The Food that Binds

Posted by:  | Category: Mexico


The following is a guest post by Maura Wall Hernandez

There’s one thing that undeniably bonds Spanish-speakers beyond language: a common love for Latino foods. Whether you were born in a Spanish-speaking country and came to the U.S. later or were raised in the U.S. but have visited relatives somewhere in Latin America, we all share that longing for the home-cooked comfort foods and culinary treats that just can’t be found on U.S. supermarket shelves.

My husband grew up in Mexico City, and because much of his family still lives there, we try to visit as often as possible. We have very few Spanish-speaking relatives anywhere near where we live so, when we got married, I made it my personal mission to begin really researching and learning all the family recipes­–most of which have seldom been written down and only passed on orally from generation to generation.

My ambition to obtain written record of all of these family recipes was not without some self-interest; someday, this mamita is going to be raising Spanglish babies. And when that time comes, as a non-native Spanish-speaker I know it will be a challenge–not only to maintain teaching my children two languages, but teaching them about the cultural traditions that go along with each. One thing is for sure, though: they’ll never lack an education when it comes to Mexican food.

Because my husband’s abuelita materna passed away a few years before, and she was the famous cook of the family, I’ll never be able to ask her about the recipes that my suegra and my husband were raised eating. I decided that I needed to not only learn to make these cherished recipes to feed my family, but also chronicle them so that someday my own children would be able to hear about their bisabuela, feel connected to their father’s heritage and eventually, learn how to keep a Mexican kitchen like their mami. And so my blog, The Other Side of The Tortilla, was born.

As I continue my journey on the road to learning every family recipe from A to Z, with carefully chosen Spanish-language cookbooks to navigate the gaps in between guidance from relatives, I’ve discovered from reader comments and friends that there are a lot of families out there just like ours who are diligently hanging on to this important piece of their culture for their kids.

What I’ve observed from a number of friends raising bilingual children is that being proud of your language and culture gets them interested. And, as food is deeply tied to celebrations, holidays and family gatherings, cooking for and with your children is an opportunity ripe for teaching them about your culture.

I know that our future children will learn about rosca de reyes in January for Los Reyes Magos, capirotada at Lent, chiles en nogada in September for Mexican Independence Day, and ponche Navideño in December for Posadas Navideñas, just to name a few. Through involving children in the cooking process or even just explaining why you eat special foods for holidays, they’re absorbing a little piece of your culture, which you’ll repeat with them year after year. And because they’re like little sponges, the older they get, or the more often you introduce them to your favorite cultural foods, they’ll begin forming memories and will be requesting those foods before you know it.

Common staples in my Mexican kitchen include foods such as chiles, corn and corn-based products such as tortillas, beans, squash, tomatoes and tomatillos, limes, avocados, various quesos, chocolate and spices such as achiote, cumin and vanilla. In fact, my husband’s first word as a child was aguacate (Spanish for avocado)–and not because he liked it. So if you’ve ever doubted the ease with which children can learn seemingly complex words at a young age, think again because your little one might end up saying aguacate before mami or papi.

Children also have a keen sense for picking up on interactions between adults, so your relationships with others who either share your language and culture or a similar culture will tell them a lot about the value of common threads. Food bonds adults as well, and over the last few years I’ve learned there’s no better gift from friends or family who’ve just traveled to Latin America than when they return with edible regalitos.

Recently, after one friend’s trip to her native San Luis Potosí, she brought me back these little enchiladas made of green, spicy tortillas and a tangy cheese. They were stacked ever so carefully, wrapped in paper, frozen for the journey and then wrapped in plastic. She explained how to lightly fry them until the cheese starts to bubble just so, and I made a salsa to go with them. Me and my pancita deeply appreciated the thought and care that went into making so many teeny little enchiladas and transporting them more than 1,500 miles to give me a little taste of her hometown.

Another friend, upon return from a trip to visit family in Morelia, brought me two kinds of homemade cajeta courtesy of his suegro. If you’ve only ever had cajeta from a bottle or a can, you are truly missing out. The homemade variety, made with fresh goat’s milk, has a unique flavor and a depth that’s simply incomparable to factory-made caramel. The same friend also brought me a turtle shaped molcajete, the stone elegantly painted with vibrant colors. Yes, you read that correctly. My friend dragged a 10-pound stone molcajete more than 1,700 miles back to Chicago so that I could grind my own spices and make salsas and guacamole old-country style. Now that is friendship.

Don’t get me wrong; my American friends are great. But would they bring me a big old heavy stone molcajete as a surprise just because they know I like making salsa? Probably not. My Mexican friends, on the other hand, wouldn’t even think twice, and for that I truly treasure their friendship. They get it, and without so much as a “que hueva.” When your children observe those kinds of friendship bonds with those who you share your language and culture, it reinforces a positive image of what it means to be bilingual and bicultural.

So, if you ever find yourself attending a potluck dinner with me, you can rest assured I’ll be bringing the chilaquiles (in part to introduce most of the guests to something new and also so that I know there will be something I can eat among all the casseroles and crockpots)… and someday, I’ll be bringing the chilpayates, too. Until then, you can find me in the kitchen, surrounded by cookbooks and trying to decide what recipe to tackle next.

What are some of the foods that bind your familia?

Maura Wall Hernandez is a Chicago-based journalist and photographer, and the author of TheOtherSideOfTheTortilla.

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