Missing an Ingredient

Renowned writer Denise Chávez's food memoir doesn't quite come together

The secret to making successful tacos, Denise Chávez writes in her new food memoir, A Taco Testimony, is good meat that blends--and "a binder ... to keep (it) from being 'fly away' or dry."

If only she had applied that principle to her literary presentation.

Writer Chávez, who lives in Las Cruces, N.M., is also active in border issues, in grassroots advocacy and the promotion of culture. Founder and director of the Cultural Center de Mesilla and the Border Book Festival, she won a Lila Wallace--Reader's Digest fellowship to present writing workshops in the Las Cruces community, and she was the Hispanic Heritage Awards honoree in Literature in 2003. Her 1995 novel, Face of an Angel, received the American Book Award. She has written adult and children's fiction, nonfiction and more than 45 plays. She calls herself a "performance writer," and there are glimpses of that in this book.

As she asserts in her opening sentence, "This is not a sweet book about tacos." Organizing her memoir as if it were a nine-course meal (with "Sobritas/Leftovers" as the 10th chapter), Chávez describes hers as a fractured household. If "family, food and culture are our salvation," they struggled to attain it.

The "Aperitivo/Aperitif" chapter opens by establishing a child's fond appreciation of home and food. In the "blue room"--almost unworldly in ambience due to the blue glass in a round window--Chávez's mother acted the role of perfect hostess. Lively, elegant and intelligent, she was a fitting mate to her "brilliant lawyer" father. Here Chávez introduces the reader to her mother's "Taco Table," her father's alcoholism and to the normalcy the family worked to project. As the book "meal" progresses, the marriage dissolves, and young Denise becomes increasingly unhappy--embarrassed by her mother and distressed by her father. By the "Plato Fuerte/Main Course," Chávez has assumed the role of parent to her parent.

Interspersed with the narrative, recipes and Chávez's reflections are photographs and poems. The photos are pleasingly Period--Chávez's mother as a Mexican-American beauty in the '30s, serious and composed, a fan in her lap and foot arched beneath a flowing silk dress; Chávez in her 1960s senior portrait, warm-eyed and smiling under the bell of a teased, black flip; two little Chavez sisters in '50s dresses atop a merry-go-round horse.

The poems are serviceable, supporting the narrative or revealing character. "Mercado Day," for example, portrays a family outing: "Shivering dripping hands / Lift orange Fantas, Sprites and ice-cold Cokes / From the dispenser in the center aisle... ." Chávez evokes a ruefulness about her father in another poem ("On Meeting You in Dream and Remembering Our Dance"): "His little legs dancing, dancing / Shuffle along / Your sad body in step as best it can ... ."

And the recipes are boldly not heart-healthy Mexican cuisine. Chávez celebrates the ingredients and menus her mother used or (in a clear statement of fealty to culture and human dignity) she picked up from the poor. Some call for Velveeta cheese, for marshmallows, for pure lard, for Spam.

So the ingredients for the book--along with its informing metaphor, the taco--are promising. Somehow, however, the execution and the prose itself--the style, voice, even the revising process--fall short. One surprise is that, while Chávez can create a lively, fictional voice (Publishers Weekly called it "zany and knowing"), her voice in A Taco Testimony is flat and humorless.

Seemingly unconcerned with audience, she sentimentalizes some scenes; she verges on self-pity in others, and promotes herself in yet others. She shifts from narrative ("I have carried food out and brought it back. ... I've worked so hard that at night my legs flailed and twitched") to declamatory ("I salute all waitresses ... "). She repeats facts we've read several times before, generalizes when she could have detailed and stretches her metaphor way beyond credibility (eating tacos together is hardly going to bring peace to the Middle East). Some sections bump along from simple sentence to simple sentence, but then she can break into syntactical lyricism (describing the Mercado Cuauhtémoc) or a moving monologue in her mother's voice. I won't even touch on the teacher voice of "Tacos 101 Workshop," tacked on at the end.

Chávez clearly lives her beliefs--the importance of culture, the significance of ritual and tradition and their manifestations in food, the need for borderland dwellers especially to recognize the contributions and nuance in Mexican society--and one salutes that (and could well be moved to pull out the taco fixings). But Chavez is a writing teacher; she would know the importance of consistency, coherence and uniformity to avoid being "fly away."

This book needed another pass through the blender of revision to hold it together.

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