For a lot of (maybe bad) reasons, I (and most others) associate my culinary heritage first with Italy and then second with Melting-Pot America. But the truth is that my first choice is almost entirely wrong. I do have a strong culinary ancestry from that region, my paternal Grandmother, although from Sicily. I also started my career in an Italian restaurant, and made my biggest claim to fame creating another one. However, given that I am second generation American with DNA from equal quarters: Mexican (Paternal Grandfather), Italian (Sicilian, Paternal Grandmother), German (Maternal Grandfather) and Polish (Maternal Grandmother) my second choice is the most correct ethnically and indeed “spiritually” too. I am an American, and so not easy to pigeonhole, but believe it or not, as close to my heart as Italian food is, there is another equal lover, from south of the border.
While my family was one of fairly traditional patriarch origins, with Grandfather and Father being paterfamilias, I have barely ever been to Mexico, just a rare trip or two over the border for the day. As a teen I went with family to Nogales for a day, and once Henry and I tripped across from San Diego to Tijuana for a salad at Caesars.
About half a century before, as a child of 8, My Grandfather, came across the same Nogales border with his father and brother, to pick fruit. He came from a relatively small city of Uruapan, in the volcanic avocado growing mountains of Michoacán Province. Allegedly my roots also trace back to the Mother of Father Hidalgo, the father of Mexican Independence. He eventually ended up in Chicago, where after many years in a factory, and serving in world war II, he became an independent, luxury watchmaker of some local repute.
My culinary lessons from my Grandfather and his heritage were sparse, but important. He (without knowing) taught me the importance of simplicity in Guacamole (one of his few specialties, maybe I’ll tell you about it later). He was also the master of rotisserie chicken at summer barbecues. I never learned his secret recipe, but is technique was widely regarded as very skilful. He cooked tender, juicy, birds with a crisp skin that ranged between dark-sweet caramel and crisp-bitter char. Aside from the instruction of these dishes he was a gourmand who took me to superb restaurants (not always Mexican), where I learned how excellent food and service could please a demanding, self-made Mexican-American entrepreneur. My parents, with 8 to 10 mouths to feed were always on a tight budget, so most of my dining out as a child was underwritten by him.
My other Mexican relatives (led by his sister, my Aunt Carmen) provided a kind of Mexican cuisine that fits entirely with my signature style, and with the lessons from my other ethic teachers. It sounds pretentious now, but it was and will always be family style. We never ate Tacos, and Burritos, to say nothing of Chimichangas and Quesadillas, (or the combo-platter). Those were commercial concoctions that I would learn of (and mostly enjoy) later.
Instead we dined on platters of Brasied, Pulled, Pork (a family version of Carnitas actually) Chicken Mole, Enchiladas, Tamales, stewed and re-fried pinto beans, rice steamed with tomato, onion, chilies and herbs, Guacamole, several fresh vegetable salads, and both corn and flour tortillas. This massive spread was laid out in center of the table, and we picked and chose our food, using the tortillas to make wraps or tostadas or, “Indian-chipati” style as a dipper to eat the various foods we put on our plates.
I love great Mexican food of every stripe with as much verve as I love all the wonderful Italian dishes. In the years as an adult I have eaten all sorts, from Taco trucks to pretentious Michelin-esque incarnations; from the standard northern fair, to Nuevo Mexican, Baja, Veracruz and other styles. None has ever rivaled my family Mexican spread, as noted above, and carried from Great Aunt to Grandma, to Mother, and her children as well.
Sadly I have yet to see the city or the countryside where my ancestors originated. As far as I know I have cousins there still, who have agave farms and a tequila distillery, (among other things), but we are not close. Who knows, perhaps in the coming chapters of my culinary journey I will retrain my attention towards the land of the Gallaga’s, and that cuisine of my youth…No matter what, on this day, (and September 16 too) ¡Viva México!