Zen and the Art of Taco Shell Construction

The battle was immediately lost.
The Kitchen Lab was her kitchen. Her turf. (+1) for her off the bat. She knew where she was going with this. When we met in the morning, the first thing she told me was “let’s eat home-made tacos” for lunch. It sounded good, but the thing is, I never made homemade tacos in my life. I’m Mexican damnit, whaddya think? I am not privy to the ancient Mexican taco secret by birthright. I don’t know shit about taco shells. And there she was, intent to joint forces with me to make tacos from scratch. Sure. My dad makes tacos from scratch. He molds the tortilla shell around the meat and deep fries the suckers into a perfect edible and sumptuous rocky mold of tastiness. All my taco eating has been from Mexican restaurants or the Taco Bell/Del Taco mainstream prefabricated taco shell assembly line. I’ve never built tacos before. Never!

And now she was telling me she wanted home-fucking-made tacos. She had made these before which should have been somewhat comforting, but wasn’t really.

We started the day by shopping. She promised it would be simple. We bought a small package of corn tortillas, Monterey Jack cheese, taco seasoning, ground beef, and all the usual taco-flavored accoutrements for tacos I suppose. I don’t know this stuff. I’m Mexican, I buy my Mexican food prepared. We brought the groceries home and she had me brown and season the meat first. A cinch. It’s a solitary activity and I flourish within that context. Always have. I work terribly in teams of 2 or more. This was a team of 2, but for the browning and seasoning of the meat, she did not mind leaving the task solely to me. I did well. After five minutes, she was ready to start making the “taco shells” in the hot oil. This was the part I had no Goddamned clue about. I had never done this before. How do you make taco shells for chrissakes?!

I watched as she began with the first one. She carefully withdrew a tortilla, clasped 2 opposite ends of its corny circumference with a pair of cooking tongs. She then dipped it into the oil and began flopping it around. I was watching, but not. I’m not that kind of learner. I don’t learn by watching or by taking notes. I learn by explanation. I learn by understanding. Tell me the why and the how of an operation and it will stick in my mind. If I watch someone do something or if I take weird and illegible “how to” notes, I will not be able to replicate such non-essentials. My mind works differently. She told me to watch in response to my query, “How do I make a taco shell?”

“Watch me.”
Well fuck.

Watching doesn’t help me. I need to know the essential logic of your process. Once I understand the process and the structure of its procession, I’ll be able to fill in the blanks with my actions. But no, not in this case. she told me to watch her. And to replicate her actions, but replication of action is useless because each environment is different. Elements change, mentality circumvents barriers in order to arrive at the same end. My mentality is decidedly atypical. I don’t follow mannered steps in the way most people do. So when she told me to watch and copy, she might as well have told me to close my eyes and imagine. Wasn’t happening.

So she began and I watched blankly. I didn’t absorb because my little lizard brain didn’t care.
Then she told me to start. Start making taco shells. I had no idea!

I took a tortilla and replicated what she did at the beginning while I was still paying attention.
And my first taco shell sucked. I had no idea was she was doing nor its gradually building logic. She yelled at me for flipping it too much, for not letting it rest, for everything. She had no patience but she wasn’t helpful either. She assumed that the curt instruction of “watch me” was sufficient to explain to someone of my temperament all that was necessary to form and make a taco shell. Not so. My first taco shell was a soggy and lopsided piece of crap. I pulled it out too quickly, it wilted, clamped up like a timid clam shell, and by the time it hardened, left no space for filling.

She was pissed and out of patience after one taco. Told me she would make the rest.

Fuck that. Don’t tell me what to do or how to do it, especially when your special method is as mysterious as an ancient Chinese secret you are unwilling to share or articulate. Impatience is death.

I took my second taco shell and now I was sorta understanding the system. On my own, thank you.

No thanks to the dearth of detailed instructions from some halfassed taco-shell maker, thank you.

The next taco shell was not great, but it was better. This was only my 2nd taco shell ever. It still folded awkwardly and was deep fried with a lack of intensity required to make it crispy and malleable. But still, I was getting the hang of it on my own. See, I learn by doing, not by listening to vague ninny bullshit that doesn’t tell me anything. This is not Sesame Street, Goddamnit. I need to learn by doing and erring. I need to fuck up. Fucking up is intrinsic to my process of discovery and nature. I don’t believe in perfect. Expectation of perfection is wonderful but useless. I believe in being better and mindful of my involvement. The relinquishment of “watch me” is not mindful…it is lazy because it does not command you to own up to that which you perform. I’m not uptight about perfection. I accept fallibility. I accept furtive results. But I do ask for intelligent and thorough explanations. In fact, I value intelligent articulation of a process more than anything. I value well-written instruction manuals (of which there are very few, if any). The “Phaedrian” protagonist in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wrote manuals and I sensed issuing from him an intelligence and cogent holistic awareness of the subject that he knew exactly how to detail its process to the outsider. My taco shell making friend had no idea. She knew how to make taco shells and that was enough for her mind. She could not trouble herself with relaying such necessary info in encompassing detail before firing up the oil and throwing me to it, so to speak.

“Copy me.” A very vain manner of instruction. Telling the world, essentially, do as I do, not as I think.
This is not how I function. Hence I had no idea where to begin and when my first few examples sputtered. I incurred the egotistical wrath of the taco-maker as well. Because she felt no need, saw no reason, to explain how.

If I was explaining the art of making taco shells, I would have begun, quite explicitly, because I verily assume people do not generally make taco shells for a living and hence, don’t know where to begin, because my ego is not so self-consumed:

First of all, the oil must be boiling. Not just hot, or near boiling. It must be boiling. Anything less and the tortillas will not respond cooperatively. Test this by throwing cold water into the pan…it must sizzle. Boiling oil is a must.

One the oil is boiling, you’re ready to make your first taco shell.

Fold it loosely in half. Do not tear it! Clasp both ends of the loosely folded tortilla with tongs and dip it vertically in the hot oil so its fold junction is submerged. Hold it there for a minute or until the hot oil cements the shape and essentially turns the curved area into a hardened taco shell which fastens the rest of the tortilla in place. Once this is done, you can now submerge the rest of the unfried tortilla into the oil on each side for a minute. The key is to cook the curved edge of the tortilla so well that submerging it will not “unfold” it. Once both sides are deep fried, you must try and space out the tortilla edges to leave space for the filling. This takes practice and it will rarely rise to your specifications. Once this is done, lay the cooked shell on a paper towel and let it drain and cool. A rudimentary taco shell should await.

Don’t watch me. Understand first.