Looking for love and finding elote: A meditation on Mexican street corn

In each new city I visited, I found myself drawn towards the unmistakable smell of char-grilled street corn

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 23, 2022 5:59PM (EDT)

Yellow Corn For Sale At Market Stall (Getty Images/Noam Cohen/EyeEm)
Yellow Corn For Sale At Market Stall (Getty Images/Noam Cohen/EyeEm)

The first time I had elote was in New York City with a man several years my senior — not old enough to be my father, but enough to elicit the occasional curious or knowing glance. I let him believe he introduced me to The Cure and XTC. In exchange, I felt free in a way that's probably craved by most listless suburban church kids who finally grow up. 

While he worked, I slipped into bookstores and thrift shops, where I rifled through discarded photographs and bought some for 99 cents. I looked into the strangers' faces, which were frozen in time on film — at a retirement party, on an Alaskan cruise, perched on a threadbare floral couch on a shoreside patio — and journaled about what I imagined their lives were like. 

I bought cheap coffee in those blue and white Anthora cups ("We are happy to serve you!") and sat on park benches, where I watched pigeons bully each other over dropped breadcrumbs and popcorn kernels. I watched people pass — laughing until Coke sprayed out of their noses, shouting into their cell phones, crying into their sleeves — and journaled about what I imagined their lives were like. 

I wrote in a notebook and thought about a poetry professor of mine who had made me feel like words were magic and convinced me that I could make a living crafting them. It was a relatively radical thought to consider when I'd grown up in a religious tradition where it was taught that women should be seen and not heard, let alone read. When I would occasionally fret about finding a job, as a student in his subterranean office and then eventually as a young freelancer sitting on his front porch, he'd laugh quietly and give me the same line. 

"Don't be afraid of a few lost years," the professor would say. 

"Don't be afraid of a few lost years."

For that reason, I carefully labeled the first page of my notebook with the phrase "Lost Years?" and journaled about what I imagined my life would be like. I didn't know yet that years could in no way be the "lost" ones, as I was still so blissfully curious about everything.

At night, we'd eat. I discovered that I loved oaky Malbec that left my tongue dry and my lips tinged purple; I loved the punchy, vinegary white sauce kept in squeeze bottles on halal carts; I loved thin-sliced pulpo and how, no matter what, one's lips looked like they wanted to be kissed when they read it off the menu; and I loved elote

We'd stop at vendors who were just far enough away from the subway station that we were no longer trapped in the hot, stifling throngs of people pushing their way to the street level. About a block or so from the 82nd Street–Jackson Heights station, a woman had built a mobile grill using a shopping cart and a grate wrapped in aluminum foil. She'd use a thick brush to slather an entire row of freshly-peeled, charred corn on sticks with thin mayonnaise in a motion that looked like she was painting a fence. She'd give it a sprinkle of Tajin, then roll it in salty, crumbled cotija

It piqued all my taste buds, and I liked that I could be on the move while eating. We'd slowly walk up and down the city blocks without any real purpose other than just being out, occasionally stopping on a random corner when we fell deep into conversation. He'd tell me about the eloteros in the Mexican border town where he grew up. 

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Each of them had a slightly different method for making elote. Some used crema instead of mayonnaise. Some swore by two squeezes of lime per ear of corn. Some used enough chipotle or chili powder that, in the end, the corn looked more red than pale yellow. "You find who you like best," he said, "And then you just keep on going back." 

He then explained that many eloteros find a spot, such as a parking lot or street corner, where they'll just stay put for decades. It becomes their spot. Even if they wheel their cart home for the night, you know that they'll be back the next day, or at the latest, the day after that. 

For so long, I'd dreamed of drifting away in that romantic way that only seems possible when you're 20, where you think that if you go to a new town or a new city, all the things you disliked about yourself growing up suddenly fade. The idea of that kind of steadfastness was thus both daunting and romantic in a wholly different kind of way. 

When the love between that man and I finally faded, his stories of the steadfast eloteros didn't.

Though the love between that man and I finally faded, his stories of the steadfast eloteros didn't. In each new city I visited, I found myself drawn toward the unmistakable smell of char-grilled street corn and the stories of the people who worked there. 

Chicago, where I live now, is full of these stories. 

In 2000, 50 eloteros and a number of the city's Latino aldermen rallied in favor of an ordinance that would finally make their trade officially legal after existing in a gray area where vendors often found themselves up against hefty fines. It would take more than a decade for the city to acquiesce. Still, the eloteros persevered. (During that time, someone even made a Facebook page called "Chicago's Cutest Eloteros," which captured snapshots of vendors all around the city, showcasing, likely unintentionally, how integral to the fabric of Chicago they are.) 

I recently read a story about a couple of eloteros in Rogers Park, the neighborhood directly north of my apartment. They had been married for 23 years and worked together daily, selling styrofoam cups of corn, mayonnaise, cayenne and cotija seven days a week from 8 a.m. until just after midnight. 

Felipe Vallarta, the husband, passed away in 2021. A few years before he died, he told the local paper: "The truth is, it's difficult, but when you love the work, it's beautiful." 

The unchanging schedule, the slog, the schlep — all the things I had feared for so long would deaden me to really living — are the things that can actually make life beautiful. Whether it's the routine of cleanly slicing boiled corn off the cob in 20 seconds flat, or just trying to survive. Maybe there are no lost years. Maybe they all are, in some way. Maybe we just need to embrace them. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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