PHOTOGRAPHY Chris Pilaro
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A home in Wendell
Doña Luz’s horchata—the sweet drink she makes from dried white rice and a mysterious and beautiful combination of spices—tastes like some forbidden nectar. It tastes like it should be reserved for sacred holidays and ladled ceremoniously from ancient wooden bowls. Luz makes hers from scratch. She keeps it in a stainless steel bowl packed in ice under the counter in the kitchen of her small white truck on the hard-pack dirt lot of the Wendell Elevator Company.
It’s the Magic Valley’s smallest taco truck, and in it Luz prepares some of the territory’s most exceptional street food. She grills meats for her tacos, burritos and incredible homemade cornmeal sopes. A sope is sort of like a tamale, but deconstructed and more versatile. Luz’ come piled with chopped fresh tomatoes, avocado, onions and cilantro.
We cook best for the people we love. This is why we are nostalgic for the food we were fed as children. What has ever tasted better than what your mother or your grandfather fed you when you were little more than a sponge for their love?
Luz has something of the universal mother about her. She wears her dark hair in a long ponytail, her smile is wide and when she laughs, her whole body laughs. But mostly she wants to feed you. Her food is consistently fresh, her truck is clean and her customers loyal. Arns Terrazas is one of the regulars at her truck. “You come over here and eat one time, and you’re addicted,” Terrazas said with the upbeat resignation of a junkie on a new drug.
Terrazas settled in Wendell by way of El Paso, Texas, and speaks an easy, flowing Spanish. When he first found her, Luz was parked in a narrow lot on Main Street, across from a Laundromat and in the shadow of a U.S. Bank. “She was getting beat up over there,” Terrazas said. When Luz went looking for a new spot, he acted as her de facto agent and helped her secure some much better real estate, just off Exit 157 on Interstate-84, in the shadows of the town’s towering grain elevators. The property owners “were really nice about it,” he said, even letting her use their electricity for free.
In her new spot by the grain elevators, Luz is doing much more business. She is open seven days a week (usually—being your own boss has its advantages) and in the fall and winter she cooks traditional soups like posole and menudo. Still, she would like to make more money. “She makes a good-enough living to stay here,” Terrazas said with a shrug. “But she could make a better living somewhere else.”
On a late summer evening, the patio table next to Luz’s truck is a good place to sit. As the sun sank on the prairie, a cattle truck rattled over the railroad ties and its cargo mooed from within. Inside Luz’s kitchen, the Rolling Stones played from a small trebly boom box. She hummed, and her knife made sharp knocks against a plastic cutting board as a radish fell into a stack of pink-rimmed coins.
Luz has had eight children. She lost two, and the other six are scattered throughout California, Mexico and southern Idaho. Some winters, she visits her family in Colima, Mexico, a historic Spanish settlement not far inland from the beaches of Manzanillo. She stays there for a few months and sells food from a street corner business that is at once very much and nothing at all like the one she runs in Wendell. Does she like it there? Yes, very much. When she returns, it is for her children and to cook for her customers. Cooking, she said, “is my passion, the one thing that keeps me going.”