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CUTTER WOOD WRITES ABOUT A WORD: "Nachos"

Cutter Wood
May 2, 2012

 

Many people, for reasons, I think, that are healthy and noble, love nachos. And yet nachos pose a question. It is a question of composition and of essence, and we, in the juventud of nachos’s history, are only now learning to hear it.

A friend of mine, a close friend, someone whom I love very much, invited me over for nachos last year. She had, she said, perfected nachos. I was dubious. What would it mean to perfect nachos? Can one perfect oak trees? existentialism? the 19th century? Can one perfect the bodily mechanics of love? I could imagine a ratio of chip to cheese that would be happier at certain moments in life than other ratios, but I have always struggled to imagine perfection.

I arrived a skeptic and wiped my feet on the doormat. And, like all skeptics, I found my skepticism justified. Amy had not perfected nachos. She had created, instead, something she called individual nachos. Each chip sat apart from each other chip on large baking trays, waiting to be inserted in the oven, and the chips, like a fleet of little arks, carried their individual parcels of identical ingredients: a small pad of beans, a small lump of ground beef, on top of this a sprinkling of pre-grated cheese. On one tray, “the spicy tray,” a jalapeno had been added to each. There were bowls of sour cream, salsa and cilantro, and these I could only assume would at some later stage be added in careful and fair spoonfuls.

As amuse bouches, they were, I admitted, spectacular specimens: not so large as to overwhelm the mouth, but large enough that all parts of the tongue were in one moment subjected to that heterogeny of taste and texture which is always present at the zenith of nachos. The hands remained clean. As at weddings, wakes, and cocktail fundraisers, where the toothpick and the amuse bouche reign, the general atmosphere of the event was pleasant, restrained, mildly antiseptic. The nachos did not disturb our converse.

And yet (always and yet) I felt instinctively these were not nachos. I sensed that Amy had lost her way, like so many people, and I recalled my own nacho experiments, conducted as a child in those bright few weeks after I had discovered the toaster oven but before I had mistakenly set it on fire, how I too felt the tug to treat nachos discretely, as though they were ill-behaved children, and separate them. There was, I felt, an innocence in such nachos, a naive isolationism, an urge to arbitrary order, a tendency, child-like, to a homogenous equality. There was a common misconception playing itself out in Amy’s kitchen, and one which I have struggled ever since to understand.

It was not until this very afternoon, as I myself began the solemn ritual of preparing a lunch of nachos, that I realized suddenly, as in an epiphany, the error. We have conceived the idea that tortilla chips become nachos with the addition of cheese. Who can say how wrong this is. Nachos require cheese, this is true. But it is not the cheese that makes the nacho. Instead, nachos rely, for their existence, on a contiguity of cheese. A nacho exists as nacho only to the degree that it is connected by cheese to other nachos. Without this contiguity, which like a language, binds chip to chip, there are no nachos, and the crucial feature of the nacho, the way a lay-eater may discern it, is exactly this: you must pull it apart from the other nachos. Nachos are never more nachos than when, like lovers, they resist parting.

This, at least, is the point as I see it of the nachos of today. I imagine further discussion might be made of the importance of heterogeneity to the nachos, as well as of crispiness. Another discussion might tackle the future of nachos, which like their history, is unclear. But who can say what nachos our grandchildren will eat or what it will mean to them, if they will even have nachos or with what other act they will associate that feeling, very specific, that we receive late at night when together with our lovers we set to the task of grasping the chip, stretching the cheese and separating our own pale nacho from the main. 

Cutter Wood lives and works in Antarctica.