The world came into me when I placed it in my mouth, when it touched my tongue, and entered my body. Bites in bakeries, cafés and restaurants in Queens, the “World’s Borough,” are as varied as the most ethnically diverse county in the nation. They have spirit. Their flavor beats are steady and surprising. Each time I enter the vibrant La Gran Uruguaya café in Jackson Heights, I immediately feel the warmth of old familiar ways. Miriam, Maitha, Maliela, Claudia or Elizabeth ask me, Para llevar o para acá, the “ll” pronounced like a “SH” in this melodious bakery. I order an espresso and an empanada de carne to stay. As I eat, the details of the place slowly unfolds: the brass Elektra coffeemaker from Italy, the “God Bless America” neon sign, the colorful row of head caps, mate cups and thermos, the soccer balls on top of bottles of liquor and juice, the Rambla Armenia sign (an avenue in Montevideo), and the televisions on all sides, showing either sexy Latin music videos or fútbol matches. The flag of Uruguay seems to be everywhere—on the clock, cups, cash register—and though I am not one for flags, the sun makes me happy. I later discover it symbolizes freedom and independence. That’s how eating this empanada makes me feel. As I enjoy the fiesta in my mouth—the seamlessly baked dough with ground beef, pepper, onion, olive, egg—I think of Langston Hughes’s words, “I, too, am America”; think of the ways New York City teaches tolerance. And as I leave, glance at people transfixed by the cakes with multicolored frosting, that carry me back to my childhood, when I thought extra sweet was the only version of life I needed. I hear, Gracias a vos, followed by quien sigue, and walk out with the world inside.
La Gran Uruguaya: 85-06 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, NY 11372