I grew up in California. I’m from a bi-racial, bi-cultural home, and very much a working class background. I grew up in Hayward. It’s sort of a smaller city between Oakland and San Jose. My mother was born in California and her heritage was Mexican-American and Native American, and my father is Anglo.
So my food memories actually are a little bit about the split between two worlds.
There was an interesting moment after my mom passed away where we were talking about her – my brother, my dad, and I. And my brother and dad didn’t know some of her favorite foods. I didn’t realize that until then.
I didn’t have the awareness, until that moment, when we were talking about this. And they’re like, “She never ate that.” But she taught me how to make it! For example, chorizo and eggs. That was actually the dish that came up, because I said that was one of her favorite dishes. And it’s not a common thing, and they both said, “She never ate that.” And I’m like, what are you talking about?
It was a funny thing to realize so late in my life that they didn’t know about her. To the point where they really didn’t believe me and I had to keep saying, how did I learn? I sat there and learned from her how to cook it. It’s very interesting.
She loved chorizo and eggs. That’s just a type of spicy sausage. The Mexican version is not cured the way the Spanish version is cured. It’s fresh. So you take that out of the casing and fry it in the pan, and then scramble some eggs with it. It’s very much an egg and sausage dish. You eat it as a burrito, so you wrap it in tortillas. It’s very good.
Who doesn’t like Mexican food?
I had no idea if my dad and my brother didn’t like Mexican food. Who doesn’t like Mexican food? I don’t know what the reason was, but the other thing that I have thought about since that time is that Hayward is this funny place. So, once upon a time, decades and decades and decades ago, it was a suburb of Oakland. It’s now really its own city. But the neighborhood that we lived in, even in the 70s and 80s was somewhat of a suburb, and our neighborhood in particular was a very white neighborhood. She stood out as a brown-skinned Mexican-American woman with dark, curly hair. And, who knows if cooking Anglo food or “American food” was a way to try to fit in. I don’t know if it was a way to try to please my father. If those were the kinds of things he wanted. Was it a way to fit into a neighborhood where she felt so different? Because I do think that she felt very different, and felt like an outsider at times. She and my brother are brown-skinned people and I’m fair skinned, more like my father. So that’s also just been this interesting thing in terms of identity. But in terms of food, who knows what was connected to that choice? And was some of that connected to assimilating or trying to fit in?
She would cook and prepare meals with her sisters – and at a certain point in my life I got invited to that table and we ate the Mexican food that she liked. One of her brothers lived with us and he was often around. So my Uncle Joe would be there, my Uncle Don would be there, definitely her sisters, Linda and Thelma. She was from a very big family, but those were the siblings that lived close by. Oftentimes it was just women and sometimes it would be two of her brothers as well.
I have a more faded memory — I was younger — about her two older sisters, Rose and Delores who we didn’t see that often. They made tortillas by hand. I have memories of being a smaller child and going to visit Delores and she would just be making a mountain of handmade tortillas. The tortillas were just there. She’d make them early in the day. But she had four boys, so if we went over for a long visit and she was making tortillas and then just this beautiful stack, and throughout the day everyone’s grabbing a tortilla, throwing some butter on it, rolling it up, and that’s just sort of a snack for everybody that’s coming. And my mom and she would be visiting, and I was sort of in and around the kitchen.
At some point my Aunt Trudy asked Rose and the other sisters to teach my mom how to make tortillas. It didn’t go that well. They weren’t into teaching her or something happened. But my mom definitely wasn’t the one to make them. I really have the distinct memory that Rose made them.
The other thing [besides chorizo and eggs] that she loved to make that I learned how to make from her are tacos. It was really important to have lots of different fresh ingredients. Chopping fresh scallions, chopping onions, chopping tomatoes, cilantro. Again, having some well seasoned meat — usually ground beef would be the main meat that we would use. Shredded cheese. And then learning how to fry corn tortillas. I have very distinct memories of learning how to slide tortillas into the oil, the very hot oil. When they start to get a little stiff or crunchy, flipping them in half, then flipping them on each side. You pay a lot of attention inside that pan when you’re doing those corn tortillas for tacos.
