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My love affair with food

April 14, 2005

I think I’ve always been a foodie. When I think back to my childhood, my memories are always centered on food. I remember that the first sound I heard when I woke up in the morning was the clink of a spoon in a coffee cup, and I knew that my mom and grandma were at the dining room table, discussing life and family over coffee. My birthday memories are focused on which cake I got that year…my mom always made and decorated our birthday cakes. One year it was a pink bunny (my birthday always fell around Easter), another it was Michael Jackson. I remember the thunk, thunk of the wooden rolling pin against the counter as my grandma rolled out fresh flour tortillas, and the smell of the kitchen once they hit the comal.

During the holidays, everyone would get together at our house to make tamales. I was allowed to help a few times, but it was quickly decided that I either put too much masa in the cornhusks, or too little filling. I remember feeling a catch in my throat when my mom was cooking red chile, and dreading the extra-hot enchiladas that would be our dinner. On those nights, I ate Chef Boyardee.

We ate tacos, with freshly fried corn tortillas, and gorditas (which my brother called “Big Mouths”) filled with ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and grated cheese. We had refried beans and Spanish rice, and fideo, sometimes with Spam mixed in, if we were lucky. I loved it when there was Spam in there. We often ate a mixture of ground beef, tomatoes, and corn, or ground beef, tomatoes, and green beans with tortillas and refried beans. At Christmastime there were pumpkin empanadas, and at weddings or quinceaneras, bizcochos, covered in cinnamon sugar and ready to crumble in your mouth.

My mom also cooked American food from time to time: fried chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans, spaghetti, or a lemony fish and rice casserole during lent. Occasionally she’d make liver and onions, or venison from my dad’s last hunting trip, but I usually opted out of those.

I remember the taste and crunch of fried catfish, fresh from my dad’s fishing line. I remember my dad’s ceviche, full of onion and lime, waiting in a big jar in the fridge to be spooned on top of saltine crackers.

I ate all these foods happily, not knowing that there was another world of food out there to be eaten. My first memory of a “different” food was before I even started kindergarten. For some odd reason, my sister and I went to a summer bible school one day (I think my sister wanted to go, and I probably tagged along). I hated it. I remember coloring pictures of birds and Jesus and wanting to be at home with my mom. Then we had a short break, and they fed us little cups of Kool-Aid and tiny sugar cookies with sprinkles. Sprinkles on cookies! Who knew? I remember not enjoying them. They were weird, they were new, and I wanted to go home.

I was always so curious about what other people ate at home. I had always assumed everyone at beans and rice, tortillas and tacos. During a sleepover at a friend’s house in elementary school, we had a snack of crackers spread with butter and topped with peach salsa. Peach salsa! What kind of craziness was that? Salsa was always freshly roasted New Mexican Big Jim peppers with tomatoes, and never included anything like peaches. It was so good, we gorged on crackers and peach salsa all night.

When I was a little older, I went to space camp for a week in Alamogordo with my friend Fawna. We stayed with her grandmother, and I remember being so nervous about being away from my family that the first few days, I hardly ate at all. I would eat one or two cheerios in the morning, sure that I couldn’t hold anything else down. But by Tuesday night, I was feeling more comfortable, and I remember exactly what we ate for dinner. Her grandmother made spaghetti. But not just spaghetti, spaghetti with salad and garlic bread! And a dessert…not oreos or chocolate cake or empanadas…but peaches and cream. Juicy, ripe peaches with a dollop of perfectly sweet, airy, real whipped cream. I had never tasted anything so decadent, so foreign, in my life.

Once, my best friend who lived across the street invited me over for a Chinese dinner…all I remember about it was that it included white rice. The whole family poured soy sauce on their rice, and encouraged me to try it. I sprinkled a few drops on a spoonful of rice, tasted it, and declared it inedible. Whatever that soy sauce stuff was, I had no idea why they would ruin a perfectly good serving of rice with it. Nonetheless, I was ready to try anything new, to adapt to “American” food and embrace it as my own.

Now, as I dip my avocado sushi roll into a little bowl of soy sauce, or saute fresh garlic with eggplant and basil, or enjoy a cracker with local peach salsa, I find myself wishing I could just be in my mom’s kitchen again, with its mushroom decor and dark wooden cabinets, the sink with a window looking out over the back yard and air redolent of green chiles roasting over the gas burner, corn tortillas frying in oil, or chorizo sizzling in a pan. I want to hear the clink of spoons in coffee cups, and taste that first bite of fresh, hot flour tortilla spread with melted butter. I am always talking about how I really don’t have a culture…how I’m a misfit between the worlds of Mexico and America…but here it is, a full, rich culture of a Mexican-American, New Mexican, middle class family. It’s in my blood, in my taste buds, in my memories. And I’m proud of it.

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