Linguica and Me
Issue #43, April 1999
You hear a lot of talk about "comfort foods" these days, as aging baby-boomers and others attempt to relive the moments of their childhood when Mom made them their favorite meals. These comfort foods take us back to a time when we could count on being mothered, could count on a warm and caring home, could simply count on good things and people being there for us when we needed them. When people talk of comfort foods, they usually mean mashed potatoes and gravy, or hot oatmeal, or maybe a strawberry milkshake.
When I think of comfort foods, I think of linguica.
It's a difficult concept for me to accept, that I might have a comfort food. I have always been ambivalent about my past; the one thing guaranteed to give me comfort is the notion that as a child, I never felt comfortable. And so it makes a certain sense that when I recognize my comfort food, it's a greasy stick of fat and spices.
The great documentarian Frederick Wiseman made a film once about meat processing. One long sequence stands out in my mind: we follow a cow from its being prodded into the processing plant, through its death and dismemberment, and in the details the viewer eventually feels as if they are watching an abstract painter at work. By the end, there seems to be no connection between the animal that entered the plant and the beef that came out. When the workers are done, there is leftover meat lying all over the place, which is collected into large dumpsters using what looks like snow shovels. This leftover meat is used for hamburger.
If there's anything left over after they make the burger meat, I like to imagine they start making sausages.
Linguica is a Portuguese sausage made of pork and other stuff. Exactly what other stuff is for someone else to ascertain; I'm queasy enough just imagining what part of the pig ends up in the linguica. Linguica has been a part of my life since I was a small child, which likely explains why I take expensive cholesterol medicine today.
I worked with a man named Manuel back in my factory days. Manuel was a portly Chicano lift-truck driver who had lots of health problems as he approached his 40s. Finally, he had a small heart attack, after which his doctors insisted that he needed to improve his diet. They wanted him to cut back on his meat consumption, but Manuel confessed to the doctors that while he would try, they were asking a lot of him. Well, the doctors replied, at least eat only the leanest meat, and when you have a steak, eat small portions and cut the fat off the sides before you cook it. I remember Manuel telling me one night that he really wanted to follow the doctors' orders, but it was very hard because ever since he was a kid he'd been taught to eat the fat because "it was the best part." Manuel's dead now; childhood habits are hard to break.
When I was a kid, my Spanish grandmother had linguica delivered to her house. Other families in those days had milkmen, or if they were especially lucky, a bakery truck might deliver breads. But my grandmother was different: a couple of times a month, a truck from the Moniz Sausage Company would stop at Grandma's house, and she would buy a few sticks of linguica.
My grandmother lived to be almost 100 years old, and I'd like to say it was all that linguica which gave her long life, but in fact, she often had stomach troubles late in her life, and she didn't get to eat linguica in those later years. Which didn't stop her from feeding it to her own offspring. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, for decades the Rubios ate linguica. I never knew in those days that it was a Portuguese sausage, always assuming it, like my grandmother, came from Spain.
When my future wife and I started dating in high school, we regularly stopped off at the International Sausage Shop in Antioch, California, where we would pool our meager resources and split the costs of a linguica sandwich and an orange soda. Those were romantic times, let me tell you. Some years later, we discovered a place on the other side of town that made a most remarkable delicacy: linguica sandwich au jus! When the linguica and melted cheese were good and ready, they would be placed on the bottom of a large roll, after which the proprietors would take the top of the roll and dip it in linguica juice. If you've never eaten linguica, a short explanation is appropriate: "linguica juice" is another way of saying "rancid yellow pig grease." Comfort food indeed.
Linguica continued to follow me into adulthood. I spent one year living in Indiana, where linguica was so hard to come by that I returned to California, determined to never again live in a land without linguica. I did what I could to spread the linguica manifesto, although there wasn't much need to educate my fellow factory buddies who, like me, had grown up eating the stuff. When I began graduate school, though, I found a whole new cadre of friends, most of whom either had never heard of linguica or had been afraid to eat it. Early in our graduate careers, we went out for a night of pizza and beer meant to solidify our new-found collective spirit. My contribution to the festivities was to insist on ordering a linguica pizza, after ascertaining that the pub we were attending used real linguica rather than mere spiced-up ground pork. Sure enough, when the pizza arrived, there were dozens of small pieces of linguica. On the top of each piece proudly sat a bubbly glop of hot "linguica juice." I never got asked out to eat pizza with my grad school friends after that. Even the woman who professed undying love for Led Zeppelin drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham was more popular than me.
My grandmother practiced a very strict brand loyalty when it came to linguica. Only Moniz was good enough for a Rubio, she regularly proclaimed. And, in fact, most other brands of linguica had the same relationship to my comfort food as instant potato flakes have to real mashed potatoes. There was one company, though, Saag's, that made excellent sausages of all kinds, and their linguica, while not quite a match for Moniz', was nonetheless more than edible. For some years, Saag's had the sausage concession at the Oakland Coliseum, and I would look forward to eating a linguica sandwich at the baseball game. Little did I know that my small betrayal of Moniz would result in actual physical harm.
For one afternoon, leaving the ballpark after enjoying a home-team victory and a linguica sandwich, I found myself walking next to two old gentlemen, one of whom had a cap on with the word "Moniz" on the front. I asked him if the cap represented the sausage company, and he replied in the affirmative. "We've always loved Moniz linguica in my family," I informed him, asking if he worked for Moniz in some capacity. "I AM Moniz!," was his immortal reply. I couldn't have been more excited if I had just been introduced to Elvis. I started blathering about how Moniz trucks used to deliver linguica to my grandmother's house, and as I jabbered, I worked my way between the Moniz man and his companion. This other old-timer listened to me for a bit and then proclaimed that HE was the Saag's man, and that HE made linguica just as good as Moniz! Talk about heaven, I thought, I'm walking along between two of the greatest sausagemakers of all time! I turned to the Saag Man to congratulate him on all the great sausages he made, but he would have none of it. All he wanted to talk about was his linguica. Well, I said, you make great sausages, and your linguica is very good, but I'm sorry, Moniz makes the best linguica. Saag Man started punching me in my arm, insisting that his linguica was the best, which inspired Moniz Man to pound on my other arm, hoping to distract me from being swept over to the dark side. All the way to my car I walked between these two Titans of Tubesteak, getting my arms pummeled by their septuagenarian fists. I never betrayed Moniz, though.
Linguica isn't much of a choice for a comfort food: it gives you heartburn, it's full of cholesterol and unnamable meat products, it's ugly in its casing, it's ugly cooking in a pan, and it's ugly when it's ready to eat. Which is about how I want to remember my childhood: ugly and full of heartburn. But I know the lie underneath such a fantasy. My childhood was pretty normal, less interesting than the fact that I want to turn that childhood into a paean to greasy hog meat. I want to resist the very possibility that there is real comfort in my past, and so I adopt linguica as My Meat. My old friend Manuel took steak fat to his grave, but I don't eat linguica much anymore. I want to live to a ripe old age, so I can tell my great-great-grandchildren about the olden days when grease made housecalls.
Steven Rubio is just like his meat.