Saturday, May 12, 2007

Food at Family Gatherings, Part 2 (Mexican)

Food at family gatherings on my mother's side usually meant going to my grandma's house. During holidays someone would bring turkey or ham (most likely that person would be my Dad). We would have refried beans, homemade tortillas, spanish rice and tamales. To this day, Mexican food is still my overall cuisine of choice.

The center of all this food prep, of course, is my Gram. First off, no one makes refried beans like she does. Her beans are a little less "mashed" and more whole than some of the others I've seen. My Dad makes great refried beans, but they aren't like hers. Secondly, there's nothing like real homemade, still hot tortillas, and we had lots of homemade tortillas for holiday dinners.

A large cast iron skillet of spanish rice would sit on the table, Dad would be standing at the head of the table carving up the main event meat and I would have to sit in the kitchen with the rest of the little kids, being too small to join the adults. As a child, I was very small so even my younger cousins insisted upon cutting my meat into small pieces for me.

The real centerpiece of the meal, though, were the tamales. Now I can safely say that my Gram makes the best tamales on the planet, but everyone says that about their grandmother's tamales. Gram spends days making tamales for her church and for family and friends. I've spent my fair share of time helping out with the cause. Both times I was given the task of husking the corn wrappers. That is, taking the dried wrappers and soaking them in a bowl of water and pulling all of the remaining residual corn silk out of the wrapper. After about an hour of doing this, your hands start to turn red. After three hours, your hands start to swell a little and sting from irritation. After three days of doing this task with very few breaks, I was howling. It seems Gram makes hundreds of tamales in this manner. My mother and aunts would be doing other parts of the prep: cooking the pork, making masa, smearing the masa on the soaked corn husks and assembly.

They taste sooo wonderful. My parents make good tamales too, but not like hers.

Every once in a while, Gram would make a really special soup for everyone: Menudo. I've tried it many times, but simply could not get past the fact that it's made out of tripe. Gram makes the red (rojo) version and it's smells really good. It's somewhat spicy. I'm told the preparation for this dish can take quite a while which explains why we didn't have it each holiday.

When I was a little girl (probably around 8 years old) sitting at Gram's kitchen table one day, she told me she was making a special sauce for the holiday meal. Then she told me there was a special ingredient: chocolate. I didn't believe her at all and told her so, thinking she was teasing me. My uncles and cousins confirmed this odd truth and I had my first taste of mole. I recall being surprised that it didn't taste at all like chocolate and it wasn't sweet. I thought I was going to be eating the equivalent of chocolate sauce. Since growing up, I have learned there are many different kinds of moles available, and it comes in a wide variety of colors. Gram's mole was a deep dark red. It tastes so rich and substantial. Difficult to describe. A cooking project I want to try is learning how to make mole which apparently takes many hours of prep and more hours of simmering.

I'm also quite fond of Mexican pastries. My uncles would bring them for us, usually for the next morning's meal. They all have a similar taste that I find comforting.

My parents make enchiladas regularly, but they don't make it like most people. No wrapping the corn tortillas up in rolls and putting it in the baking pan. They make the sauce, a deep rich red sauce, and then we soak the corn tortillas in the sauce for a short time then put them on each plate. After that, we put in meat, cheese, tomatoes, sour cream, etc. in an assembly line fashion. My brother is particularly adept at making enchilada sauce. Each time it's slightly different, but always wonderful.

Another family recipe that we make is Albondigas, a meatball soup. My Dad added the touch of mixing the meatballs with white rice (of course). It's one of my favorite soups to make myself and is great when it's cold outside. I've asked my mother a few times and she said the recipe came from my Gram, but I don't remember her making this dish.

Some memories for me relating to Mexican food or rather food at mom's side of the family:
  • One of my most vivid memories is of being a small child sitting in my Gram's kitchen after the holiday meal. I would sit quietly, sometimes drinking a Shasta soda, listening to my mother, my aunts and my Gram all talking in Spanish while cleaning the kitchen and doing the dishes. The men, of course, were all sitting in the living room watching TV along with my cousins. I don't speak Spanish at all, but I can understand it a little. Most likely, this little understanding of the language comes from listening to all the women talking in the kitchen year after year.
  • My uncles would make marvelous floats for us on hot summer nights: 7 Up and pineapple sherbet. God! Just thinking of that combination of tastes makes my mouth water and takes me back to standing in Gram's kitchen while waiting for my uncle to scoop mine for me.
  • A favorite luxury food of mine are what my Mom calls "Gorditas." Us kids would sit in the kitchen making thick patties out of masa and water, and then Gram would dip them in more masa before frying them in a cast iron skillet (in lard, no less). They would come out golden brown and lovely. We would pile on cheese, tomatoes, cilantro, sour cream, etc. tostada style. HEAVEN!!! I call this a luxury food because it's rarely made in my family although if I beg and plead, my parents will make it for me when I go over there for dinner.
  • I have an deep fondness for Taco Bell although I hardly eat there anymore. Even though my well educated palate can tell the difference between homemade and canned refried beans (or worse, their spanish rice), I still enjoy eating there every once in a while. The first time I went there, I was astounded that food similar to Gram's would sold in a place that was a lot like McDonald's.
Too bad I don't have more food stories to post. It's been a fun topic to write about. The memories have been vivid and I am reminded that a lot people didn't grow up this way. I guess I'm lucky.


anne said...

Lucky, indeed!

Anonymous said...


I love these last two pieces. They have me very nostalgic for my Aunt Fran's house, and serious home cookin'.