That’s something I still love to do. I will make that meal often.
By teaching me was she also wanting to make sure the traditions did continue, and that the traditions got passed down? Maybe she thought I was going to be more receptive than my brother. Maybe as the girl, as the daughter, I was the one to inherit the traditions. I had a troubled relation with my mother, I had a tough time, and so I am actually very thankful that I got those lessons in cooking, those particular meals, and I’m also very thankful that I got invited to that very female space of that table with her sisters and with her.
She grew up with eight siblings. Their mother died when I was pretty young. Going even further back I don’t know if I was even five or six years old when she was very sick. I remember visiting at her house at a time when she was sick. We never talked about what she liked to cook or what she liked to do. But I assume they learned their cooking from her. Their father was not a nice guy. All the daughters as they were learning to cook, if they prepared a meal that he didn’t like he would throw the plate of food across the kitchen. And he wasn’t in the picture a lot. He died suddenly, two years before I was born. He died at a relatively young age. I don’t think they learned much from him. They learned what he didn’t like. How to stay away from him.
We were a steak and potatoes household
I always have those two – my mother saying she didn’t like to cook and knowing that story about her father. What would happen when you cooked? Pretty intense kinds of things. I can understand her not liking to cook.
When she was just preparing food at home it was steak and potatoes. We were a steak and potatoes household. She would cook standard meals that she didn’t really like to eat or cook.
I don’t know why. I wish I could have asked her. Did she just assume that my dad and my brother didn’t like the chorizo, the tacos, or did she offer it to them and they didn’t want it? Or did she want to carve out that time with her sisters? Who knows what the motivation was.
I was a kid in the 70s and where we lived and the time and the place and whatever – I joke often about not really knowing where vegetables came from. Every vegetable we ate came from a can. Oftentimes, the peas and carrots got cooked down so they were very, very soft. Pretty listless vegetables. My father liked steak and potatoes, so we had that. As kids you don’t know what’s normal, so I don’t love it and I don’t hate it, but it’s nothing special. My father’s a well-done steak kind of guy. I’m not a well-done steak person. I might have a rare steak. As a kid, as we ate those things, maybe the memory is that they were just kind of bland or plain.
Although, one dish that she made that we all loved when she would do this, she would make just a very basic beef stew. I think it was her mother’s recipe. It was never written down, it was just sort of a common recipe. But it was something that she liked to cook, so then we all sort of felt good the day when she decided to cook that. And that was something I didn’t learn from her. So, again, after she passed away I thought, Oh, I want to recreate that. So I had to ask a few family members, what do you remember was in that stew? And I looked up a few different recipes. Just the chunks of beef that are pan fried a little bit, then put them in the pot. You put in carrots. She loved to put Brussels sprouts in that stew. And we always thought that that was her special addition. None of us could think of any other stews that would have Brussels sprouts in them. So Brussels sprouts, carrots, potatoes, some flour to thicken everything up, some stock, and some water. And then cook it in the oven for a good long time.
I remember shortly after she passed away making that for my dad, my brother, and my Uncle Joe, her brother, and my Aunt Thelma, her sister. So there just happened to be an occasion where we were all together and I thought, well, why don’t we have this stew as a way to remember her. I don’t make it that often, but it is something I remember very distinctly as a kid on special occasions.
So I didn’t learn very many things about cooking from my mother. It wasn’t that I was always in the kitchen with her and she was always cooking. It wasn’t that kind of household. When I moved out of my parents’ home when I was about 20 she gave me a cookbook. It wasn’t Betty Crocker but it was something else. I remember really appreciating that. Really going through that book and trying to teach myself things from that cookbook. I love to cook now. Like my mother, I love to have people over for meals and I love to share food with friends and family. But I learned that more from young adulthood on, and from trial and error, and from asking other people to share their recipes with me, or figuring things out as I go along.
