When the nights are long and harsh, and the springtime pleasures of eating Latin American food at the soccer fields of Red Hook, Brooklyn, feel many distant months away, the ready availability of at least one particular item provides great comfort, and makes the time still left to wait seem far less burdensome.
¶ It has Spanish origins, but in the New World, horchata is a rice-based drink that — like dulce de leche, alfajores, and other Latin American treats — has regional variations throughout the Americas hispanoparlantes. In its most ideal form, the beverage serves almost as a thick, fluid delivery system for cinnamon. The ice-cold drink, stored in large, ubiquitous containers, beckons milkily from many taqueria counters, seemingly one of the more common aguas frescas available. And except in its most inglorious form — throat-scratchingly gritty and straight from a prefab mix — horchata is the perfect beverage: sweet, refreshing, and always welcome.
I’ve tried many kinds — one favorite, slightly earthy and indistinctly chocolaty, comes from a Salvadoran pupusa stall in Red Hook — and have even sampled horchata in a number of rather unconventional forms. Frozen, on a cone, from an ice cream stand in Missoula, Montana; reinterpreted as a basmati-filled ‘shake at a favorite (and currently closed) West Village diner. But until recently I had never tried it at home; as its own experience, completely divorced of its more common food associations.
About a year ago, while scanning the grocery store shelves, I nearly did a double take. There, between the neatly faced Tetra Paks of soy-, rice-, and almond milk, was something new. It was a package with an image of a large, white jug against a cloud-filled background, its friendly, traditional-looking Mexican lettering announcing something that I had never before seen at the store: horchata for sale. It returned my stare from amidst its more wholesome, blandly packaged neighbors. I didn’t know what providence had lead Rice Dream, a rice-milk and fake–ice cream manufacturer, to decide to bottle and sell horchata (with bilingual Spanish and English packaging, no less), but I didn’t question it. Fearing that it would disappear in a puff of improbability, I bought a carton on the spot.
I discovered that bringing horchata home from the grocery store recontextualizes it somewhat, separating it from the delicious meals it often accompanies. It does not, however, make horchata mundane. Even the store-bought variety can be transporting, in some cases calling to mind favorite past meals1.
Even now, a year later, with the Red Hook food stalls on hiatus and the chance to taste my favorite local horchata still six weeks away, I get a sense of relief and happiness when I open the fridge door to find a comforting sky-blue package with friendly lettering sitting on the shelf, just waiting to be guzzled.
1 - A friend who recently traveled to San Diego reports that grocery stores there stock a local variety in plastic milk bottles — and while she says that this kind isn’t especially good, its existence suggests a city with the right priorities, illustrating another reason to move there besides perfect weather and superlative fish tacos.