The Long Sad Death of a Once Great Snack by Douglas Haddow
Dear reader, I would like you to take a seat, place yourself into a comfortable position, adjust your posture, and draw in a deep breath before you feast upon this crucial text that I have laid out before your eyes.
First things first—please finish whatever precious beverage you happen to be sipping on, some form of latté I assume, and throw its environment-murdering disposable cup into the trash. Now cleanse your palate with a tall glass of water and take a moment to collect your thoughts, as I’m going to ask you a serious question.
Is there something missing from your life?
Not in the material sense. I’m not concerned about your home décor and whether or not you could use another throw pillow. I’m speaking in a deeper, more spiritual sense. Is there a cavity in your soul that has been left to fester and is gradually giving way to an abscess?
It’s okay. Take a moment to reflect. I’ll wait.
You can’t quite pin it down, can you? You can feel a vague sense of longing but you can’t place its origin. Haunting, isn’t it? Well, I’ll tell you what you’ve been missing, it starts with the letter N and ends with an S. No, it’s not nerves or novels, though you could probably use more of both. It’s nachos. Yeah, nachos. Yeah, THOSE nachos, the ones you put in your mouth and taste all delicious and shit.
Remember those? No, you forgot all about them, didn’t you? You preening, cocksure bastard. The siren’s call of fanciful farm-to-table tacos and ostentatious tapas has gone and lulled you into a barely-satiated fugue state and now you think you’re too good for a bit of Tex-Mex, don’t you? Well, sit your ass down and buckle the fuck up because I ain’t playing when it comes tortilla chips covered in cheese and adorned with any combination of various ingredients, such as black olives, jalapeños, or cilantro if u nasty.
Oh, I’m sorry, are you offended? Have I shattered your false gastronomical consciousness, or have I pico-de-gallo’d your interest? Well, while you were off stuffing your face with cut-rate ebi mayo, kale protein shakes, or some such other bourgeois distraction, the state of nachos in this city has decayed into a fetid squalor. Now little more than an afterthought relegated to the appetizer section at cut-rate eateries while poké bistro after poké bistro clogs up Vancouver’s available commercial space.
Listen, scripture teaches to “let he is without sin should cast the first stone,” and lord knows I’ve sinned in my life. I’ve done awful, unspeakable things. I’ve committed cold, callous, barely human acts. I’ve put marinara sauce on stale Doritos, fried them up in canola oil and lied to my own whiskey-soaked brain that such an abomination was an acceptable thing to put in my gullet. And yes, I’ve used Velveeta in place of real cheese. Many, many, many times. Too many to count, too many to remember. I’m not proud of it, but then again I never claimed to be a good man, just a hungry one.
Now wipe that smirk off your face and shut the fuck up. The matter at hand is not my own private dalliances, but the sad state of nachos in the city of Vancouver. Head a few miles south and the skies brighten up immediately. Hell, even Kelowna has a better nacho sitch than we do.
The restaurants of this city serve stale chips laced with the barest of cheddar cheese garnishes and trying to pass them off as what was once a proud, tasty, and filling dish. To make matters worse, one of the city’s last decent nacho destinations, the Foundation, recently shuttered its doors, leaving us with fewer options than a pig in a plankhouse.
A working man’s cuisine—nachos are the people’s entrée with a history that stretches back into the depths of time. Legend has it that the first proto-nacho was cooked up sometime in the 16th century by Montezuma’s personal chef. The Aztec maize slinger apparently discovered salsa by accidentally mixing tomatoes with chili peppers, and hot damn if that wasn’t a tasty treat to dip corn chips into while watching a jaguar knight sacrifice some poor sod to Tezcatlipoca.
But it wasn’t until some 422 years later that things truly came together. The nachos that we know today can be traced back to one fateful night in Northern Mexico and a man named Ignacio Anaya. Known simply as “Nacho” to his amigos.
It was a warm summer evening in Piedras Negras, a dusty ciudad of black stone and endless dusk in the state of Coahuila—just a stone’s throw across the Rio Grande from Maverick County, Texas. Whereas Piedras Negras was known for its stoic charm and Catholic creed, Maverick Country was a corrupt, god-forsaken place with more tornadoes than sense, and more sense than decent cooking. The queer souls who haunted this Texan backwater were mostly reclusive cattlemen and were known to eat one thing and one thing only: hamburger meat. As in: hamburger meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And if you still had an appetite, hamburger meat for dessert. This was a grim age on the borderland floodplain—dry days where the water would run so sere that the only thing to quench one’s thirst would be more goddamned hamburger meat. But I digress.
That fateful evening Ignacio Anaya stood pensively looking out the window of the half-empty Victory Club, the restaurant where he served as something in-between a maître d’, a chef, a bouncer, and waiter. A jack of all trades, master of but one. But what that one was, Anaya didn’t know yet.
A flock of servicemen’s wives happened to stumble into the Victory Club, and as often is the case, necessity was the midwife of creation. Nothing else in Negras was open and the wives had a hunger something fearsome boiling in their hamburger-sodden guts. A man of indiscriminate faith, Anaya took pity of these desperate niminy-piminies, their stomachs visibly twisted into their simple, milk-drinking faces, the pangs tangible like a scalding sunburn on the back of a newborn babe.
Ingredients were sparse and time was precious. A sweat-soaked Anaya looked around the kitchen and found not much but he did find a little bit of nothing. So, like all great men, he cowboyed it as only a true-blooded Mexican maître d’ could. First a fried tostada. Then some yellow cheese, softly melted. Then topped with a slice of jalapeño with some salsa on the side. Ignacio—Nacho—the innovator, was ignorant of what he’d just invented.
Modest in appearance, this was a moment that would change culinary history. But things of that nature and whatnot tend to get lost in the sands of time. The recipes get passed on and their heart gets passed over. Years later, Anaya would be forgotten outside the invisible borders of the Tex-Mex region, his legacy bastardized beyond belief by the coward Frank Liberto, the Tex-Italian cheese-sauce magnate responsible for foisting “stadium nachos” upon the world. Thieving Anaya’s recipe as his own but replacing yellow cheese with non-perishable cheese sauce, Liberto would go on to make millions while Anaya became little more than a footnote in the official history of nachos. You can call that original sin or you can call it capitalism, but whatever you call it, it’s a damn crying shame.
Over the years and through the decades, cheese amounts would get winnowed down into something purely cosmetic, little more than a lace dress on a bleached bag of bones. To this day, through all the different incarnations of this dish, what is known to be true is that cheese is, indisputably, the tie that binds. Not just the layers that let the flavour breathe, but the common bond that makes a plate a whole. Without it, we’re left with a scattershot mess of over-baked tortilla. If you treat nachos like a numbers game, the customers will know it. They’ll see it in a heartbeat. And gradually, they’ll lose faith.
And this is where we find ourselves today—a detente that’s put the whole supply and demand in a twisted mess. You can’t separate the act from the thing. You can’t bean-count a nacho plate, it just is how it is. And if it ain’t right it, you’ll know it.
But again, I digress. The point that I’m getting at is the nacho situation in this town blows. And so here is my gift to the city: my 10 nacho commandments:
1. Extra cheese, please
2. Dip the chips
3. Girth is mirth
4. Nothing fancy, Nancy
5. Layers are slayer
6. Spicy is nicey
7. Keep the sides bona fide
8. Presentation is elation
9. Wet is a threat
10. Keep the meat discreet
Take ’em, leave ’em, tattoo ’em on your lower back. IDGAF. But don’t you dare forget where you came from, or where you’re headed, or where you’re currently sitting, because that’s how you got here, and that’s where you’re going.