There was always room at the table
She did love to host parties and meals. There was always food around. If she wasn’t the one cooking it, she was helping to orchestrate, asking people to make things, asking people to make their favorite things. There was always this sense of family and sharing food for special occasions.
Not only did she like the parties and the bigger things where there’s lots of food and lots of people, and lots to drink, there was also a sense in our home when I was a kid that the doors were always open. There was always room at the table so that if one of her siblings was in the neighborhood, they could drop by. Aunt Thelma who works for the post office – very common that she would get off her shift and come by. Many family members but sometimes friends too. There was just an open door and an open table for folks. I think I have that kind of attitude as well. People can stop by and I’ll always have something to share.
It’s kind of unheard of in this day and age – even close friends or family would think it was rude to stop by. If I still lived in California . . . Sometimes I wonder what are the differences with New England versus California, because there are social norms that are different there compared to here.
The other person who influenced me and who I have lots of memories about, especially associated with food and cooking, is my Aunt Trudy. She was married to my Uncle Sam, who just passed about a year ago. Unlike my mother, she loved to cook. And actually my mother and her sisters nicknamed Trudy Betty Crocker. In my family there’s this teasing that is playful but has kind of a mean spirit to it. So if you don’t like a nickname, that’s usually the nickname that sticks for you in my family. I don’t think she liked being called Betty Crocker so much, but I do think they did it with affection.
And I know my mother appreciated how much Trudy did like to cook. Not just about the food, but we would spend time with Sam and Trudy because they have two children close in age to my brother and myself. We did a lot of activities, the two families together. Taking trips together but also on the weekends spending Sundays together. My dad and my Uncle Sam were big football fans. My dad is still a big football fan. So getting together and Oakland Raider games were the highlight of the weekend. But Trudy would often do a lot of the cooking and then we would eat really good food. She is African-American, so we’d eat a lot of Southern and Southern-inspired food. Really good barbecue. Potato salad. My love of traditionally Black food I think comes from spending time with her.
I didn’t necessarily learn how to cook anything from Trudy, but loving macaroni and cheese, loving collard greens. Those kinds of things I learned in my adult life, making those dishes because I wanted to keep enjoying them, especially here in New England.
I learned how to make refried beans from my Uncle Don. That was his specialty to make for family or bigger parties that my mom would throw. My Aunt Linda would make enchiladas, which we loved. Everybody kind of had their fame with the dishes they did really well. And my mother was good at coordinating all of those folks to make those different things.
I’ve tried to keep those or to recreate those dishes in my everyday cooking, and my practices. Those are the kinds of things I like to eat. Enchiladas are very cumbersome, very difficult to make. I never learned Linda’s recipe, but I have experimented with those.
My mother not liking to cook, I don’t think she liked to prepare things so much either. I remember that I was always so thankful when we would get money to buy school lunches, not that they were very good. Although I think on Fridays or on certain days, they did those French bread pizzas, which were kind of a fun thing. She would make sandwiches for us, and those were fine, peanut butter and jelly or tunafish sandwiches. Those were all fine. But she would also do things like wrap celery in aluminum foil and the foil changes the smell of the celery. I remember not liking those things. She always made sure we had to pick out our lunch boxes, so that was a good angle for her to work like if you were handed your special lunch box then you’d be happy to take that with you. I think I had the Muppets, or I had Barbie one year. It felt good to have my favorite characters. The lunches were ok but they weren’t anything special. I think she bought the best snacks because it was often the case that other kids wanted our snacks and sometimes I would trade. Hostess cupcakes or Hostess HoHos. We got to have those kind of snacks in our lunch, and that was special.
