During our years in Quito, my mother learned to shop in the open-air markets where Indian women, wearing long braids and black fedoras, layers of petticoats, and, usually, a baby on their back, squatted on the sidewalk. On the ground in front of them lay the produce of the high Andes: mounds of potatoes, piles of onions and corn, and slabs of meat. It was all very real and natural, and crawling with flies.
Her first encounter with an American supermarket was, therefore, a shock. Everything she could want—from food to cleaning products–was in one pristine, air-conditioned place, all of it canned or neatly wrapped in plastic or cellophane.
One aisle had a surprising array of toilet papers–some strong, some soft, and all in gentle pastels. This was not what my mother was used to: in Spain, the only brand had been a no-nonsense brown, with a picture of an elephant uprooting a tree on the wrapping, while in Ecuador public bathrooms were invariably stocked with squares of newspaper. She was especially taken with the selection of paper napkins, also in many colors. “So hygienic!” she said. “You can have a fresh one at each meal.”
After four years in Quito, where she had to buy her chickens on the hoof and boil every drop of the water and milk we drank, my mother was understandably fascinated with the prospect of ready-to-eat meals. And she wasn’t alone. In that innocent and trusting age, American women cheerfully filled their grocery carts with canned vegetables, meats, and desserts. Here were convenience, nutrition, and endless freshness, and all you needed was a can opener. What was not to like?
The problem for us was figuring out what was inside the cans. The pictures on the labels weren’t always helpful. What, for instance, was that pink cube called Spam? What were those squishy cylinders called marshmallows? The tuna cans had pictures of fish on the label, but as a good Mediterranean my mother wouldn’t think of buying fish that wasn’t practically still wiggling.
We wandered the aisles, feeling increasingly frustrated, when I spotted something that might do. “Look,” I said, “it says Chili Con Carne! Whatever chili is, it has meat. It’s probably o.k.” My mother put the can in her cart and we walked on.
Then, when we were about to give up and leave with an almost empty cart, my mother held up an enormous blue and white can. It had pictures of delicious foods on the label—chicken legs coated in crisp batter, and biscuits, cookies, and slices of pie. Surely, my mother thought, this was the ultimate expression of American practicality: an entire meal in a single can. We bought a can opener and headed home for our first American dinner.
In the kitchen, my mother emptied the chili into a frying pan. “What are all these beans doing mixed with the meat? Your father won’t be too happy,” she said. My father and his family had starved during the Spanish Civil War, and one day he and his brother had managed to steal a huge sack of dried beans, which the family ate for months. Beans were one of the few foods that my father objected to.
As the chili heated, my mother took a taste. “Mare de Déu!” she exclaimed. “This is awful. Here,try it.” I did, and spat it into the sink. The harsh flavor of chili, spicy and bitter, stuck to the back of my tongue.
“Maybe if we eat it with bread,” my mother said, opening a loaf of Wonder Bread and handing my father and me each a slice. But that soft, pliable, crustless square was unlike any bread we’d ever seen. My father took a bite and closed his eyes, chewing. “I feel like I’m eating a piece of towel,” he said.
Our first American meal wasn’t turning into a success. “Well, we can’t eat this. Let’s try the other can,” my mother said, guiltily scraping the chili into the trash.
It took her a while to work the opener all the way around the top, and when she lifted it she said “What is this? Come look!” My father and I ran into the kitchen. The can was filled to the rim with a solid white mass.
“Maybe the food is hidden underneath” my father suggested.
My mother got a wooden spoon and carefully, not wishing to disturb the fried chicken and biscuits and desserts, dug out a bit of the white goo. But there was more goo under that, so she kept digging and digging until finally it became clear that the chicken, etc. on the label had been a lie designed to entice people to buy a six-pound can of that weird white substance.
“It’s some kind of grease,” she said, rubbing a bit of the stuff between index and thumb. “What can Americans possibly do with it?”
My mother dined out on the Crisco story for years. I found it embarrassing and humiliating, and would leave the room whenever she told it. In a way, the Crisco episode mimicked my experience of the American dream: promises of abundant delights as shown in the movies and TV that, upon closer examination, revealed a strange and impenetrable mystery.