Why Mexican is my Comfort Food

I grew up in the mid late 20th century with a family that traveled much of the United States. We were solidly lower middle class. I can say that although we never missed a meal, it might consist only of farm stand corn on the cob.

My grandmother did not pass on her family recipe for gefilte fish (a Jewish fish cake) to her daughters, whether or not they wanted it was never recorded. She continued to make the delicacy into her 90’s. It was wonderful.

My father was married and divorced before he married my mother. In his world, men did not have to learn to cook except outside on the grill and women did not have to work outside the home.

My mother grew up with servants and a nanny.

My father was born on a farm and expected to have dinner of some kind on the table. My mother managed that, in spite of her lack of training.

Meal time was often a battle between my mother and I. She expected me to eat what she cooked and I expected her to cook food that I liked to eat. It rarely ended well.

In my home, margarine was called butter and Miracle Whip was mayonnaise until I learned to read.

I did not appreciate my mother’s cooking but I love her anyway.

There were things that I learned to cook from my mother that I still make in some form. The slow cooked, not ready til it sits in the fridge for tomorrow, spaghetti sauce is one of them. The idea of a slow braise was something my mother understood. She used to make a dish with tenderized round steak and onions in gravy that I did like as a kid and although I rarely buy beef, I do a similar thing with pork, either chops or any other pork I can cut into steak like pieces. I serve it with mashed potatoes like mom did as well, but I never peel my potatoes. These last two items are the only things from my youth I consider comfort food unless I can find a grandmother who makes gefilte fish.

Fast forward 25 years.

We moved to Southern CA to be around the wife’s parents as they got older. They lived close by and we ate together fairly often. My mother in law would cook the Mexican food she had made all of her life and the experience showed. I will get back to the tamales in a separate writing, but she knew the flavors she worked with and how things went together in that cuisine. On the other hand, Thursday was usually ‘In and Out’ burger night and somebody had better bring home the burgers and fries because she was not going to cook.

The things she made were typical Hispanic home cooking and sometimes when she needed large quantities for a party or event she would call on her friends to help her. Some of those dishes were the best I had ever tasted. What I learned was the flavor palette of one family. It did not make me an expert on Mexican cuisine but it gave me a starting point on which to build. It has long been my opinion that to truly learn how to cook a style of food, one must be immersed in it in some way. It is impossible for a recipe to teach the delicate interplay of flavors and textures like having a mother in law cook for you.

I did not start cooking Mexican food until that part of my life was over. It seemed disrespectful to the masters that already existed in that family. Once on my own, I found I missed the flavors enough to give it a try myself. Since then I have been asked to make some of those family style dishes for others and the reviews startle me as much as the fact that the refried beans were cooked by the white guy surprises the diners. It truly shocks me when my chili verde empanadas are some of the best they can remember having or that the simple Mexican rice tray reminds a friend of her grandmother’s.

The food reminds me of the family that I no longer have. Perhaps that is why it comforts me.


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