My mother had a sweet tooth. I have a sweet tooth to this day, especially chocolate. There was a neighborhood bakery where she got our birthday cakes from. There was also Nation’s, like a burger joint but they’re actually known for their pies and desserts. So you could go to Nation’s and just get a slice of pie. Chocolate cream pie, for example. It’s very good. A lot of other families or other moms might have wanted us to think in terms of moderation, but she did not have that. She did not have rules about eating. She wasn’t strict. In some ways maybe she was too permissive. We had access to a lot of sweets, maybe more than we should have, I think because she herself liked them. I still love desserts.
Friday nights we would go out for pizza
She cooked kind of Monday through Thursday. She decided on the weekends she did not have to cook, or she should not have to cook. So then she got us into a routine where Friday night was pizza night. And there’s a chain, there’s a few of them in the Bay area – I’ve never seen them outside California – called Round Table Pizza. Friday nights we would get to go out for pizza. As a kid there was something exciting about going to the pizza place, because it often meant you got to play video games and you got to have soda and you got to be out. I kind of remember that as being a fun thing. That was a big deal.
I think we regularly went to a Chinese place, like maybe we alternated Chinese food with pizza. We had fast food pretty regularly on Saturdays. On the weekends there was a lot of fast food, like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s kind of meals. We did eat Taco Bell, and there’s a chain called Chevy’s and we went there. And there are so many good Mexican restaurants that are not chains. And we would get regular burritos or tacos, what you’d call the basics.
And then on the Sundays when we got together with Sam and Trudy’s family, again, there’s something social there because we’re all hanging out and playing and eating really good food. So she figured out how to feed us and how to get us things we did like even if she didn’t prepare things.
I don’t think we went to Indian restaurants. And I don’t think my parents ever ate sushi or Japanese food or anything like that. I think we were regulars at the Chinese place my parents liked. I also have a memory of being treated special there. Like they would come over and chat with my mom and dad. And they would bring us extra things.
There was an Italian place we would eat at on occasion. It was kind of a family restaurant. That was a place where the big thing would be to order takeout, and we’d order all this really good Italian food and bring it home to eat. Why we did that and not eat in the actual restaurant I don’t know. And that was a place too, were we must have been regulars there because they kind of knew us. Like they knew our order.
And then a friend, a childhood friend’s mom, ran a deli called Zorba’s Deli I think. I was friends with the girl and then my mom and her mom kind of became friends. So we were regulars there too. And for different parties and things, my mom would always go and get deli platters or sandwiches. She always used them for catering for certain events. I think it was important to my mom to give that kind of place her business, if she knew it was my friend’s mom, and it became a regular thing. She wanted to say hello to the manager every time. Or she wanted to talk to the waiters. She was very personable with people like that.
I don’t have memories of getting dressed up and going out to fancy places. My mom and dad were not the kind of people who liked to get dressed up and go to fancy restaurants. I don’t think that was ever their thing. And I don’t think they ever wanted to do that with kids. So we didn’t do that.
I have a cousin in his twenties that started to work for different restaurants. First he became a bartender, then he became a server, then he became a host and a manager. He was great in those things, a very attentive bartender, a very attentive waitstaff and foodstaff person. In my 20s I would go to restaurants where he was working just to go to some of what you would call fancier places. There’s a place in Jack London Square in Oakland called Scott’s Seafood Grill. He worked there. My other cousin Dana and I would get dressed up and go to these places where he was working. That was a lot of fun. It became something that I liked to do.
The elegant dinners that I do remember from a young age were on my dad’s side of the family, at my grandmother Winnie’s. Her husband, my grandfather, also died when I was very young. I actually only had one grandmother that I was very close to because the other grandparents had died at such early ages. We’d go to Winnie’s house for our birthdays, my dad’s birthday, definitely for Christmas dinner, and for Easter dinner. At her house it was very different than our house, and very different than some of these other family gatherings. The dinner party was something that she was really into. She’d pull out the china, she’d pull out the silverware. My dad had a sister, Aunt Carol, and she has three children, so it would be a time for all of us to be together.
