How a Real Tortilla Tastes
Coolidge wasn’t always a small town.
You walk around the main reason for coming to Coolidge – the Casa Grande ruins — and you realize this used to be one of the biggest cities around. And I mean cities.
I recently encountered someone who argued Native Americans didn’t have a right to their land because they didn’t homestead it. It’s tough to make that case while walking around Casa Grande, or any of the Hohokam ruins of Arizona. The adobe buildings the Hohokam built were so weather efficient they’re emulated by millions of dwellings (and strip malls) in the Southwest to this day. Their agricultural infrastructure produced surpluses and wealth. Their irrigation systems were so well laid out, the traces of them helped inspire the placement of modern Phoenix.
It’s an odd thing in America — we’re always aware that people tread here before the arrival of Europeans. But sometimes, it’s hard to realize That those people built without seeing what they left over. The ruins of a city like Casa Grande or Pueblo Grande speak to civilizations that are as rich in accomplishment and history as anything in Asia, Africa, or Europe.
No one really knows what happened to the Hohokam. They sort of just vanished, blown away by the desert wind. Places that were once centers of civilization, places of habitation, became empty land, lost traces. Get out of the ruins of Casa Grande and into Coolidge and you realize the same trend could be occurring in this corner of Arizona.
Coolidge feels dusty, in the sense dust is the sort of thing leftover after something is gone. There’s a strip of road, some fats food joints, the sort of economically efficient layout of buildings that encourages you to blink and blow on through.
But turn off SR 87 and there’s traces of a town that was here before the chains – an abandoned art deco move theater. A diner made for cups of coffee and slices of pie and, this being the Southwest, cheeseburgers slathered with green chiles. The Golden Era Toy & Auto Museum, dedicated to classic toys, cars and bric-a-brac from days past. The name of the museum seems almost like a monument to whatever Golden Era Coolidge once occupied.
Just a little further east of Coolidge is Florence feels much more situated in a Golden Era, in a time and place of rebirth and growth. Rather than being built around the road that leads out of town, Florence has clustered its businesses and trade around a prettily done up Main Street. There’s an old-timey looking druggist and old-timey restaurants and an old-timey looking place to get booze. I respect that Florence can preserve its antiquity and quaintness while still providing the drive-in vodka experience — for those who need grain alcohol in the go.
Driving into the town, I pull off for some Mexican food at the L&B Inn. Like every small town I pass through in these parts, the clientele and wait staff are a mix of Anglo and Latino who speak in voices that mainly sound nasally Middle American. My waitress looks like she could have stepped out of a Diego Rivera mural. When she opens her mouth, I swear she could have stepped out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
I sit down, order an iced tea, have a look around. This is every small town family restaurant in every small town in America, except the Mexican food isn’t wasn’t neon colored and covered in cheese and overwhelmingly mediocre.
My machaca — shredded, dried beef preserved with spices — served next to a spooned, lump of tender beans and fluffy tortillas — IS delicious. I’m from the East Coast. In the past, whenever I’ve heard friends from the border belt that smiles from Texas to California swear that their Mexican food was better, I dismissed them. I shouldn’t have. When bite into this beef, I sigh like a reunited lover. When I taste the tortilla, I realize these little pancakes aren’t just food conveyance, but little bursts of deliciousness in their own right. It’s both enlightening and depressing – in the sense that I’ve discovered something so beautiful so late in life — to learn Mexcian food doesn’t have to hard-shelled diaphragm-esque taco shells filled with hot pink glop.
I finish, feel settled, at peace with the universe, and sit in my car, watching the sunset come on. Across the street, two young white kids approach three young brown ones. I watch, wondering what they’re up to. And then the brown kids exploded in a series of movement. I crane my head.
There are hair rubs and tags and then some water guns, and then all five boys are laughing and running off together a into small town boyhood summer. The light bleeds out over the small, dusty subdivisions, painting the town blood red and bonfire orange, and I kick the car into gear and head south to Tucson.
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