Falling back on what comforts us

El Indio Restaurant, San Diego

El Indio Restaurant, San Diego

You’re looking at an icon from my childhood: the El Indio Restaurant on India Street in San Diego. For as long as I can remember, visiting El Indio with my dad was the highlight of the week. We’d buy their beef taquitos, garnished with shredded lettuce and salsa. They were rolled up in butcher paper, six to a packet, and I remember how eagerly I’d tear open the packet, releasing their savory fragrance. Whenever I bit into one, all was right with the world. Wherever I’ve lived in the world, wherever I’ve traveled, when I was under stress, I’d find myself craving one of those taquitos.

Last week, reeling from the emotional turmoil of emptying out my mom’s house in San Diego, I desperately needed an El Indio fix. So that’s where I headed.

The place has changed, of course. It used to be merely a tortilla factory that served food on the side; now it’s grown and has become so popular that the line of customers often stretches out the door. It’s even made it onto the culinary radar of Food TV.

But it will always be my El Indio, and a reminder of just how powerful childhood memories can be — especially memories of food. Food, I think, is what culture is really all about. Dishes that our mothers cooked for us. The particular melange of spices in our mothers’ kitchens.

When I write my books, I find myself often using food to evoke mood or character or relationships. Jane Rizzoli sits in her childhood kitchen and marvels at her mother’s exquisite cooking. Maura Isles sits alone and depressed at her kitchen table and dines on gin and a grilled cheese sandwich. A harried doctor slaps together a dinner of scrambled eggs. What we eat — and the care with which we prepare it — speaks volumes about our feelings at that moment.

And so, while I sat at El Indio last week, emotionally wrung out by the emotional demands of my San Diego visit, I found that biting into a taquito was almost a desperate act, precisely the sort of therapy that the daughter of a chef would crave.

Forget drugs; all I require is salsa.

28 replies
  1. dustinhood
    dustinhood says:

    “Forget drugs, give me some salsa.” There we go, that needs to be on billboard nation-wide!

    I can’t wait for Tuesday. I’m taking my scholar day from school so I can get the book earlier.

    Dustin

  2. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    For me it’s mashed potatos. Potato soup with little egg dumplings. Any problem in the world, including my chemo treatments could be solved by mashed potatos.

    Now I’m a salsa snob. I like my fresh salsa over anything I can buy here in St. Louis.

    Glad you’re home and feeling better.

    Lynn

  3. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Watch it, Tess. It starts with a few spoonfulls, and before you know it you’re guzzling gallons of salsa every day. 😉

    Is Lehr’s Greenhouse still in San Diego? I visited there years ago, had a great time.

  4. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    For me it was a place called Chi Chi’s. The franchise left NY for some reason. They had great salsa and great food. Sometimes you have to slink back into your childhood to bring back good memories. But as we grow older, we make new ones, but never forgetting what we left behind, including good food, good friends, and good conversation.
    Whether it be a taquito, a sloppy Joe, or a PB&J, if it reminds you of the good old days, then bon apetit.
    Enjoy your time with Mom.
    Abe

    PS just between us, that lime margarita with have been great with that taquito, huh?

  5. codymc
    codymc says:

    My family was diiiiirt poor till I was about 9. So there were two oft-served staples. One was hamburger helper, and the other was spam.
    I still take comfort in hamburger helper. As far as spam goes (and no offense to any Hawaii denizens who love the stuff)I’ve joked that I’ll eat my own flesh before I’ll ever eat spam again. Anthony Bourdain said in one of his shows something like ‘spam – to be eaten only in the case of nuclear war, and maybe not even then.’
    I concur.

    On a separate note, as I’m just catching up. Very sorry to hear about your mom. My parents had to move recently from a house they loved and had hoped to die in because it’s a two-story. My mother shattered her hip a few years back and has extreme osteoporosis. After the second time she fell on the stairs – cracking a forearm in the process – my dad agreed they had to move. It was a horrendous process, and very sad for them both. My sympathies, and my hat is off to you for doing what was needed.

  6. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    My “Home” meals are kind of normal, but they’re what really get my tongue a-waggin’: mom’s spaghetti and meat sauce, and meatloaf and meatballs with mashed potatoes. Damn, now I’m hungry.

  7. bob k
    bob k says:

    And this, Tess, is a great example of why I am so happy you returned to blogging. It is so damned easy to forget that “Tess Gerritsen – NY Times Bestselling author” is an actual, real person with whom we have so many things in common. We tend to quickly forget that about all celebrities (and yes, Tess, in my mind – you are a celebrity)… and we need to be reminded.