It’s interesting when I think about it now. My mother was always concerned, kind of preoccupied with whether I and my brother were going to behave. She’d talk to us in the car, be on your best behavior, do this, don’t do that. I think that my grandmother and my Aunt Carol did all of the cooking. I don’t think my mother cooked or contributed to those meals. I’m not sure if she wasn’t asked or if she just said she didn’t want to, but they did all of the cooking. And those were really good meals. They would just be sort of traditional, a turkey on Christmas, and a ham on Easter. She would take her time and make homemade gravy, and she would make scalloped potatoes, and she would make green bean casserole. And then, there’d usually be some kind of yummy pie and ice cream. She also loved these candies, See’s candies. We would usually get gifts of See’s candies, on both occasions, for Easter and for Christmastime. She would get very fancy baskets from See’s candies. That was always a special treat.
My Aunt Carol liked to bake and often baked the pies for us. I didn’t learn from her but I think I got an appreciation and at a certain point I started baking, and then that would be something I would do. I would bring pies to the Thanksgiving or the Christmas dinners at my grandmother’s house. Then my grandmother was no longer able to host those and then Carol started taking over.
I had learned from my Aunt Trudy, who I’ve been visiting with recently, that apparently they knew somebody who had a farm or raised animals for butchering. So Aunt Trudy and my mom they went half and half on — I think it was a half of a cow. Trudy said it was the funniest story. So my mom doesn’t like to cook and therefore doesn’t care to know much about all of these cuts of meat. So they divvied everything up. They divvied up steaks, and whatever, and ground beef. So at a certain point my mom was complaining to my Aunt Trudy that we had gone through all of the ground beef and she didn’t know what to do with everything else. And Trudy was like, you’ve got all the best parts still to cook! Trudy agreed to cook alongside my mother, to cook with my mother, so that we could all eat those things. My mother was not going to cook it. She had no interest. She wouldn’t cook a pot roast, she wouldn’t do anything like that.
I love to eat a lot of different foods
Trudy was a more adventurous cook. She would try new things. She was always interested in new recipes. They were just so different. I think I have a curiosity about food. When I eat things I don’t normally eat, I like to think about things like oh, how did they prepare this? Oh, could I make this at home? So I’m always talking to my friends about things that they prepare. I love to eat a lot of different foods.
When I moved here I was definitely very disappointed, because of my heritage and because of coming from California, the idea of Mexican food . . . What’s available here is really not that interesting. Sorry! I have a couple favorite places but they really don’t compare. So I miss that, readily available good Mexican food you can go out and get. I’ve traveled to Chicago a bunch of times, so Chicago’s got great Mexican food. I’m happy when I’m there.
I didn’t have pot roast until I moved to New England. I love to make pot roast now. I moved here about 20 years ago. I think my first impressions were that the palate, the seasonings of things that go into food are so very different here and that felt a little not exciting. There are many people who don’t season their food here. But, the beautiful thing where we live is the availability of so much produce and all of the different farms. I’ve been a member of a CSA [community-supported-agriculture] almost the whole time that I’ve lived here. Pretty soon after I moved here that was one of the first things that I did. What that has done is introduce me to lots of things that I never ate growing up, especially with all the canned peas and carrots. Now, at our CSA we keep getting celeriac. I didn’t even know what that was. I know that kale has made sort of a boom in the American eating experience but, like growing up for me, kale was like garnish. It would be what was put around a fruit platter or on some sort of buffet table. It was decoration. You didn’t eat it. I love kale, any kale in a number of ways. Parsnips, turnips – I didn’t eat any of those things growing up. Kohlrabi — we actually make French fries out of it. I eat lots of beets, in lots of different ways. I learned how to make borscht. I juice beets and carrots. I love all the different squash that I’ve discovered here – delicata, and acorn squash, and butternut squash. And I actually love to make a blue hubbard stuffed squash at Thanksgiving time, one of my favorite dishes to make with wild rice and sausage. I didn’t know about any of those things until I moved here. So that’s been really wonderful, learning how to cook with all of these different vegetables.