This past weekend my family came down from New York to Virginia to visit me and my husband. It’d been several months since we’d seen them, so we filled up the weekend with seeing Arlington Cemetery, General Lee’s house, and having lots of long talks and culinary experiences. On Saturday we all shared one big injera at an Ethiopian restaurant (a sourdough sponge like bread from which we ate our lamb and beef and pea curries), Saturday night we had my dijon-and-rosemary pot roast, and then on Sunday we finished off with Mexican food at a little hole-in-the-wall called Jarochita.
As is my habit at every Mexican restaurant I visit, I always ask to see if they sell horchata, a rice and cinnamon drink I’d had as a child. Usually the answer is “no.” A very few times in the last fifteen years they’ve had a powdered version—usually rather chalky, dark, and overly sweet and, once tried, enjoyed only for the shadow it bears to the original.
But Jarochita is a special Mexican restaurant. You can’t order except in Spanish—and, lucky for us, my Dad is fluent enough that just this past weekend he was asked whether or not he was actually American (he is—and the proper grandson of Italians). He was entirely in charge of ordering, so out came plates of beef and lengua (tongue) tacos, garnished solely with sweet onions and cilantro. Out came a plate of grilled cactus. And then! Then out came three styrofoam liters of horchata. We took the lids off and I felt a happy glimmering of recognition as I saw the pearly-white liquid swishing around ice. I took a sip.
I couldn’t help it. It was just like that moment in Ratatouille when Anton is transported back to his childhood. I realized I hadn’t tasted that refreshing, light, milky-sweet-cinnamon taste since I was five or six years old in California. All at once I could see again the little Mexican cafe in San Leandro—plopped, as it seemed, in the middle of a parking lot like a drive-through Dairy Queen… half of its sides were windows, and inside were a few small, bare tables and two percolating machines of aguas frescas—cool waters, horchata on ice.
“Oooh, Linda! You feeling nostalgic?” cooed my eleven year old sister, grinning sympathetically.
“Yes…” I replied, a little pouty and blinking away the tears.
I sipped my horchata contentedly. And I thought how strange it was that this was the first time I had experienced anything like this—such vivid transportation backward through taste alone. I suppose it is because so many of my favorite childhood tastes I still enjoy—my mother still cooks the same amazing soups, stews, meats, beans, and desserts as she always has. There is nothing else I can think of but horchata that holds such a loved-and-lost place in my palate.
Loved-and-lost-and-found. We declared Jarochita the best Mexican food we’d had outside of California. “No,” Dad corrected himself emphatically, “outside of Mexico!”
And I suppose it was. But it was also deliciously like what I remembered in California, and for that I am grateful.