This is the latest installment of Foodie Underground.
Only one day into a trip to Baja, Mexico, and my friend Megan and I had come up with our official "Taco Challenge." (Because when you travel, you should always have a challenge.) This one involved eating at least one taco every day. Three days into the trip, and not only did we have another fellow traveler on board with the Taco Challenge, we were developing a full-blown taco ranking system. Based on a scale from one to five, the taco eater was required to rate both the taco and the ambiance of where it was consumed. Such are the challenges when eating while traveling.
Travel and food go hand in hand. Why do you think there are so many destination specific foods topping the trend lists for 2012? Because food in itself is a form of travel, letting us explore no matter if we're in the country of the food's origin or thousands of miles away.
So let's get back to Mexico.
The best tacos, as most anyone will tell you, are to be found at the simplest taquerias. Concrete floors, open walls, maybe even a grapefruit tree planted in the middle. There may be a TV in the background with a Spanish speaking sports announcer. Near the kitchen a man in an apron may be cutting charred pieces of pastor from the large vertical spit. There will be a centerpiece of freshly sliced cucumber and several bowls of salsa, and if you're really lucky, you'll even have a full toppings bar to choose from; Pickled onions, guacamole, cilantro, four kinds of salsa and fresh cabbage are standard. At this point, it's impossible not to eat well.
When you travel, food can be best when it's at its simplest form. Take away the stars, the fancy menus and fancy décor and what are you left with? Food. Food that represents a local community and culture. So you forget about words like "organic" and "local" and "artisan," because when it comes down to it, what's on the plate in front of you represents something beyond that.
Later, we drive along the Pacific, and in between a taqueria and the beach, there is a basil farm. In an otherwise arid landscape with prickly cacti and desert rocks, there are also pockets of lush, verdant, farmland. The smell of basil seeps through the open car windows. There is an instant feel of being better connected to the land where food comes from. At home, the smell of basil is reserved for studio apartment windows and farmers markets. Here it's simply part of the air.
But even Baja has an organic market. A glorious spread of food, art and music, tucked into a corner of San Jose del Cabo every single Saturday market. There's even artisan cheese at Mercado Organico, along with homemade bread and fresh vegetables in wooden crates.
And the organic portabello tacos, covered with a layer of herbs and cheese and grilled right in front of us? They get a five.
There is an ongoing debate about the value of organic. Where does your organic come from? Because a farm doesn't have the resources to get organic certification, does that mean their produce isn't as good as the larger scale farm that's mass producing organic lettuce? When we focus on simply one element of food we forget about all the rest: who grew it, how it was grown, where it was grown. Blindly choosing certified organic is a sign of not truly thinking about what we eat. It's just as bad as choosing a restaurant simply because they serve up figs wrapped in bacon and pour their bourbon drinks into a mason jar.
Choosing food because you know where it comes from, and that it was made with intention, and not because the latest hip food blog told you to eat it is a different story. A quesadilla grilled on the beach, made with fresh tortillas and cheese beats an organic wheatgrass smoothie from the trustafarian owned juice shop any day. And a restaurant doesn't have to be fancy, it just needs to serve up fresh food with a community feel. That's the reminder we get when we travel, and the ideal that we should all embrace when it comes to food we make and eat at home.
Good food, from good places, with good people -- if we can make that a 2012 food trend, we'll be doing well. With or without tacos.
Editor's note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones's weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what's new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.
Images: Anna Brones