Over the weekend I flew home to New Mexico. As I write this a five-pound bucket of pig's tails sits on my mother's windowsill; the pig's tails are a normal part of my life, though the location is not.
Each time I'm back in New Mexico I get the sense of having returned to a foreign country, a strange place with quirks that I'm seeing for the first time. Technically speaking, New Mexico is a multinational place if you consider the various Native American tribes that inhabit the state, but even in cities as large as Albuquerque you come across signs that the people and culture are somehow different here in the land of enchantment.
I got the first inkling of this feeling not one hour after landing at the Albuquerque International Sunport—or just the "sunport" as it is fondly referred to by locals—as I sat down to eat a plate of enchiladas. The nice young man who took my order asked me if I was from Denver and upon seeing my confusion, explained that I must have come from out of state because he'd never heard anyone speak with such "formal and educated" pronunciation (his words, not mine). That he assumed I was a visitor is not strange. I am Chinese in a state with a predominantly Caucasian and Hispanic population, but the idea that Denver would enter his mind as one of the more cosmopolitan cities to have come from, was more telling.
After polishing off my plate of green chile enchiladas, I headed over to Talin, a grocery store that started off as your run-of-the-mill Chinese market. Some years ago the owners decided to expand and dramatically change the store to include groceries from around the world, branding their business as "world food fare." Though depth it cannot possibly have, Talin manages an impressive breadth of foodstuffs from around the world. The aisles are all named after different cities. You can get grains from "Cairo" and a few aisles down in "Tokyo," there's a very respectable selection of high quality light soy sauces. In the produce section you can get durian and tropical-looking, pudgy bananas with exciting names like "burro." I could spend hours browsing the aisles in Talin and often have the urge to buy an item from every featured city, until I remember that my primary mission in New Mexico is to eat as many sopaipillas and platters of enchiladas as I can reasonably handle.
Talin was where I found the cured pig's tails, "packed in brine," sold for the bargain price of $17.95 per bucket. They were sitting next to an equally, grossly large bucket of cured pig's snouts, also "packed in brine," also for $17.95. After going back and forth with my mother about the utility of purchasing more than one paint-can-sized bucket of pig parts, I settled on the tails because snouts lack meat and bones. It pained me to walk away from Talin without the bucket of snouts, but when you are home you have to pick your battles with your mother even more carefully.
"The plastic lid on the bucket was as though magically welded to the bucket, and try as I might with a very sharp pair of scissors stuck into the circumference of the lid, I could not force it open."
The next day my mother went off to work and left me to my own devices for lunch. I took it upon myself to deal with this bucket of tails, which she'd eyed with suspicion as she walked out the door. Upon inspection I could find no point of entry. The plastic lid on the bucket was as though magically welded to the bucket, and try as I might with a very sharp pair of scissors stuck into the circumference of the lid, I could not force it open. As I worked the tip of the scissors farther into the edge a sprinkling of salt fell to the floor.
I came closest to breaching the bucket when, using a great deal of leverage with the blades of the scissors, I forced parts of the lid to separate ever so slightly, but only salty, porky liquids oozed out of the cracks. The liquid got into a gash in my palm I'd inflicted earlier that morning when I decided to climb over a barbed wire fence on my hiking trail, and the salty juices of the tails made the wound wet and red. Angrily, I kicked the bucket with my foot and listened to the tails sloshing about in their porky brine.
Then, just as I contemplated hacking through the plastic lid to get to the tails, I noticed that underneath the nutrition label, where the "servings" per bucket of tails were wisely labeled as "varies," there was a number to call for questions or comments.
A woman with a vaguely West Indies-sounding accent answered my call. Her accent was heavy, and I could not tell if she was indeed employed by the "Carib Imports and Export Inc," based in Miami, Florida, that was blazoned on my bucket.
"Hello there," I began. "I am sitting here with a bucket of your pig tails but I can't get it open. There is a picture on the lid that seems to direct me to poke a hole in the middle of the lid, but that can't be right."
"No," she replied. "You do not want to cut a hole in the lid. Hold on, miss."
I waited. There was some rustling on the other end.
"Hello, miss, are you still there? Yes, well, you want to cut on the side of the lid where you see the holes."
"What holes?" I asked. "I'm looking now and I don't see any."
"There are definitely holes," she replied firmly, this time with a bit of annoyance in her tone. "There are holes on the side of the lid and you must cut them open."
I wondered how many idiotic calls of this nature she'd fielded. Probably not too many, or else she'd have come up with a better answer for how to pry open the buckets. Not wanting to sound even more idiotic, I said, "Thank you very much. One last thing—where are you now?"
"And where is place where the tails and snouts come from?" I ventured.
"And what else do you make, besides snouts and tails?"
"Beef brisket, packed in brine," was her response. Her good cheer seemed restored and we ended the call on friendly terms.
"Inside the bucket, bobbing before my eyes, were the greatest number of pig tails I've had the pleasuring of owning at the same time."
I hung up the phone and sat down on the floor, searching for these mysterious holes on the lid. Finally, I found a couple of very light perforations on the side of the lid, which, when poked through, were indeed holes. I cut through the holes—there were six of them spaced around the lid—and by the time I'd reached the fifth hole I could feel the suction giving way on the lid. Presto! The top came off and inside the bucket, bobbing before my eyes, were the greatest number of pig tails I've had the pleasuring of owning at the same time.
Brined as they were, the tails were very salty but possessed good flavor. I tossed a couple into a green chile and posole stew I just happened to be making. The tails imbued the whole pot with porky richness. It goes without saying that the meat on the tails is plenty tender and juicy, and that there's a nice amount of fat and skin for textural contrast.
The tails will be bequeathed to my mother once I return to Brooklyn. This is a fate with which she is not altogether pleased, though it surely pales in comparison to the stinky durian that I also made her buy. The malodorous fruit is sitting next to the bucket of tails in the refrigerator. I don't like to think that I conjure up unloved foods wherever I go, but rather, that I am merely exposing loved ones to that which is deserving of appreciation.