Dupont Circle - My brother and I ate Mexican food last night in Northern Virginia. Neither of us ate huevos rancheros, but we polished off two baskets of chips and a couple troughs of salsa. Is there any ethnic food with a better free appetizer than Mexican food? You can count on fresh bread and olive oil at an Italian restaurant, but I find it impossible to contain my excitement when those fried tortilla chips are placed before me on that red tablecloth (they’re red to hide the salsa dribble).
My obsession with huevos rancheros started in a roadside diner in Northern Arizona in 1997. My buddy Brian and I were half way through a seven-week camping trip that would have made Clark Griswald envious. We started in Indy and did a lap around the western part of the country, hitting 12 national parks, Vegas, and several friends’ couches in the 9000 miles in between.
Up to that morning in Arizona, we had some great times, camping with a few buffalo in South Dakota, playing Frisbee on the sides of some Colorado roads, and hiking the Narrows. The only thing missing from our trip were the free love campfires and drum circles that we’d expected to find in America’s parks. The only people we’d met, so far, were German seniors in rented Tiogas campers, intent on burning their fair skin a lighter shade of red.
Brian is my “most fun friend,” but three weeks of driving, hiking, cooking, eating, and then sleeping in a tent with the same person is intense. At a certain point, you cover all the road trip games, brainteasers, and greatest little league moments. Around day 19 of such a trip, your traveling pal’s idiosyncrasies cease to be endearing. They leave their dirty socks on your side of the tent, they can’t throw the Frisbee straight, they keep playing Phish on the car stereo . . . Basically, you’re ready to explode.
This happened to me the summer before, too, when I backpacked through Europe with another pal, Tony. We split up for a couple of days, vacationing separately in Barcelona. It’s tougher to separate when you’re traveling together in a car, unless you make invisible walls with duct tape like Les Lessman on WKRP in Cincinnati.
Anyway, Brian made a wrong turn on the way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, we drove fifty miles out of the way before we realized it, and we both combusted. He yelled at me for being a worthless navigator and I screamed at him for being a moron. We’d yet to eat breakfast and things deteriorated further when Brian tried to retrace the fifty miles in 15 minutes. Somewhere between Page and Kaibab, we pulled over at hole in the wall diner, famished and furious.
We were on the verge of sitting at separate booths, but out of a fear of losing the trip we squeezed into a booth across from each other. In that formal clipped tone that people use when they really just want to tell you how much they loathe you, Brian said, “The special sounds good.”
“Yes, that does look good.” I replied as I pictured pulling the hockey move on him. He was wearing the same stinking San Francisco t-shirt that he hadn’t changed in two days.
We both got the special. Huevos rancheros.
I was in love from the moment that my fork broke the seal on those eggs and the highlighter yellow yolks spurted out over the red sauce and on to my crispy tortillas and cheesy yet crispy fried potatoes. It was the perfect food.
Brian felt the same way. We got back into the car, drove to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and continued to look for a drum circle. It turns out that huevos rancheros are not just the perfect food, but a peacemaker, too -- and not just between me and Brian.
There are accounts that Jimmy Carter served huevos rancheros to Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David. It was over a mouthful of corn tortilla that Begin called Ariel Sharon and asked for his support in dismantling the settlements in Sinai. In fact, the story is told that Zbig Brzezinski split Cyrus Vance’s portion of huevos evenly between Sadat and Begin, demonstrating that the U.S. was a true honest broker. Vance was outside locking up his bicycle after a morning ride.
Insiders have not denied that at Camp David II, Bill Clinton served Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat homemade grits. Poking around in his grits with a spoon, Barak mumbled, “Ma ze?” or “What’s this?”
Inadvertently, we believe, the motion from Barak’s spoon flicked some grits onto the stubble of Arafat’s beard. Clinton himself intervened, preventing a food fight escalation between the two men. Talks eventually broke down and analysts have asked the question, what if they would have broken bread over huevos rancheros instead?
We’ll never know.
My next post will be “Live from . . . Jerusalem.” I leave Thursday, hopefully.