Sounds of the Kitchen

Norteño (n.)

A form of popular music native to Mexico, originating in the Northern states, with a sound akin to Polka.

The default soundtrack in many of Columbus’s best restaurants (in their kitchens at least…)

I was introduced to norteño when I was 14 years old. It was my very first day at my very first job. I was a “cook” at a fast-food Italian restaurant (yes, that one), and I had been tasked with the very important job of maintaining a neverending cache of breadsticks. (The process involved slacking out uniform rods of pale dough and shellacking them with a mixture of garlic powder and a viscous yellow “butter food product” called Whirl. It came in a jug.)

Other than the unctuous feeling of Whirl on my exposed arms, I only distinctly remember a couple of things about that day:

First, there was my first real-life conversation with a real-life Mexican.

Growing up in the hegemonic sameness of small-town Indiana, this was a big deal. His name was Memo and he was the unofficial leader of the 12-by-8 compartment they called the kitchen. He was big and wizened, with lean hands and a beefsteak mustache. He was also not pleased to see me standing in his domain, this slightly chubby semi-child from the pre-fab part of town who would undoubtedly be underfoot in perpetuity. Our first intercourse, as is often the case with these types of things, was brief, unsatisfying, and left me with more questions than answers:

¡Oye guero, si quieres hablar, habla español!

The literal meaning and benign racism of his statement were lost on me, but I was able, with my limited grasp of the language, to surmise that when in his kitchen, I was to speak Spanish or nothing at all.

The other thing I recall—other than the heat—was the music.

Through six hours and countless breadsticks there was a constant soundtrack. A never-ending accompaniment to a well-practiced dance, blaring from a greasy boom box haphazardly jury-rigged to the wall. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before, imbued with equal parts antiquity and the frenetic energy of something very present. Curious, I examined the kitchen’s library of CDs, a collection of burned discs with chicken scratch labels and other more legitimate offerings, showcasing large groups of men clad in identical suits courtesy of some Liberace-meets-Wild-West fantasy, worn proudly and without a hint of irony. (I think that this brand of masculine flamboyance is completely lost on an American audience, and that our country is worse for it.)

By the end of my shift, my curiosity about this exotic cultural phenomenon was so piqued, what with its folksy-sounding melodies and be-sequined performers, that I was bold enough to gesture toward the boom box and pipe my first and only Spanish of the day. A brief query that fluttered through self-conscious lips; a naïve attempt to bridge the cultural gulf that stood before us, a grasping at commonality by bandying about my only reference point with popular Mexican music:

“¿Selena?, I asked.

He laughed so hard I thought he would shit.

Over the years my appreciation for norteño, and thusly my appreciation for her native language, have increased in tandem. Like most young cooks, I wanted to know the bad words first. What I assumed to be a quick one-to-one translation of the greatest hits of English profanity has proven to be a lifelong inquiry into the seemingly inexhaustible supply of Latin obscenities.

The font for my surplus knowledge of Mexican malediction can be traced back to norteño, specifically a subgenre known as corrido. These songs typically relate semi-historical accounts of drug smuggling, murder, extortion, and sundry other mayhem. These often-grizzly themes, accompanied by traditional norteño instruments, result in a pleasant unsettling of one’s cultural understanding of what it is to be gangster. It’s like hearing the band at Schmidt’s covering “F*ck Tha Police.”

The scene for these linguistic exchanges—my ad-hoc classroom, if you will—is typically some humid prep kitchen, where I find myself sequestered with my culinary hermanos. A soundtrack of norteño and corrido more often than not accompanies these impromptu lessons. While listening to the music, a phrase, idiom, or other colorful word will prick my ear, at which point I’ll ask one of my companions for a translation. As is customary, my first request for information is promptly ignored. I’m asked to repeat myself, usually by an arched brow and/or eye roll, and then teased for my sluggish Anglo tongue. The fun part comes next as we struggle through the ensuing discussion, clutching to the thin threads of mutual understanding, neither party possessing a sufficient grasp of the other’s language to efficiently convey the meaning of most colloquialisms.

And more often than not, we end with an “ah ha!” moment as our exchange coalesces into a morsel of meaning. For inquiries inspired by corrido lyrics, this often results in practicing our newly minted phrases at the expense of one another’s mothers. (Note: the Spanish language’s capacity to tell a “yo mama” joke is unparalleled by any linguistic scheme as yet designed by man.)

And what else is gained of this struggle? Not just a litany of Latin curses to be sloshed about at your next quinceañera like some marinaro malhablado. If all that was gained were the words, then we cooks, a restless group by nature, would have grown bored long ago. What we gain is in the doing—in the act of translating. Sharing language is akin to sharing food: we do it often without thinking, but life, in its absence, is that much more muted.

Recently, a guy I work with called Chino asked for my help in deciphering a seemingly cryptic text message from an English speaking acquaintance.

The offending message casually mentioned that a shared female friend was “ratchet.” Tertiary Googling of the suspect adjective had proven ineffective and Chino sought my counsel, knowing my reputation as a particularly enthusiastic tutor, an affectation intended to counterbalance what could often be a rather lopsided pupil-teacher ratio.

Unfortunately, this particular usage was “one the kids say” and eluded my attempts to convey the implicit meaning (and general awesomeness) of what it means to be “ratchet.” In the end we settled for the decidedly literal translation of “chupana loca” or “crazy hooker,” a lovely little phrase I’d squirreled away previously. (Thanks Corrido!)

Although enough to move Chino’s text message along, the definition we arrived upon left us wanting. Continued searching failed to produce a satisfactory answer, and in time I put the question to bed. Spanish just didn’t have a word for ratchet.

And then, like a sonic phrase book from on high, I found my answer: I was listening to the latest effort by Julion Alvarez y Su Norteno Banda (my favorite norteño group and the most accessible to an American audience), and I found myself humming the chorus to a particularly raucous little ditty. Curious, I looked to the song title, pledging to remember to give it a second listen, and there I stumbled upon my solution. The song was called “El Barrochito” and reading it made me yip for joy. Rushing to Chino, I excitedly told him what I had found. And like the granodiorite masons of ancient Memphis we etched the words “ratchet equals barrochito” into the Rosetta Stone that formed the bedrock of our friendship.

Shepherded aboard the good ship Norteño, I have been privy to the watershed of real Mexican language. This river is the passage to the harbor of mutual understanding, an anchorage which has allowed me to appreciate the glittering coastline of others.

Music is one of the universal languages—not unlike food—and it’s a mode of expression found in every corner of the globe. Music’s power is not only found in its infinite capacity to entertain; much like food, music is best when consumed in common, together. Los Beatles said it best when they reminded us, “!Juntemonos ahora mismo encima de mi.” 

Will Johnston is a chef at 89 Fish and Grill, where he would be happy to suggest an entrée or a Norteño album. For more of his writing, visit