Growing up, my sense of home was constantly challenged. My mom’s pursuit of a higher education forced me and my family to upend our roots every few years, crisscrossing all over the West Coast. We didn’t always have a lot of money, in fact, some would say we were poor. There was also a sinking insecurity around being Mexican-American and never quite fitting with one side of my identity or the other. We didn’t speak Spanish, or go to Catholic church, and our Mexican heritage was tied to Texas, not Michoacan, Jalisco or Durango, Colorado — where my “real” Mexican friends were from. The constant moving, the lack of funds, the feeling of cultural isolation — all of this could have made for a lifelong identity crisis. Thanks to my mother, though, my sister and I always felt at home. No matter where we lived, and no matter how much was in the bank, she tried to keep our own sense of Mexican-ness intact. The easiest way for my mom to accomplish this tall order was through food.
My parents split up before I started preschool, so as a single mom, most of her recipes were born out of a need to improvise with whatever was in the cupboard. When money was tight, as it often was in our younger years, she had to find ways to make the most mundane ingredients stretch long enough for leftovers. In addition to the fact that her cooking had to pass muster with finicky little kids with still-developing palates. For my mom, whose parents were born in Texas, that meant a lot of tortillas. Her tacos were famous, prepared with freshly fried hard shells, filled with seasoned ground beef, tomatoes, and bright ribbons of cheddar. On special nights, she rolled those corn tortillas around cheese and black olives and smothered them in salsa and more cheese for enchiladas rojas. Other times, she took cans of kidney beans and diced tomatoes and heaping spoons of cumin and whipped it all into chili con carne. We downed it by the bowlful. Compared to the authentic menudo or carne asada that regularly made appearances on my friends’ dinner tables, my mom’s dishes might have been considered “white-washed.” But to us, her Tex-Mex cooking was the touchstone of our sense of home.
When times were really rough and the food stamps ran low, my mother turned to the local food pantry for essentials. Food pantry care packages usually came with bricks of cheese, boxes of powdered milk, tubs of peanut butter, and other non-perishable government-issued staples. They also tended to provide cans of nondescript pork product. The only hint as to their contents was the silhouette of a pig portrayed on the label. Not knowing exactly how to turn that flavorless, processed product into a meal fit for two hungry girls, mom turned to my grandfather.
My abuelo had been cooking at restaurants since before he was enlisted in the Army during World War II. He worked for a time in the back of the house at the iconic Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles, which, in its heyday during the Golden Age of Hollywood, was a hot spot for starlets and movie producers. So, my grandfather knew how to make every day dishes like mashed potatoes or French toast taste five-star. He was also the glue who kept us connected to traditional Mexican-American recipes like tamales, which he passed down to his daughters. My tía has kept the tamale-making tradition alive, recruiting us kids to her assembly line every year around Christmas, and it’s now trickling down to my younger sister’s and my generation. But it was my abuelo’s recipe for chile verde that I remember most.
Chile verde is a comforting pork stew often prepared with roasted Poblano chili peppers, Anaheim chili peppers, jalapeño peppers, and tomatillos, resulting in a verdant hue with just a hint of spice. Chunks of pork — or the cans of nondescript pork product that my mom often used as a substitute — are braised in that green sauce for hours at a time until the meat is tender enough to fall apart with a fork. And by then, the salsa is more savory than spicy. Just one big pot of the dish is perfect for children, like my sister and me, to scoop and fold into a warm flour tortilla. As a fledgling writer now living in Detroit, which feels far more culturally distant from my Mexican heritage than Southern California ever did, I long for these recipes. Now I’m the one calling my mom for her beloved food hacks.
This last holiday season, my mom, sister, and I took a road trip from my mom’s house in Culver City, California to Ensenada in Mexico’s Baja California. One afternoon, we drove to La Bufadora, a popular tourist trap along the Pacific Ocean, and got to talking about these recipes. Suddenly, mom and I began debating how hard-shell tacos, cheesy enchiladas, or chunky pork burritos weren’t “authentically” Mexican. “That’s bullshit,” she said. “Authenticity comes from the home.” For some, it’s Sunday menudo. In Baja, it’s fish tacos and ceviche. In Southwest Detroit, increasingly, it has become a crimson pot of the beef-based stew, birria de res. For us, it was Gramps’ fool-proof pork recipe that transformed a can of government meat product into a culinary marvel. I could scarf down two, three burritos in one sitting. And it served as a reminder that even though we moved around a ton and didn’t always have a lot of money, we could still enjoy our delicious family traditions.
Serena Maria Daniels is a freelance food journalist based in metro Detroit and the editor-in-chief of Tostada Magazine.