Poco de Pica

During the summer of ’00, I spent six weeks in Xalapa, Veracruzana, studying language and culture at the Universidad de Veracruzana while on excursion from UMKC, the institution from which I took my MA in Aughtgust of aught-aught (language requirement completed). Typical arrangements: in pairs, students were matched with families. I lived with a family on the south side of Xalapa, maybe two miles from the Universidad’s space near the central district; out the family’s dining room windows, we looked toward Orizaba during most morning and evening meals.

It was full-on immersion in so far as everyone spoke Spanish all of the time. Well, with the exception of moi, what with my cincuenta-palabra vocabulario. I learned quickly, but also I struggled constantly to translate, most of the time relying on any and all Latinates I could find to conjure them into statements with any meaning whatsoever.

I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, asking simple questions about food prep, while watching how this or that was put together. Having learned food terms in nearly all of the formal Spanish language courses I’d taken in the U.S., the kitchen was safe-seeming–a space of performance, props, and action verbs, a place where conversations about things in our midst were as common as talk about things out there, elsewhere (the latter type was far harder for me to follow).

I was thinking about the time in Xalapa earlier this evening as I was putting together pico de gallo for the second time this week. I don’t remember eating much pico de gallo where I stayed, although variations of it were common at all of the restaurants. I learned a small amount about peppers during those six weeks, most importantly how to request just a “small amount of heat,” un poco de pica–that’s how el madre de mi casa, o mama Xalapena, suggested I say it, anyway.

Tonight I was cutting the tomatoes and wondering about the literal translation. Couldn’t remember it. So I looked it up. Pico de gallo, the concoction of onion, tomato, jalapeno, and cilantro, translates to “beak of the rooster.” The phrase gets at any of three characteristics or qualities of the salsa: the bright, bold colors of the dish, the minced texture, or the small stings of heat from the peppers. I favor “small stings.”

From poco de pica, or small amount of heat, the poco de translates literally into “little of” or “tiny amount of.” But “pica” is somewhat trickier. Remembering this phrase, too (a lonely association-game at the chopping counter, a string of peek-sounds streaming through my fading language memory), I had to look it up. Pica? A slice of pica|nte, most likely (picante trailing to spicy heat or that which is risque). Regionally varied, pica goes to pick or pickax, spade (implements) or resentment and irritation (sentiments). Picante, because it is a food term, makes sense, but it’s not far from picada (i.e., sting or bite).

Poco de pica, then as a small amount of heat, a dab of the risque, or the culinary punctum–a sting or bite for the palate, a pleasurable irritant. Maybe punctum enters the expanded sensorium by way of poco de pica, tiny heat. As for the second, temporally located punctum; tomorrow the small heat will have not only lasted, but spread, its sting expansive, radiant, and emissive.

If you’ve made it to this point, you must want the recipe. Bear in mind that the heat from grocery-store peppers will vary drastically.

1 med. onion
6-8 med. tomatoes
+/- 1/4 cup of fresh cilantro (if you’re pulling the leaves from stems, +/- 8
2 jalapenos
1 tsp. ea. of sea salt, coarse black pepper, and garlic powder
2 tbs. olive oil

Dice the onion and tomatoes (I leave the seeds from the tomato, but if you
like it dry, get rid of them). Julienne then fine-chop 1.5 jalapenos.
Onions, tomatoes, and jalapenos go into a bowl. Add sea salt, coarse black
pepper, and garlic powder. Into the blender with .5 jalapenos, fresh cilantro,
and olive oil. For added water weight (so you have a critical mass of
mixables in the blender), add a hunk of tomato or onion, or up the vol. of olive
oil. Pour this onto ingredients in the bowl. Spoon toss and chill.
It’ll be livelier on the second day. Use limes to cut the heat if it becomes too
intense. Also, you can tune the heat somewhat by electing to leave in the
pepper seeds (for far more heat) or getting rid of them (for less heat).