convinced me that they may still be able to execute a respectable almondrado. I suspect, with their inevitable fall in customers, they would be willing to send you some in an effort to jack up their poor reputation. The proper sauce is, of course, essential. I will look up my old recipe tomorrow. If I find it, I will send it along. Sorry I don't have a telephone number for El Charro. With regard for another almondrado lover, Canon Fowler

        2. re: The Rev. Canon John C. Fowler
          Jim Leff Aug 21, 2000 09:24 PM

          Sorry you're having trouble with the boards. The "cut-off" bug was a problem for users a couple of years ago, but you are the first one to run into this in many many months. What kind of computer do you have (mac or pc)? And are you using netscape or explorer? And are you composing in a word processor and pasting the text into the browser?

          Re: Yoeme Cafe, the single meal I had there was one of the most exquisite eating experiences I've ever enjoyed. And I'm not sure exactly what your friend means when he says that "Indian-cooked meals brought about the failure", but I REALLY don't like the sound of it. It pretty much exemplifies some of the more disgusting societal attitudes I observed down there.

          1. re: Jim Leff
            Canon John C. Fowler Aug 22, 2000 02:21 AM

            Dear Mr. Leff: The friend from whom I get my information is a most enlightened social worker in Tucson. She is founder and director of the Primavera Foundation, a solid work for the self-empowering of Southwestern minorities, especially the Papago Indians living near and in Tucson. She has the greatest appreciation of their long-standing problems of suppression under under a guise of paternalism. I hope you will let me speak up in her defense. Her knowledge of cuisines is entirely consistent with her socially enlightened attitudes. I am an old left-wing, social action Episcopal priest who has encouraged Nancy Bissell (my Tucson contact) in her work for human rights in the Southwest, specifically for her truly worthy work at the Primavera Foundation (into which, incidentally, she has sunk the largest part of her time and work, not to mention her own money). The sounds you here from her opinion on foods do not come from anything resembling "disgusting societal attitudes". Mr. Leff, Papago fry-bread and beans are great foods, and their hand-pulled tortillas are from chowhound heaven, but their attempts at more complex Sonoran foods are frequently unsuccessful, since they are Mexican Sonoran rather than Indian in background. Sonoran Mexicans have a varying mixture of Indian blood and culture, but the mixture is not primarily Papago, but Tara Humaran, etc.The sad fact is, not even local Indians and Mexicans were drawn in enough numbers to sustain the Yoeme tribal operation. You must have noticed that when you ate there. I write with full respect for the good chowhound work you have begun and continued. You will soon be hearing from me on the much over-rated cooking of Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish cooking, as well as the sad state of the vaunted Pennsylvania diners, one of which flourishes here in Nazareth, to my gustatory sorrow and exasperation, and to the sad misleading of chowhounds passing through. Canon Fowler

            1. re: Canon John C. Fowler
              Jim Leff Aug 22, 2000 05:24 PM

              Rev. Fowler, I'm very relieved to hear that your friend wasn't being insidious in her comment on Indian cooks, and I'm sorry for misunderstanding.

              But it's my central tenet (others may disagree...and are encouraged to, in fact!) that deliciousness is deliciousness. Period. My favorite chef in the NYC area is a Columbian woman who grills corn cakes on a street cart. It doesn't get simpler than this, but whether or not she can whip up something more complex and ambitious is irrelevant to me.

              I think it's a huge mistake to judge food (or art, or literature, or music, or friends or ANYTHING) by what it's not.


              ps--I absolutely love Amish cooking (though I agree that the restaurant versions of the cuisine have dropped off from mediocre to worse of late).

              1. re: Jim Leff
                Fowler Aug 22, 2000 11:12 PM

                Ah, but the corn cake cooker must always go on to other dishes, Mozart must go on to write in the parts for the reeds, or he has cooked a very thin, inferior symphony, however excellent the strings -- For man does not live by corn cakes or violins alone, but by the complete meal of food or chorus of music produced by humans. I await your devastating rejoinder to me and the Papagos.FOWLER

                1. re: Fowler
                  Jim Leff Aug 23, 2000 12:11 AM

                  Why must the corn cake lady go on to other dishes? Should Mozart swing?

