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The Digressions of dr sanscravat

Fat Lady Burrito

Once, some twenty-odd years ago, my wife Karen and I were in San Francisco. For some time, we’d been hearing of the culinary wonders to be found at a place that didn’t seem to have a name. The main dish, as far as I can remember, also lacked a name. Both the menu item and the place were simply known to all their adoring fans as “The Fat Lady Burrito.”

We decided that it would be a sin to miss such a treat -- so, on our last day in town, Karen and I walked over to the little shop in the Mission District. And I do mean LITTLE: the space for the customers was about the same width as the door, and was long enough to fit maybe eight Mexicans -- or five of me. This was, as I’ve said, a long time ago, when I was merely large. Today, it would only fit four of me. In front of this standing area, was a chest-high glass barrier, and behind that was about three feet of counter space. Behind THAT was an aisle, exactly one Fat Lady in width, then another counter with coolers and jars and bins and such.

The last paragraph was larger than the Fat Lady’s place.

We ordered, then watched as she assembled our lunch. She started out by spreading two warm flour tortillas, side by side, on the counter. These were huge, maybe two feet in diameter. I’ve heard, since then, that these are known as “armpit tortillas” because they reach from the fingertips of an outstretched arm all the way to – well, you get the idea. If this sort of culinary detail has not put you off your feed, keep listening. She then proceeded to lay out a bed of fillings on each of the tortillas, starting with something that looked like taco meat. On top of that she spread a layer of beans. After each layer, she would turn and reach into some previously un-noticed cubbyhole for another ingredient. She repeated this process about a dozen times, sometimes fetching cheeses, sometimes peppers, sometimes vegetables. It took a long time, because she fit so snugly in the aisle that considerable friction was generated by each ingredient search.

I had watched, in awe, for nearly fifteen minutes -- but Karen’s attention had already wandered away. (I think she feels that if she never finds out what actually goes into cooking a meal, she will never be asked to do it herself – and, so far, she’s been right.) Anyway, by this time, it began to look like the Fat Lady would have to apply for a building permit before she could add anything else to the massive piles before her.

Visions of men who build boats in their basements -- and cannot get them out -- passed through my mind.

She looked at them critically, as if wondering if she had omitted anything. As she did so, her eyes seemed to lose their focus -- or rather, they looked as though they were trying to examine their own retinas. As she slowly twisted her body ninety degrees to the right, I imagined her tiny feet planted firmly on the floor behind the counter, her ankles subjected to incredible torque as her upper body rotated. She raised her hands, forming a bowl that covered her face -- and sneezed. She untwisted her body, wiping her hands on her apron as she turned, her eyes refocused on the burritos before her.

Karen didn’t notice any of this.

The Fat Lady tapped a bit of the filling into place, making an adjustment too fine for my untutored eyes to detect. Her freshly wiped hands then folded the edge of the tortilla nearest her over one of the piles of assorted ingredients. Deftly tucking in the sides, patting and tightening as she rolled, formed a perfectly packed cylinder. She repeated the process for the second burrito.

She packed them up, we paid for them, and we carried them out of the tiny storefront.

Each burrito was a little bit larger than a submarine sandwich, but much heavier. When I bit into it, delicious orange-reddish fat ran down both cheeks. I ate the whole thing -- enough food for a family of four -- and probably finished Karen’s (as I usually do).

The Fat Lady Burrito was everything we’d been told it would be -- and a little bit more.

Not wanting to spoil the moment, I didn’t tell Karen about the sneeze until years later, when the statute of limitations had run out.

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