My father once told my mother that you never really know a woman until you divorce her. This after he'd walked into his home and found it empty. Wife number three had left, taking everything, "including the lightbulbs and the toilet paper," he told my mom, his second wife. The only thing my mom took when she left were her two little "pepper bellies"--what she called my sister, Christy, and me for our ability to eat spicy foods--and my dad's recipe for machaca con huevos. For the next 15 years we ate these eggs--scrambled with peppers, onions, tomatoes and shredded meat, rolled up in a flour tortilla and sauced with ketchup, my mother's addition--at least once a week.
My mom is American and my dad, now dead, was Mexican. But I never believed that my dad's being Mexican had anything to do with me. My name went from Carolina to Carolynn and my Spanish disappeared, all within a year of my parents' separation and our move across the border when I was 3. Half-Mexican was just one of those little factoids that made no impression whatsoever until 20 years later, when my dad died and the service was held in a language I didn't understand. Of course, I liked dropping the old "I'm half-Mexican" in conversation simply for shock value in the bourgeois San Diego suburb where we lived. But the truth is that I was the one in awe of this fact.
When Christy or I acted spoiled, or as if we weren't appreciating the cushiness of our swimming pool and tennis-camp childhood, my mom would threaten to send us to work in our dad's restaurant for a year. "It'd be good for you," she'd say, like this was ever going to happen. "Build character." I'd been to my dad's apartment in La Mesa, a neighborhood on the far, dusty hillside of Tijuana. The outside was painted what I call Tijuana Turquoise. Inside it had wall-to-wall high-low carpet in multiple shades of avocado, and beanbag chairs on which I recall jumping with his two youngest children by his fourth and, incidentally, last wife. Nevertheless, when I imagined this year with Dad, I remember thinking sombreros, ranchos, heavy sun, cacti and even, if my memory serves me, lassos.
I didn't really believe I was Mexican until my first year of college. I was in Guadalajara posing as just another gringa getting her Spanish credits the easy way, in a summer-school program. I was living with a family and a few other American students. One afternoon shortly after I arrived, we were having our comida, the long afternoon meal after which one is expected to lie down and actually fall asleep. We were served, along with more predictable foods such as meat and tortillas, a plantain, sliced lengthwise as if for an ice cream sundae and sauteed to a golden, buttery brown. The other students pushed it around on their plates. Giggled. Made faces, like, gross. I took a bite, not because it was familiar, but because I had always been an adventurous eater. And that's when it happened. I could exaggerate, tell you that it all came rushing back to me, but I don't want to get carried away. Let me just say that when I tasted the salt and sweetness of that rich, creamy plantain, I believed. This food was no stranger. We all have our Madeleines.
Looking back, I see that my childhood wasn't as apple pie as I had wanted to think. While my friends were home eating macaroni and cheese for dinner, my mom was dishing out that stolen egg dish that, sadly, most Americans won't try in their entire lifetimes. I have never opened the cupboard at my sister's house without finding a jar of cajeta--a goat's milk caramel that you can spoon on anything from toast to ice cream or, her favorite way, straight onto your tongue. Nor does a day go by in the life of my Mexican half-brother, Johnny, where he doesn't reach for the Tupperware container of jalapenos and spicy carrots that, being the pepper belly that I am, me encantan. I have searched the world over trying to find chilaquiles--a dish of leftovers whose one common quality is stale tortillas cut into strips and cooked to a supple crispiness with onions and oil--as good as those my Aunt Mardi makes. Childhood foods, I know, are supposed to begin and end with Mom. But that would leave out so much.
6-8 serrano chiles
6 large tomatoes (about 3 pounds)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup queso fresco or cotija cheese
3/4 cup corn oil
2 dozen corn tortillas,
cut into 1/2-inch strips and left out
overnight to become stale
1 white onion, diced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped