Friday, May 22, 2015
Crunchy cravings are serious business. When you have your heart set on that precise sensory experience nothing else will do. Maybe I’m alluding to some sensory issues that have long plagued my inner jib, but I’m not going there right now. What I’d like to share instead is my first bite into a churro. I was fifteen and still had Prince Valliant locks, flowing off my shoulders, and a red Wilson tennis racquet flung on my back. I’d just finished a long, grueling workout at the National Tennis Center (this is before it was dedicated to Billie Jean King) and my rally buddy Albert and I decided to get some extra exercise. We spurned the 7 train and schlepped along Roosevelt Avenue, across from what was then Shea Stadium. Albert lived in Jackson Heights and I lived in Forest Hills. We were walkers.
We were pretty hungry from all those suicides (line-to-line running drills), King of the Court battles, and baskets of kick serves. We needed a snack. Albert had introduced me to dulce de leche a few weeks earlier and I wolfed it down so when he suggested another Latino treat, I thought “Por supuesto.” He was waxing poetic about the deep-fried churro, how he once packed away 12 of them during a car ride to Coney Island, without even a burp. They sounded delicious. I had this cockeyed notion that they would taste something like khrustyky, the Ukrainian powdery-sugared cookies my mom made for Christmas. Once that yummy crunchy treat popped into my head I had an irrevocable analogue and an unwavering craving to contend with. No Scooter pie, Ring Ding, or Macaron was going to satisfy me.
We passed over more than a few churro-stocked shopping carts. Albert kept insisting, “Chill man, I know the best one.” Maybe we were going to a bakery.
He hadn’t steered me wrong with the dulce de leche or the sweet concha bread. My belly was crumbling though and we were in the heart and hub of Corona, crossing Junction Blvd. when Albert stopped us under the deafening roar of the 7, pulling into the station. Stringy Chinese men were hawking dollar batteries, blank TDK tapes, and other rewrapped regalia. Street meat wafted from carts and small shop windows. I was a little taken back when we didn’t enter the Mexican Bakery, but instead lined up behind a chunky woman’s shopping cart.
“Churros, churros,” she said, her siren song call.
They were lined up like free tickets to see Juan Miguel or Marc Anthony.
They bought bags of the stuff. Mothers, toting pig-tailed toddlers grabbed churros, spiky-haired boys grabbed their snacks, unhelmeted construction workers seized their spoils. What fun, to have this privilege to be in the know, part of the churro cognoscenti. I was happy to pay for Albert’s bag since he included me on this junket.
Albert was already through his second one, when I bit into my first. It was more buttery than I imagined and chewy. The cushiony feel and subtle graininess of the fried skin was much more like a zeppole than a khrustyky. I was bummed. Zeppole was fine at the San Gennaro Festival, but was crummy substitute for my crunchy craving.
Did I stop for a second to brood over the plight of these heroic women who risked their lives to haul sugary treats up and down innumerable flights of subway stairs? Nope. Did I even realize that these street peddler-cum-entrepreneurs were constantly harassed by cops because they didn’t have permits to sell their goodies? Nope. My only concern as a fifteen-year-old twerp who still wore clip-on ties to school and smacked away his weekend on the tennis court was that the churro didn’t agree with my Chips Ahoy-reared palate. Needless to say Albert got to gorge on the rest.
A few years later, I had a different kind of churro, one that had a creamy goo in the middle. I wasn’t crazy about that one either. Then I tried the old standby again. Eh. I’ve had churros in Mexico City, in all 5 boroughs, and New Jersey. They’ve grown on me a little bit, but, unfortunately, I’ll never be a big fan. That first impression headstrong elephant. Gimmie any other Mexican treat. Love tacos, tortas, molletes, huaraches, and bags of tuna (the cactus fruit not the fish). Then, there is the ne plus ultra crunchy craving goto— the king of salty snacks, yes, you guessed it, the pork rind: lime-squeezed and peppered with chili powder. Nothing beats it, nothing so long as I’m packing Tums and my trusty Pepcid AC.