Monday, October 5, 2009

Back for Seconds: Chihuahuas Take 1

When I was a kid, it seemed like my mom sent us to the grocery store every day after school to get something for dinner.  Now that I'm grown-up, I have a sneaking suspicion that it was more like once every 2 or 3 weeks.  Perhaps I'm not a reliable narrator: I thought the walk was exceedingly long. Checking it on google maps today, I see that it was less than half a mile, and should have taken only 8 minutes.  What a complainer!  In my defense, there was a couple of blocks along abandoned train tracks, and it did take a while to tightrope walk your way down the tracks.

View Chihuahuas in a larger map

Our local grocery store was the Berkeley Co-op.  Everyone of a certain age who grew up in Berkeley has memories of being checked into the Kiddie Corral at the Shattuck store while their mothers shopped when they were little, or, when they were a bit older, browsing in the connected bookstore.  It was at the co-op that I saw my first Xerox machine, and forfeited a whole dime to make a copy of my hand (in case I lost the original?).

Since the Co-op was member owned, we all had membership numbers.  At their natural foods store, you dropped your receipt into a slot in a big wood box--I suppose there was a slot for every hundred or thousand members? From those receipts someone (I imagine a Dickensian scribe toiling away) must have entered all our expenditures, and used that to figure my parents' profit share check at the end of the year. But I wasn't concerned about any of this--I liked slipping the receipt into its slot, or reciting our number and showing how grown-up I was to our favorite checker, Kay.

There's a facebook group where people share their Berkeley memories.  People my age boast about their low Co-op number, some with just 4 digits.  I think they were using their grandparents: ours was 23109.  I'm sure my great-grandfather's was very short.

Anyway. The chihuahuas. My brother and I often went together to do the afternoon shopping (again, I'm probably talking once every month or so).  My mother would give us a list (always short, we were just picking up something for that night's dinner), and we would make the long hike up University Avenue to the grocery store.  After we'd paid, as often as not we would pool our change together, and, I'm ashamed to say, probably pilfer a few nickels from my mother's change. Because opposite the checkout lines was a cart selling 'chihuahuas', 49 cents each.

A chihuahua was something like a pig-in-a-blanket.  After you ordered, the man at the stand put a chorizo sausage on the grill and quickly warmed a flour tortilla.  Once grilled, he quickly rolled up the sausage in the tortilla, wrapped it in a sheet of foil, and handed it on to you.  We almost always managed to find enough change to buy two (another hint that this was not a daily trip!), and would then make our way home, the long hike.

It was a bit of a trick, carrying the grocery bag in one hand, and, with the other, folding back the foil wrapper, and biting into the chihuahua.  These were juicy sausages, and full of hot red fat, which as often as not dripped down our arms.   The beauty of the chihuahua was partly due to its simplicity. In those days (we're talking early to mid-1970s), most Mexican restaurants in Berkeley still served American-style Mexican food.  Dinner came on an oval platter, overflowing with cheesy enchiladas, cheesy beans, and slightly sweet Spanish rice. It wasn't my favorite.  The chihuahua was a pure flavor--the toasted tortilla and spiced meat. Nothing more.

I can't separate the memory of those greasy chihuahuas from the memory of the trip to and from the store.  Thoughts of wandering down the train tracks with my brother, looking in the liquor store windows on University Avenue (an early Berkeley law required liquor stores to be one mile from the UC Berkeley campus, and that mile ended just at the grocery store), and scraping together change, are smudged with the taste of spicy chorizo and splotches of red grease.

Maybe my mother warned us not to ruin our appetites (though, in fairness, I don't remember her ever saying that except in restaurants, and then only in regards to the bread basket).  But I'm pretty sure those chihuahuas only whetted my appetite: for stories and family and sausages.


Thérèse said...

Wow, apparently chihuahuas were after my time, I have no recollection of them--and they sound delicious!

Anmiryam said...

Argh, you are making me hungry and I just had lunch!

Giovanna said...

It's funny--my brother doesn't remember them either. And I know he ate plenty!!!

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