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Revenge of the Saguaro

New West - Books & Writers

“Revenge of the Saguaro” Revels in Southwest Tackiness
Arizona writer Tom Miller investigates chimichangas, bola ties, and more.

My heart was hardened against the chimichanga early. In my Denver public elementary school, the cafeteria ladies used to serve chimichangas for Cinco de Mayo and Día de Independencia on September 16. (I wonder if the same individual is still in charge of holiday menu planning, as DPS officials recently caught flack for offering students “Southern Style” chicken and collard greens “in Honor Of M.L. King.") The chimichanga was meant to be festive, but it sat there like a lump on the tray, bathed in a thin, pinkish-beige sauce with chunks in it that so resembled vomit that the effect couldn’t possibly have been unintentional.

But with his essay collection Revenge of the Saguaro, Tom Miller, a passionate chimichanga advocate, has convinced me to overcome my prejudices against the fried treat. Miller’s book, which was originally published as Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink a decade ago, still offers fresh insights about some touchstones of Southwestern culture: chimichangas, saguaro cacti, bola ties, black velvet paintings, “La Bamba,” and more. About the only thing Miller left out is an investigation of those brightly painted howling coyote carvings that used to be ubiquitous.

In his essay “Death by Misadventure,” Miller discusses a cockfight he attended outside of Phoenix. “Cheerfully tolerating cockfights runs counter to everything civil I like to think I identify with,” he writes, “Still, the fact is that I’ve enjoyed the tackiness of the half-dozen cockfights I’ve attended in the United States and Mexico: the cigarette-strewn rubble, the pre-match betting, the slice (so to speak) of life—even, occasionally, the birds going at each other.” Tackiness is a beacon for Miller, and he examines his subject in such a descriptive, reflective fashion that even those who find cockfighting off-putting should find reading about it worthwhile.

In one of the best essays, “Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink,” Miller dives into the heart of Southwestern tackiness, investigating the origins of black velvet paintings, bola ties, and the chimichanga, or “chimi” as the high-calorie treat is affectionately known. “To see acrylic black velvet at swap meets and flea markets is to appreciate art en su jus,” Miller writes, “Elvis Presley. Dogs playing poker. Nudes with arched backs. Bullfights. UFOs. Those are the perennials.” Miller traces the black velvet painting to one of its most prolific sources in Tijuana, where he finds a dozen young men painting the Last Supper on black velvet, “a black-velvet factory.” About bola ties, Miller observes, “The nicest thing about wearing bola ties is that they will never go out of fashion because they never came into it.” And he informs readers, “You know your chimichanga is authentic if an hour after eating it, you feel a log gently rolling around in your stomach.”

Miller’s essays move from subject to subject in the manner of a free-form discussion around a guiding theme, so that you never know, based on an essay’s beginning, where it will take you before it ends. The essay “Death by Misadventure” opens with cockfighting, and then moves on to other forms of violence in the Southwest. Miller writes, “nothing contributes more to Southwestern tradition than violence. We celebrate guns and bombs here…” Miller describes his first experience firing a gun, a patrolman’s shooting of a Mexican trying to sneak across the border, a visit to the Trinity Site (where the atomic bomb was tested), and concludes with the story of a 1969 shooting in Tucson of some young hippies by the enraged father of a teenage girl who had moved in with them.

Miller’s essays succeed at capturing the Southwest in vivid detail because he’s an expert at poking around, asking impertinent questions, and going places that many people wouldn’t venture. One such striking detail occurs in “The Free State of Cochise,” in which Miller describes what he discovered when he volunteered to clean up trash left by illegal immigrants in the land along the Arizona border. “There, sitting in the desert…I found a gleaming white porcelain toilet bowl. Certainly it was not carried in by immigrants, surely it was carried in by local teens as a joke.”

Miller shares a number of great yarns, some of which turn out to be unverifiable legends, such as the truth behind “El Paso,” the Marty Robbins “cowboy ballad.” Other stories support the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, as is the case with the incident that inspired the title of the book. In “Revenge of the Saguaro,” Miller tells of a hapless man who got drunk and shot at saguaro cacti until one of them dropped a massive limb on him, crushing him to death. Like many of the essays, it manages to be sad and funny at the same time.

Miller’s essays in Revenge of the Saguaro are travel writing of a sort, but they are of a different species entirely than the tips about what posh places to eat at or sleep in that one finds in glossy travel magazines. Instead, Miller offers an insider’s account of the grit, local gossip, and glorious bad taste that are a part of what endears the Southwest to its residents. And he just might convince you to overcome your food prejudices and head out for a chimichanga.

Tom Miller will appear at the second annual Tuscon Festival of Books from March 13 through 14 on the University of Arizona campus.
- Jenny Shank, February 22, 2010 

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