Years ago, when I lived in Houston, my then-wife and I would venture out on a typical Saturday to the Common Market, a sprawling flea market near the intersection of Westpark Road and the Southwest Freeway, to see what was on offer that week.
The flea market was an assault on the senses. My eyes were dazzled by sun glinting off the hundreds of sequined tops for sale in the ladies’ clothing stalls. The flicker of off-brand TVs in huge electronics stalls threatened to bring on a seizure. My ears were rung by a cacophony of cumbia, salsa, merengue, reggae, rap, rock and country blaring from boom boxes and the occasional live stage performance.
It was Houston life in a microcosm: a panoply of cultures, beliefs and consumer goods all cheek-by-jowl and competing for the buyer’s attention. It was not uncommon to find a Chinese tea booth next to a booth selling illegal bootleg CDs, or a chair massage practitioner next door to a pet shop.
But the smells, oh, the smells! The air was rich with the aromas of fry grease, peppers, meats, spices, sweets and pickles. If it was a favorite food of any culture present in Houston, it could be found at the Common Market. It was the sort of place that, if it existed today, would have been overrun by well-moneyed foodies searching for an “authentic” culinary experience.
Thankfully, back then the foodie movement was in its infancy, so those of us with big appetites and tiny budgets were free to roam.
The best Italian sausage sandwich I’ve ever had was cooked by a Mexican man running a grill cart at the Common Market. The panaderias offered all manner of sweet baked goods flavored with everything from tamarinds and dates to cinnamon and brown sugar.
But for me, the beacon that caused my stomach to growl and my mouth to water was an 8-foot-tall green metal box from which occasional puffs of steam and smoke would issue, carrying the smell of corn roasting inside. It signaled the presence of elotes.
Elotes can be described simplistically as roasted corn, but anyone who’s ever seen the dizzying spread of toppings available at a flea market elotes stand can tell you that’s missing the point. (If anyone knows of such a stand around here, please let me know!)
The corn, usually the cheap yellow corn just a cut above feed corn grade, is placed in a tall metal box with baskets on a chain device that runs a circuit from top to bottom and back. At the bottom is a slow-smoldering fire. At the top is (sometimes) a water mister to keep the corn steaming in the shucks. The smell that issues from the box after the corn’s been roasting an hour or so is intoxicating.
Why the slow roast? It’s all about sugar. Corn, like all vegetables, contains sugar. Lots of it, in fact. The trick is to heat the ears slowly so the sugar gets as sweet as it possibly can. This is called caramelization, and it’s the secret to a LOT of good eats. Take a Vidalia onion sometime, cut it up and cook it on low heat with a bit of olive oil. It will take a while, often well over an hour, but you’ll be rewarded with a soft, browned onion so sweet you can (and I have) use it as a topping on vanilla ice cream.
But back to the elotes …
If you get your roasted corn at a traditional Mexican-style stand, when you look for the butter and salt you’ll likely think someone left their groceries sitting on the counter. You’ll find your butter and salt, of course, alongside mayonnaise, salad dressing, parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, chili powder, garlic powder, hot sauces, other spices and even pickled jalapenos. Everyone has their own favorite combination, and it can be fun just to sit and watch people create their masterpieces. My personal preference was mayo, parmesan cheese and a truly unhealthy amount of chili powder.
If you want to do elotes at home (and why not?), you can easily lay out a spread like I describe above, but you might need to fix your corn first to convince your guests you’re not joking. If you’d like to go a little more gourmet, you can pre-mix a single sauce and topping and serve the corn to your guests already prepared.