by Dan Johnson
There’s this weird cognitive delusion by which people are enchanted by the sight of poverty. It’s the exclusive purview of folks who have never experienced poverty first hand—a slight of hand seen as somehow exciting by people who need to supplement their experience watching The Wire.
Poverty is a desperate downward spiral. No matter how much the GOP touts “getting a job” and “upward mobility,” the truth is that wealth inequality tends to be a self-perpetuating cycle. If you have the privilege of wealth, you’re more likely to keep it. If you know poverty, there’s a good chance that will become a perpetual state. It drags people away from the vaunted fringes of the pedestal of prosperity toward a squalor known throughout history.
The people who get off on poverty porn generally do so because it’s a counterpoint to the sleek veneer of Corporate America where every event from healthcare to dining out to vacation is mediated by the thick shellac of a business entity that has spent many, many dollars to create a comfortable experience that also seems “authentic.”
This goes a long way in explaining “urban revivals” and the fetish with blight that comes with it. Authenticity is an incredibly rare commodity nowadays especially given that the past few decades have been devoted to cultivating an aesthetic of authenticity complete with reclaimed wood, exposed concrete, work shirts, boots and consumerism throughout while simultaneously removing the risk of having an actual blue collar existence founded in scrounging one’s own resources.
It’s what we might call a paradox and one inherent to urban living where decades (if not centuries) of tumultuous societal division and the largess that comes with concentrated capital creates pressure differentials that play out in urban geography.
Apologies for the long-winded, somewhat abstract introduction indicting much of society including myself, but the fact is that “real” and “authentic” are on a spectrum that is easily manipulated with design flourishes to encourage those who fundamentally lack the “real” to purchase “safe” versions of it that are themselves “fake.”
I could save my nickels and go to any number of frou-frou restaurants that market themselves as being grassroots urban experiences that challenge the status quo with a pricey approximation of culinary punk. But what the fuck is the point of that?
There is no authenticity without risk.
Dining out cheap is not a fail-safe arrangement. It should have a Russian roulette feel because, as the adage of American capitalism goes, with great risk comes the possibility for great reward. Over the past year and a half of my gastro-life, the hammer has fallen on a lot of empty chambers and more than a few loaded ones.
You take the good with the bad. What would the glow of satisfaction be without a grudge against awful meals. Local interloper Theodore Roosevelt might say that the taste of an excellent meal found cheap is made all the better for the memory of all the other shit food you’ve eaten.
This is all a nice, wholesome, Americana way of explaining social contradictions as they pertain to culinary karma. Well folks, this week I cashed in all my awful meals for a lunch that made it all worthwhile.
The vinyl sign outside Antojitos Puebla #2 at the corner of Los Angeles St and Winston St is a siren song inviting all discerning customers on the avenue to a slice of slow-roasted heaven. If Los Angeles St is the new Broadway, and thus the nerve center of Latino retail in and around the Historic Core, then Antojitos Puebla #2 is a shining temple of authenticity with a golden grail of lamb barbacoa sitting on an altar within.
It’s a weekend only special. Fourteen bucks buys a full pound. I opted for the overwhelming satisfaction of a half-pound priced at seven bucks.
To be clear, there is risk inherent whenever you purchase a chunk of meat of any variety. (See Casa India.) Although, the fact that this establishment had already invested in a vinyl sign to advertise their signature dish suggested to me that risk was low.
What concerned me the most (beside the lack of a functioning light in the kitchen-accessible bathroom) was the open door. The true risk is not an article of faith between you and the cook, but the battle between you and the flies.
Elsewhere in the world, someone might read this and say, “flies, big deal!” At the corner of Winston St and Los Angeles St, it’s a pretty good bet that the local calliphoridae was born and bred in someone’s shit. I have a pretty decent idea of who’s shit it was as well.
I know we’re very much in a mode where vilifying people for shitting on the street is a dubious stance given the lack of sanitation options, but the particular confluence of bowel habits at Winston St and Los Angeles St is something that truly strikes terror in my heart.
Shit flies on food is no good. We have rules in polite society to prevent this: wash your hands before you eat and never go ass to mouth.
This dining experience is not a cheap thrill. It’s an existential conundrum that exists on both an intellectual and sensual level. There is an amazing meal of warm tortillas, fall-apart meat, onions and cilantro, too-spicy salsa and pickled jalapenos available for those willing to play the one degree of separation from poop game with a resilient and highly-mobile species of scat spreaders that will long outlast humanity.
Having played that game many times, the thing I resent about poverty tourism and the undertones of authenticity extraction that come with it is the misguided notion that the immediate connection between a delightful experience and cruel reality is a rare aberration.
We are subject today to the fallacy of “whig progress,” or the idea that all of humanity has been a forward march toward a golden era and, baby, we’ve finally arrived. Today’s beneficiaries of advanced capitalism have in many ways been mind-fucked into the bland complacency that comes with years of absorbing that goddam GE jingle, “you’ve got to admit it’s getting better.”
The great bulk of human experience past, present and future has been intimately involved with an up and down that comes with perfecting food techniques that are never far from the scourge of disease.
So roll the dice. Put down your seven bucks and keep that open hand flapping so the flies don’t land and enjoy the taste of superior roasted lamb and hope to god that the things you eat are pure but know in your heart of hearts that things are rarely pure and ultimately the nature of things is a gamble that you cannot buy your way out of forever.
I award Antojitos Pueblo #2 a well-deserved “1” on the binary and encourage all takers to keep their fly hand strong with embracing the equilibrium of seasons and the deeply-entrenched motif of confronting the fickle and impermanent nature of humanity that comes with it.