The holidays in this part of California are filled with nights of rompope (a powerful egg nog), pozole, tamales, and taking turns visiting with friends and family. This is no time for silly crap like, “Oh, I shouldn’t eat that.” It’s not a question about whether you should, but more like, when and how many times in a week. These meals don’t care if you get too fleshy. In fact, you’ll want to put on a few pounds because come January, our nights here drop to about 30 degrees and we don’t all have central heating.
I recently confessed to a friend that I hate eating pozole or tacos at parties. My reasons aren’t rational. Every other Mexican I know has no problem with this. Whether it’s pozole, birria, or tacos, I feel uncomfortable eating these foods at social events because I am clumsy and I will absolutely get it all on my blouse. Pozole is delicious but my brain tells me that the only place I should eat stew is in the privacy of my own home with a towel for a bib. Same goes with birria, because I enjoy scooping up the meat with bits of tortilla and if any of the sauce dribbles down my chin, I don’t have to apologize to anyone.
I can’t even eat a burrito like you’re supposed to, so go ahead and take my Mexican card away from me right now. Unless it’s a wet burrito, you usually pick up the swaddled sack of meats and sides and bite right into it, right? Not me. I lay it down gently onto a plate, get a side of tortilla chips ready, and I carefully make the incision into the belly of the burrito with my fork in the form of a cross. This allows me to properly open the tortilla and access the deliciousness inside.
And don’t get me started on tortas ahogadas. Sure, French dips are tasty, but a torta ahogada is a very special treat and I can tell you right now that I have yet to find a local restaurant that makes them as good as in Mexico. The secret is the birote. This little loaf of bread needs to be made specifically for the purpose of not falling apart when it is dipped in the tomato sauce. The only time I get a good birote is when it is smuggled home with my mom’s luggage after a trip to Guadalajara. It’s salty, a bit like sourdough in flavor, and very hard/crispy on the outside. It needs to be, otherwise you’ll be eating your torta with a spoon. It’s filled with refried beans and pulled pork (or whatever you want to put it there) and the tomato sauce helps soften the bread so you don’t bleed to death a la Captain Crunch destroying the roof of your mouth.
Every New Year’s Eve, my mom makes carne en su jugo. Again, this is one of those soupy foods that I only care to eat at home where no one can comment on my nose getting runny under the influence of jalapeño. It’s a food that helps warm the house because she has to make it in a huge pot and anyway, we haven’t called the gas company to come take a look at our heater. This stew is made of thinly sliced beef, bacon, pinto beans, and blended jalapeños. It’s flavored with salt and garlic, and other secret ingredients that my mother won’t tell me about and that I’m too lazy to learn about because I’m always in bed while she’s slaving away at the stove.
I may not be great at eating these delicious meals while in public, but they are the best part of the holidays for me. These foods are what keep me in touch with some of our traditions and expectations, and they help me not lose my ability to eat spicy meals. I do feel that living in Los Angeles is what helps me somewhat understand what it means to be Mexican as well as the ability to learn about other cultures (I’ve been known to dive face first into bowls of Pho). Still, these are some of the foods that remind me that my mom came from a huge family in Mexico and that the reason these meals are made in such large quantities is because you are going to feed a room full of relatives, and boy will they be hungry. I miss that sometimes, the frenzy of having guests and having them all squeeze into our small dining room. I also miss my godfather’s rompope, which he used to make every year.
Things change and the holidays are markers of that. One less relative shows up to the parties and a few new faces arrive wearing diapers. But as long as my mom continues to make carne en su jugo right on schedule, I’ll feel alright.
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