Fine flea-market fare

Corn dish

photo by Hanna Rachel Raskin

The prettiest words in the Spanish language are “dos con todos.” Cervantes fans may protest, but the venerated author never wrote a phrase that could be so easily exchanged for gustatory enlightenment.

I added the words to my gringo vocabulary – startlingly limited despite spending a few semesters in junior college Spanish classes alongside earnest teenagers intent on shopping for trouble south of the border in the native tongue – while living in Tucson. In addition to the usual lineup of tacos and taquitos, my neighborhood snack vendor sold hot dogs that would make the folks at Hebrew National shudder: In true Sonoran style, these dogs were swathed in bacon before being tucked into their cushiony white buns. An order “con todos” included a layer of beans, a dollop of spicy guacamole, a scattering of grilled onions, a squeeze of crema sauce and a roasted chile. Not surprisingly, I never had to learn the phrase to order just one.

Turns out the magic words “dos con todos” work just as well east of the Mississippi: It’s the preferred shorthand at Garcia’s concession stand on the eastern edge of Smiley’s Flea Market in Fletcher, where every Saturday and Sunday morning Ramon Leal ladles out steaming hot Styrofoam cups of elotes.

Elotes, according to my almost-mint Spanish textbook, are roasted or boiled ears of corn and a fixture of Mexican street-corner cuisine (and Asheville’s Latin-themed festivals.) While ears are sometimes speared with a stick for easier munching, Leal dismissed the entire cob as a hassle: “When you come to the flea market, you can’t sit down,” he said, gesturing toward the throngs of bargain hunters rifling through piles of sequined jeans and expired cold medication.

So Leal uses frozen niblets. No matter: Like the irresistible Mexican hot dog, the snack’s genius is in its ornamentation.

Elotes are typically smeared with butter or mayonnaise and sprinkled with crumbled cotija cheese, chile and a pinch of lime juice. Leal and his crew have distilled the traditional recipe to its artery-clogging essence, burying the subtly sugared corn beneath a delicately layered heap of mayonnaise, Parmesan cheese and chili powder. Experienced elotes eaters usually douse the concoction with hot sauce before whipping the cup’s contents into a near-soup.

It seems almost finicky to elaborate on the deliciousness of elotes, or the reason for its popularity – “to put something in your stomach,” offered one devoted aficionado, scraping the floor of his grande-sized cup with a plastic spoon – but its alchemy deserves explanation. Any skepticism about the snack can be relieved by parsing its ingredient list: The corn crunches against the smoothness of the mayonnaise. The mild cheese parries the chili’s bite. And the hot sauce tempers the gnawing sweetness of the corn. The mix activates every taste bud without overexciting any of them.

While the treat isn’t named on Leal’s posted menu – which, with its $3 fruit cup and $1.50 soft pretzel, appears to be a vestige of an earlier operation – it’s by far his bestseller, outpacing even popcorn and nachos.

“We sell a lot of it,” Leal says. “Here in the flea market, we’re the only ones with corn.”

Leal figures he sells about 200 pounds of corn on Sundays, which translates into more than 700 servings. Elotes is understandably the object of cravings at every time of day, with Leal’s first customers arriving before 8 a.m.

“Believe me, when I get here, they’re ready,” Leal said. “The first thing I do when I get here is pull out the stove.”

While Leal’s aunt owns the operation, which was spun off from her neighboring sit-down restaurant a few years back, Leal, 27, functions as its front man, juggling orders like an auctioneer. But he’s itching to get back to his hometown of Houston. He took a vacation this summer and was sorely missed by his regulars, including a woman who trekked out to Smiley’s three weeks in a row solely for her elotes fix.

“She wasn’t happy,” Leal reports.

But the woman and her fellow customers restrained themselves from launching a full-fledged revolt. The situation has been significantly less cheery in Chicago, where elotes sparked a crisis commonly referred to as “The Elote War.” (One taste and you’ll stop scoffing.)

Chicago is lousy with eloteros, who’ve achieved a ubiquity that would make even a Starbucks investor salivate. For Windy City foodies, the exalted elote serves as the culinary bar between their beloved hometown and up-and-coming Midwestern towns like Dubuque. At last count (taken on a warm summer day – eloteros are popular, but not winter-hardy), there were more than 1,000 pushcarts stationed in Chicago neighborhoods. But what sounds like a dreamscape for elotes lovers turns out to be a nuisance for the city: In 1997 Mayor Richard M. Daley proclaimed the unregulated industry was upsetting stomachs with its unrefrigerated mayo.

After a union of eloteros launched a counterattack, the affair briefly devolved into a spate of nasty name-calling, as racially charged issues are wont to do. Supporters of the eloteros said the real problem wasn’t spoiled mayonnaise: They characterized the debate as a cultural clash of condiment preferences, with potato-buttering Irishmen challenging the palatability of an ear of corn slathered in mayonnaise.

The factions finally reached a compromise that keeps corn on the streets, but not before vendors staged a rally at City Hall in which the city’s Streets and Sanitation Department was likened to the Gestapo and Daley labeled an unrepentant racist.

But in Buncombe County, elotes are breaking down ethnic boundaries (let other foods content themselves with being delicious; elotes, on the other hand, just may save the world.) Although the majority of Leal’s customers are Mexican-Americans who got hooked on elotes as children, his $2.50 Styrofoam cups of corn are snapped up by shoppers of all races.

“We’ve been getting a lot of whites and blacks lately,” Leal says. “When they see everyone walking around, eating the corn, they get anxious to taste it.”

And, as always at the flea market, it’s best to trust your instincts.

[Writer and editor Hanna Rachel Raskin lives in Asheville.]

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