    If you truly believe that a celebrity is human like the rest of us…then maybe we believe in ourselves a little more. We don’t buy a book or vote for a president because Oprah tells us to do it and we think for ourselves.

    And perhaps, even, if a celebrity says something we disagree with or dislike on his/her blog – we understand that mean, nasty comments we make are mean, nasty attacks on a real person with real feelings who may be really hurt.

    But perhaps not. Actually, after some recent experiences, I wonder if most people really want to do want to be led like sheep and if there are not a huge number of people who would be happy to think they could hurt someone mostly anonymously on the internet.

  8. Jessie
    Jessie says:

    Hello Tess,
    Glad you have made it back home, and while you were away, got a chance to enjoy a staple from your past. Some meals are just that way, things you had as a kid that you crave again as an adult….brings back great memories, and just brings you back to an easier time.

    Myself, one of my favorite little quick meals i like to make are English Muffin pizzas, with slices of block mozzerella cheese, cooked in the toaster or regular oven. i loved them as a kid, and now my kids love them too !!! i know what i’m making for dinner tomorrow night !!

  9. kthacker
    kthacker says:

    I agree entirely with what Bob K says. I love your writing, Dr. G, but without this blog, you’d simply be another name on a book cover. Someone to admire, certainly, but not someone I knew or could relate to.

    Then you go and write things like these last two entries and you’re no longer some shiny letters on a paperback. You’re a real person.

    How great is that?

  10. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    My dad, brother, and I have been attacking my homemade salsa like there’s no tomorrow, so I’m going to have to make up a third batch and still have lots of Hatch, NM green chile to do it with, too. So, come on over and drown your sorrows in salsa! 🙂

    Actually, I don’t know if I have a particular comfort food. All I know is that it’s terrific if the food is good, even better with good people. My favorite little hole-in-the-wall New Mexican place here is Juan’s Broken Taco, owned by a son and co-owned by his mother. The mother and the owner’s father used to have a place here called Del Valle’s and my parents took my brother and me all the time. They’d give us kids a free birthday dinner and while the grown ups were finishing eating, my brother and I would play with Del Valle’s owners’ kids. I don’t know why Del Valle’s closed, but we lost contact with the owners for 10 or 15 years. Then, when I was in college, Mom told me I needed a lunch break and took me to an IHOP not far from us. Mom recognized the owner and it was the lady who know co-owns Juan’s Broken Taco! She’s known me since I was knee-high to a grasshopper and it was a real miracle we found each other again. (Her other son was murdered at a stop sign on his motorcycle and she and her husband divorced in the intervening years). She was at my mom’s funeral (she loved my mom too and cried a lot), and whenever I see her, I always get a big hug and a kiss and she calls me “mi’jita” (my little daughter). She and her son are some real salt-of-the-earth people, my beloved fellow New Mexicans, and people I treasure because of who they are and because they’ve known me almost all of my life. They’re one of the real miracles in my life.

    Not to mention that the food is always great.

  11. caite
    caite says:

    “Maura Isles sits alone and depressed at her kitchen table and dines on gin and a grilled cheese sandwich.”

    Yes, gin and grilled cheese is about as bad as it gets. Maybe she needs to get up from the table, drop the good Father and find herself someone who is available. And will maybe take her out to dinner…or cook her dinner. Or at least show up for dinner when she cooks it.

    ok, my anti-Maura rant is over. 😉

  12. the pegster
    the pegster says:

    Hi Tess,

    So true what you say about food and childhood memory. I grew up in East Germany, and a lot of our food stuff from that era doesn’t exist any more. I’m trying to write down my memories of East Germany, not so much for publication, but mainly for my children, and many of my memories which come flooding back are associated with food. Simple stuff mainly, but also particular brands we had, for example sweets. Actually, shortly after Germany’s reunion, most of the East Germany food got quickly pushed aside, suddenly nobody wanted to have it any more and we all hungered for the good Western things. But it has been seening a huge revival in the past few years, and a few brands have resurfaced.

  13. april
    april says:

    My comfort food is anything high in carbs (pasta, potatoes, etc.).

    I do have to say my family cheer-up is always ice cream. My dad used to bring me to an ice cream parlor which is no longer in existence for ice cream sodas/root beer floats. I remember how they bubbled over the top. This was a treat on many levels. We could never have soda and we rarely ate out so both combined was really a treat.

  14. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Is your mom that much of a bane Tess? 😉

    Just kidding of course (unless she really is!)

