I could see the writing on the wall when the Center for Science in the Public Interest came out recently with a report condemning Mexican food as just slightly healthier than eating lard from the can.
You know the pattern. First, some busybody research institute plops down a report the size of a small suitcase, declaring that something we regarded as one of life's little pleasures is really a killer.
Soon it becomes politically incorrect, and then socially undesirable, and then a felony.
What's more, two of my personal favorites were targeted as among the worst offenders: chile rellenos, the report indicated, will plug your arteries like Crazy Glue and Mexican rice will bring the Grim Reaper hurtling through your door on a skateboard.
I'm not taking this lying down. I won't go quietly. This is my culture, my heritage, my lifestyle. (And probably, the reason I can't seem to lose any weight.)
There is, however, supposed to be an alternative: "healthy" Mexican food, with age-old recipes given the once-over by caloric do-gooders. Is this stuff any replacement for the real thing?
So I, an experienced Mexican food eater, took my mother, a traditional Mexican cook, on a fact-finding mission to two Mexican restaurants--one traditional, one reformed.
But what started out as a simple food comparison turned into something much more important.
For 25 years, my mom's home cooking was one of the best things about living at home.
Before every Christmas, she would organize my sister and me into a tamale assembly line, turning out enough green, red or sweet tamales for every last relative we expected during the holidays.
I did the grunt work--washing the corn husks to cook the tamales in. She vigorously kneaded lard into the \o7 masa\f7 , the dough.
Lard--which the report condemns as the worst villain since Darth Vader--made the tamales moist and fluffy.
Not until a piece of \o7 masa\f7 would float in a glass of water did she stop kneading.
Mexican food was not a matter of calories and cholesterol to us. Making and eating it was a bonding ritual. Something passed on through generations.
Something to be defended.
Our first dish to investigate was obvious. The study bashed chile rellenos, a longtime specialty of my family, claiming that one chile relleno meal so exceeded the government's recommended daily limit on saturated fat and sodium that it was like eating a stick of butter.
"When my mother made them, she lightly dipped them in egg and flour and fried them," my mother said as we talked over coffee at our first restaurant--Lenchita's in Pacoima, where they do things the old way. "So they just had this light crust. They make them like that here."
She conceded that like the restaurant, she too fried the rellenos in lard, but switched to vegetable oil years ago after the first reports appeared about the perils of saturated fat. The truth is, there is no healthy way to make chile rellenos, only degrees of fat content, she pointed out.
"They are made differently in the big Mexican restaurants," she said, giving me a knowing look. "The crust of the rellenos are thick and they have to fry them longer. That is why they are more fattening there."
My mom and I rarely agree on much but even I could see she was obviously right.
We also sampled Lenchita's \o7 menudo, \f7 beef \o7 sopes, \f7 refried beans and Mexican rice--all cooked in lard-- and delighted in the taste.
"We really haven't tried cooking anything without lard," owner Fidelina Ruiz said when I asked about the potential health risk of the restaurant's oh-so-traditional menu.
But she had a justification ready: "Our customers just like the taste better."
But not everything is health-defiant at Lenchita's. To walk into their kitchen is to walk back in time. The air is filled with the familiar sound of hands slapping, shaping \o7 masa \f7 into tortillas. Corn is cooked in a huge metal pot, ground and mixed with water and lime. They place the raw tortillas on a huge steel stove top to cook, turning them by hand.
Not all our traditions are cholesterol-rich, I thought.
Our next stop was the more modern California Taco Bar in Woodland Hills, an ultra-healthy version of Taco Bell, and with better-tasting food. Here they used the leanest of meat and cholesterol-free canola oil. Most meals are under 350 calories with a minute amount of fat.
Black beans, white rice, chicken burritos and shrimp tacos. "I guess it looks good if you have never eaten the real stuff," my mother commented under her breath as we scanned the menu.
I nudged her and ordered beef and chicken tacos and pinto beans (I was never a fan of black beans, they remind me of Cuban food), and was surprised to get full-flavored meat on a homemade tortilla with freshly made salsa.
"They are good but dry," my mom said between bites. "You can taste the difference without the lard."
It was a record--I had agreed with my mother twice in a single day. But what did I expect when we were confronting an issue that affected us both?
We came away that day with a greater level of understanding, both of each other and the food we eat. I decided that my mother isn't always wrong and that she also is one of the best cooks, lard or no lard, this side of the border. (Sorry Mom, I'm not getting into trouble with the Mexico City side of the family.)
On the other hand, she came to the conclusion that the only reason to eat healthy Mexican food is if you are on a strict diet.