Fast Food, Tortillas, and the Art of Accepting Yourself

Javier Cabral on rediscovering his family's Mexican food   

“You’re going to regret turning down your mother’s homemade food when you’re older.”

These words, told to me by my father as a teenager when he saw that I preferred to eat a microwaved pouch of processed vegan chilli instead of my mother’s homemade guisados, have stayed with me throughout my adulthood. Those rustic, long-cooked stews of Mexico, eaten with a fresh pile of warm tortillas, didn’t stand a chance against textured vegetable protein. It was a common case of picky eating and teenage rebellion, but more importantly, it shows the complicated relationship between an American-born son of Mexican immigrants and the cuisine, the heritage, the culture, that I was born into.

A modern Mayan woman preparing tortillas, by Dmitri Kessel, 1947 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

I have absolutely no shame in admitting that once upon a time I preferred to eat the 99¢ tacos from Jack in the Box over a taco de birria — goat cooked for hours in a spiced broth made from dried chiles until it’s so soft that it falls apart. This is because I’m a proud Mexican-American and, for better or for worse, both of these cultures are part of my story. Most of my childhood food memories are of my mom and I doing the kids meal circuit after school around every fast food restaurant in town. One afternoon it was Pizza Hut, another would be Popeye’s, the next would Wienerschnitzel, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and so on and so on. I became so familiar with those kids’ meals that if you were to give me a blind taste test of each of their french fries, I could tell you which restaurant it came from.

But, at age 21, my relationship with Mexican food began to change. On a family holiday we traveled to the small ranch villages where both my parents grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico, where I was introduced to the same foods that my parents ate as children. I found beauty in the simplicity of a chewy, griddled gordita stuffed with scrambled eggs stewed in red chile, and marveled at the dense texture of gorditas de horno. I learnt how to spot and dig for wild jicamas in the wilderness and was taught how to carefully carve out the edible juicy flesh inside the fruits that grow on wild cactus by my uncle and my dad. Not to mention how punk rock it was that my aunt made cheese every morning that was just as creamy as the burrata that I loved to eat on top of pizza back in fancy Italian restaurants in the States. I returned from that trip with a clear sense of my culinary roots — the gorditas de horno, guisados, and taco de birria — that make me who I am.

Traditional Mexican breakfast (top-bottom): fried tortillas, chocolate (fr. which chocolate drink is made), huevos rancheros and fresh fruit, by John Dominis (From LIFE Photo Collection)

The real turning point for me was meeting my soon-to-be-wife who was born and raised in Jalisco, Mexico. Her unabashed pride in being Mexican was new to me; I always kept my Mexican identity somewhat muted, a behavior learnt over the years to make it easier to assimilate into my Pizza Hut- and Popeye’s-loving American life as a kid. Nonetheless, her passion and excitement for Mexican food and culture was contagious.

Bread (Rosca de Reyes) and Chocolate to celebrate the Epiphany, SLC-LVM Courtesy of Xanath Caraza, 2015 (From the Collection of Smithsonian Latino Center)

It was through her that I also learned to get over my resistance of going out to eat Mexican food. “Why go out to eat Mexican food when we can have it at home?” It was another quote from my father that I unconsciously abided by until I met my Mexican better half. I would choose to eat at a restaurant specializing in pretty much any cuisine other than Mexican, while she wanted to go have carne en su jugo and whole, grilled fish, and other regional Mexican coastal dishes. I would moan and groan like the privileged Mexican-American living in LA that I was, “Mexican food, again?” And she would respond, “Well, what you call ‘Mexican food’ is just ‘food’ for me and I always crave it.” She taught me to crave it too.

I found a new fascination with the deceptively simple staples of Mexican cuisine, how history is cooked into the foods we eat; I learnt that that the humble corn tortilla is the result of a centuries-old process called ‘nixtamalization’, and the fact that our culture brought corn, tomatoes, chocolate, vanilla, and chiles to the world. After meeting her, I woke up and smelled the toasted corn, sizzling meat, and charred chiles that haunted me along with my dad’s reprimanding words.

With this new sense of pride for the cuisine that I was born into, I found myself with an insatiable craving for everything wrapped in a tortilla. I lost sleep over researching the roots of almost every other dish that made up my parents’ food. I was in a relentless search for identity and belonging in both food and myself.

Traditional Mexican tamales, 2016 (From the collection of Smithsonian Latino Center)

I knew I had finally accepted my Mexican food heritage when faced with the morbid question that every food-obsessed person eventually asks themselves: what would be the last meal you ate before you died? Now I will wholeheartedly respond: a bowl of freshly cut nopales stewed in red chiles, with a new crop of stewed pinto beans, and some quesadillas made with my aunts’ cheese rolled with some handmade corn tortillas; cooked, of course, by my mom. (If you would have asked me before I met my girlfriend, I would have answered pho because I love that dish to death).

My dad was right all those years ago, but I am not ashamed of my past affinities with fast food because, without those greasy, salty memories, I would have never learned how to value the deep, strong flavors that make up Mexican food. And foods are the building blocks of our culture, pride and identity. Without my long, fascinating journey into Mexican cuisine, I would never have found my way to my Mexican roots, and learned to value the deep, strong pride that makes up my Mexican identity.

Words by Javier Cabral
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