Monday, May 21, 2012

The Cotopaxi Burger

Along the headwaters, downtown Cotopaxi
I took a few days last week and stole away to improve the time at some of my favorite fishing spots in the Arkansas River canyon above Parkdale, Colorado. (I've mentioned this propensity before - here, here, and here in case you missed it). 

Like all the anglers wading the river and not floating it, I am bound to drive along the highway in my pickup truck from one spot to the next, pulling off and parking as any particular stretch of river looks either promising of fish, scenic but not very promising, vacant but not very promising, or just enough out of the way for a nap. Flyfishing for trout, as the discerning reader will gather from the experimental method just outlined, is a stern and unforgiving science.

As the angler is apt to be thinking of fish with the steadfastness of mental aberration, fish is the last thing he wants to eat when the time comes. At the thought of food, a trout sandwich just then is neither very appealing nor a particularly iconic American repast, like, say, a grilled cheese sandwich or a hamburger might be. 

One stop I always make, a sort of culinary pilgrimage, is the Cotopaxi Store. Cotopaxi is a real place of sorts, a few houses and a few trailers over the two-lane bridge across the river, but essentially and most importantly it is the Cotopaxi Store on Highway 50, which runs through the canyon along the river and separates the business section of Cotopaxi from the river and the residential enclaves across the road by a space of 50 yards or less. It's the only place along a 75-mile stretch of Highway 50 where you can buy gas if you happen to need it. It's also the only place along roughly the same stretch where you can get anything to eat. It is, in a word, the cultural center of the river between Ca┼łon City and Salida, its own little universe.

The store is one of those seedier establishments in which the old linoleum floor has worn away down to the floorboards. Near the counter by the door are the usual racks of potato chips, popcorn, energy bars and (behind the counter) cigarettes, cans of Copenhagen and lottery tickets. In the backroom, beside the usual shelves of essential canned foods and the restaurant booths along the wall, there is an old glass butcher's case as high as your chin, polished with use, where a lonely salami or two (and never much else) shoal together. 

And behind this glass and steel case is the heart of Cotopaxi, the cultural magnet - a five-by-four-foot steel grill, the old classic diner grill with the gas burners underneath, a grill that has seen more meat in its time than Abe Minsky in the heyday of burlesque (which doesn't mean that the "veggie burger" on the menu isn't just as healthy as the Whole Foods version). Between the grill and the fryolator, the ladies can cook you anything you want, as long as it's a burger (ham-, cheese- or veggie) and fries. (The fries are always that pale golden color only attained by potatoes that have been reconstituted, lovingly extruded and promptly frozen.)

You never know what or whom you might encounter in Cotopaxi. Refreshing myself a few years back at one of the store's picnic tables (strategically placed in the traffic fumes along the highway), a chap in old jeans and a pony-tail rolled into the gas island on a Harley Davidson. Memories of boyhood - I recognized it as the real thing, not the badass shiny "retro" jobs everyone rides on weekends away from managing hedge funds or cadging commercial property leases, but a real dinosaur with the reverberation to settle its mettle. The fellow had bought the whole thing pieced out in bushel baskets and grocery bags in a neighbor's garage and basement, reassembled it, found a vintage saddle to replace the only missing part, and had himself a genuine1946 Harley (pictured below). As it happens, the bike and I are the same age.

 The Motorcycle Itself

But I was speaking of the hamburger, which is by now an American icon; the hamburger served at the Cotopaxi Store is the essential hambuger. Cotopaxi, whatever it may have meant in pre-Columbian parlance, means "hamburger" so far as I'm concerned. I should make it clear that the Cotopaxi hamburger is a hamburger and not a burger, the latter being what you go to places like McDonalds to buy. Having said that, I also add that the Cotopaxi version is not a very prepossessing comestible in the main. It is not a thing to draw the eye or whet the palate until, by long association and exposure, the Pavlovian machinery works its spell.

But starting from the outside, the bun is the standard issue hamburger bun found at church dinners, volunteer fire department smokers, or any festivity held in a basement. It is the usual spongey model in the pale-beige-to-tan spectrum. The single lettuce leaf is generally wilted, a minor disadvantage offset by a generous slab of onion and tomato. The meat is clear of gristle, grilled to that carbonized perfection known in Texas as "wail done," approximating the color and texture of the work shoes worn in Rumanian factories.

It is American food at its best, and like New Mexican wine, Peruvian music or Estonian pizza, best consumed in the romance of the moment right where it's produced. Such things never travel well.

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