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Photograph by Judy Guynn-Amsler

Salsa Savvy

Finding new ways to assess the sauce

By Marina Wolf

WELL, IT'S OFFICIAL: Salsa has become an all-American institution. In 1996 it surpassed ketchup as the most-used condiment in the United States, and now it is turning up in that most patriotic of pastimes: the food contest.

Some cynics might consider this just another example of America's appropriation approach to food: take it in and make it ours. But I see it as a triumph, a major leap forward in our country's consciousness about its own ethnic, cultural, and culinary diversity.

We have moved beyond hot dogs and apple pie--not a great diet to begin with--into an open acknowledgment of enchiladas, burritos, and spicy sauces as important additions to the American table.

A healthy debate on the merits of various salsas is appealing (though actually tasting 15 salsas in a row is, to me, as enjoyable as licking a scrubbing pad for an hour). Unfortunately, the consensus of most American eaters seems to have settled on one of two manifestations of the salsa ideal: (1) diced underripe vegetables stewing in a swamp of citric acid, or (2) boiled and bottled tomato pulp, whose most authentically ethnic quality is the artwork on the label.

The reality of salsa is much more interesting. Salsa in Spanish simply means sauce, and can apply to any number of sauces, some of which have been around as long as chile peppers have been cultivated: thousands of years. Salsas may be stewed, raw, roasted, grilled. Chile peppers are the defining ingredient, but the type and amount vary wildly. Tomatoes are usually indicated in traditional Central and South American salsas, but in the wake of fusion cooking and the increased awareness of regional specialties, even this boundary has been blown wide open, making room for such ingredients as corn, tomatillos, mangoes, apples, strawberries, and even sweet potato.

In the face of such anarchy, salsa competitions are a natural response, a community's attempt to impose meaning and order on an unruly universe of possibilities. But the pressure is on to assess the entries according to the old rules, the Pace-based paradigm. Too often we elevate one or two of the simpler characteristics to the sole deciding factor and downplay others that are as important, or at least as interesting, to the avid salsa consumer. Tomato and nontomato is a cliché, as is the line between commercial and home-cooked (who exactly is being served by that distinction?). But what about chunky vs. smooth? Such vastly different approaches require almost completely different strategies in order to assess texture and flavor. (Peanut-butter aficionados will understand what is at stake here.)

What of the many gradations of heat? To keep "chile bullies" from dominating the field, we could just as easily divide and judge entries according to scientifically measured Scoville heat ratings.

Or--stay with me here--we could rethink the whole angle of competition altogether, make it less ferocious and more functional. The question would not be which salsa is best, but how well a given salsa works for the purpose for which it was mixed. Is it a dip, a side dish, a last-minute condiment, or an essential ingredient in a casserole? Is it served at parties or just at family dinners?

These are essential questions in determining the feasibility of a salsa.

FORM SHOULD follow function, in salsa as in everything. Smooth salsa is tricky in social situations: the liquid responds to gravity and the incline of a chip much more dramatically than does its chunky-cut counterpart. Considering the distance between the lips and the dip bowl, and the peculiar attraction between salsa and clothing (especially white silk T-shirts), party salsa should be chosen and created carefully.

A good party salsa has distinct flavors and crisp textures, whatever the ingredients, and enough substance to rest sturdily on a chip. In a casserole, however, this chunky salsa only confuses things. There's too much going on, too much separateness and disunity. A smooth salsa, on the other hand, is just the thing to provide a common backdrop for the dish's constituent parts.

The "topper" category would be the most challenging, if only because of the size of the pool. Every new restaurant has at least one kind of salsa on the menu, trailing artistically on or around a piece of protein. The field is wide open for contenders: smooth and chunky, cooked and fresco, fruit and vegetable. The salsa could be simply chile peppers moistened with tomato juice, or it could be the reverse, a tomato salad with a hint of heat.

But the judging would be simple: put a spoonful of each entry over a tiny piece of fish. Does it overpower or enhance? Does it clash or complement? Is it super or just superfluous?

I understand that this might be a difficult proposal for Americans to swallow. The whole thing smacks of socialism, of a touchy-feely "we're all OK" mentality that is anathema to the fine American tradition of no-holds-barred competition.

But I would urge organizers of salsa contests to take the plunge, even if it does mean encouraging the sweet-potato crowd. The soul of salsa is in its diversity. And salsa lovers everywhere deserve a bite of the whole enchilada.

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From the May 11-17, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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