    I had gastric bypass, so nowadays I don’t find any particular food a craving. I just eat to stay alive and that usually isn’t very much during the day. I might have some crackers and eggs and South Beach diet dinners. Other than that I’m pretty nonchalant now with what I eat. Surgery will change your life and your taste buds in my opinion!

    Oh, and since March 12th, 2008 I’ve lost 110 pounds! I wish I could send before and after pictures you really don’t know what that means until you SEE it!

    Au revoir Docteur!

  15. Tess
    Tess says:

    Bob,
    you have no idea how much your comment has touched me. Thank you for the wonderful words. Yes, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the name on a book cover is more than just a name; it’s also a person. And that person is like everyone else, with mom issues and kid issues and bad days and good days. I never knew how much of myself I’d end up pouring into this blog. Sometimes I’ve regretted my comments; sometimes I just had to make them. And let them stand.

  16. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Bob is right on this. It’s all easy as pie to start an Internet war because you’re ten feet tall and bullet-proof online. I wonder if the same folks would be able to back themselves up if you were to meet them face to face. Odds are they would be cowardice at that point.

    *Them= whoever is starting online wars (cough DA cough).

    And Dr. G, have you ever heard of a Percutaneous Disc Ablation? I have to have that performed on my lumbar spine soon (2 discs are compressing the S1 nerve root).

    Also, you are definitely a celeb in my eyes more so than any other “celebs” out there. Authors should be everyone’s celebrity because you guys are who keep reading alive and entertaining. As soon as the last author ceases to gain praise is the day we’ll be in severe trouble.

    Ciao!

  17. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    *Oh and thanks! It’s been crazy losing so much weight, I’ve been through so many clothes and they are still falling off of me!

  18. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    tess-the local eateries where I grew up in Brooklyn are long gone-the whole neighborhood has gone through a very drastic change in appearance although my old house is still there(a 4 family)-Google is great for taking a virtual trip back to wherever you want-you might not like what you see,however.
    My grandmother’s home cooking,particularly chicken soup and other East European stuff was my growing-up comfort food.
    My mom,who is 95,doesn’t cook anymore,and my wife has all my grandma’s old cooking pots and utensils(more or less).
    My wife makes a chicken soup almost like the “original”-I just don’t think you can get the same quality fresh killed poultry any more.She makes it even better than my mom did.And she’s Hispanic!The cooking talent jumped generations and bloodlines:)
    Gf10 and Tess-I had the experience of doing just what GF10 mentioned.I comment pretty regularly on some local blogs and talk radio.I was being pretty strongly attacked on a blog or two for having an opinion that was not particularly appreciated.Well,these bloggers have a monthly gathering at a local tavern,so I just showed up-I always use my real name on local blogs.The online loudmouths weren’t rude at all and even offered to buy me drinks(I declined-I can afford my own)-I am only 5’7″ and inmy early sixties so I sure didn’t intimidate them with size.One “luminary’ was surprised I came alone-I told him for one thing I don’t need a coach to make myself understood,and secondly the people I dealt with for a few decades were just a little different from them.I think they got the drift.they even invited me back.

  19. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    Tess-I have to add that anyone who’s ever met or corresponded with you would know right off that you are genuine.and genuine people are the most easily hurt by unjustified sniping.It’s great that you are back.

  20. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Its amazing when you think about it. I suspect that food is always a comforting thing for many cultures. I’ve always got memories of a Beef Casserole and bread pudding. They remind me of my Gran and after she passed it took me a good many years to get them right. (Including the making of dumplings.) I made them but they never tasted quite right and that upset me more as I really missed them at times of stress.

    Now I have I’ll end up writing them down in case my nephew (when he’s old enough to enjoy them) wants to know how. Its important to pass these things down and more should do it.

    Pleased to hear that a little piece of heaven was still around for you and tasted as you remembered. Had it been me, I think I’d have probably burst into tears if it wasn’t right, especially after the week you’ve had.

  21. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Joe–

    See, I like that. That shows that you can be a good sport online and off. Even if arguments get heated online you were able to back yourself up and that’s great. Not many people would, or could, do that. I try to maintain the same persona online that I have in real life. That way I can back myself up effortlessly if it ever comes back to bite me in real life encounters.

  22. Tess
    Tess says:

    I love all these childhood food memories. And every single one sounds delicious.

    GFever, ouch, best wishes on the disc ablation. I know how painful it is to have a compressed nerve, and I hope the ablation makes you feel better.

  23. Meg Gardiner
    Meg Gardiner says:

    That photo makes me envious. My in-laws introduced me to El Indio, and though it’s been fifteen years since I ate there, I can still smell the taquitos. Glad you got a chance to order some. And I hope everything’s settling down for you and your family.

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