                  I have many records in my collection, and many chefs within range of my chowmobile. I can change the channel at will and enjoy the full spectrum.

                  Whether a given singer can sing just one song or ten thousand, what matters is how it sounds. In fact, a single beautiful note (or corn cake) is perfect and complete in and of itself. Inspiration is inspiration. And deliciousness is deliciousness.


                  1. re: Jim Leff
                    Fowler Aug 24, 2000 10:20 PM

                    Dear Mr. Leff: I have bought a new keyboard. Now I can say that you have struck a palpable hit! And a very poetic one. Perhaps too poetic. We shall not agree on this. Different temperaments. I continue to prefer my meal all at one table than taken on the run from your corn cake cooker, another saucier, a third chiles rellenos cook, and a last flan maker. Too tiring at my age, and my hunger would never be assuaged. I am certain the Papagos themselves spoke the final word on the Yoeme. Friendly regard, and thanks for you good work at Chowhound. Canon Fowler

                    1. re: Fowler
                      Jim Leff Aug 25, 2000 01:42 AM

                      That wasn't quite my point, but thanks for the kind words!

                2. re: Jim Leff
                  Fowler Aug 22, 2000 11:44 PM

                  I omited an "as" in the second line of my last message before "Mozart" and couldn't figure how to get it back in. As for the Moravians and their food, we will get back to that later, when I have gotten my keyboard repaired! FOWLER

            2. re: The Rev. Canon John C. Fowler
              Steve Potenberg Aug 22, 2000 12:14 PM

              Please, Rev. Fowler, please post the names of the Tucson Mexican restaurants favored by your friend. I spend a week or two down in that country every year, primarily south of Tucson, but I always find myself there at least twice a visit.


              1. re: Steve Potenberg
                Canon John C. Fowler Aug 22, 2000 01:40 PM

                Dear Steve: I named the four or five dependable places for Sonoran food in Tucson in the part of my last long message which was deleted! Vexatious indeed! My list of good restaurants was made in consultation with a long-time friend WHO KNOWS. The best thing to do is to call her. She is friendly, hospitable, artistic by nature, and she will be glad to help. She runs a very small hotel/lodging house in the oldest part of the town -- a bit exclusive, not for expense but because it is little known. The hotel is called the Palmery. Her name is Nancy Bissell, PO Box 712, Tucson, AZ 85702. Telephone number 520-792-9924. She will read this message and will know of your impending call. A good person to know for the entertainment and cultural life of the area. Good luck, Steve. Canon Fowler

                1. re: Canon John C. Fowler
                  pat hammond Aug 22, 2000 01:52 PM

                  Reverend Fowler: How about a post that JUST names those dependendable favorites of yours. Wouldn't take long and the rest of us could benefit. Thanks in advance, pat

                  1. re: pat hammond
                    Canon Fowler Aug 22, 2000 02:04 PM

                    Dear Pat: Read my message to Steve. However, I shall make another attempt to put the list on these boards. I am long-winded, and my long messages do not seem to arrive on our Board intact. I have tried, but I will soon try again when I can gather Nancy Bissell's list together again. Then Hey nonny-nonny for FLAT ENCHILADAS and for all that they stand for! THE ENCHILADA CANON HIMSELF

                    1. re: Canon Fowler
                      pat hammond Aug 22, 2000 02:31 PM

                      Fair enough. I'll stay tuned. pat

            3. b
              Bodhrani Mar 10, 2012 08:04 PM

              I just read this useful and entertaining exchange, but Google reveals the Reverend's unfortunate demise, before responding to the final plea in this thread: http://obits.lehighvalleylive.com/obi...

              In this thread, above, he describes his father's last meal on his deathbed. I wonder what the Reverend's last meal turned out to be?

              ~Rest in peace, Reverend Canon John Clinton Fowler~

              1 Reply
              1. re: Bodhrani
                Ed Dibble Mar 14, 2012 07:58 AM

                Thanks for dredging this up. I had just discovered Chowhound after moving to Yuma in 1999, and Canon Fowler's posts and reminiscences of growing up in Tucson in the 20s and 30s were a fascinating look at one man's take on traditional Sonoran cuisine. If anybody else is interested, he did a series of posts at about the same time that are probably still available here. It's too bad he has passed, but it seems that he had a long and fruitful life.

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