Today my dear friend, Jose Gonzalez, shares his recollection of food from his childhood in Mexico. You might remember Jose from his recent art show or from his shop, Aguacate Press. We’ve been friends for a long time. Jose is a modern renaissance person and in addition to being an artist and a musician he holds multiple degrees from UC Davis and the University of Michigan. He has a teaching credential and is very interested in science, education, and Latino issues. Jose is understandably a busy guy, but he takes time out of his hectic schedule to eat healthily and well.
I was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States when I was in the 4th grade. Having come over at such a young age, I consider myself as much from the US as from Mexico. Many of my mainstream cultural norms are very “American” though I fiercely hold on to memories and practices from my cultural homeland. That has allowed me to frequently compare how I grew up here in the US with my early memories growing up in Mexico—which has been accentuated with recent visits to my family’s home in Mexico.
In particular, what has stood out was food and food practices.
Growing up in Mexico in a small rural town, I was taken care of not only by my parents but two sets of grandparents. I had no notion of “mass consumerism”. Growing up in the United States, California in particular, I felt more subject to “market forces” and advertising that influences what we eat and how we shop.
In Mexico, the food really stood out because it was woven throughout the day in different daily practices. We lived in ways that now seem trendy in the US— our food was natural, organic, and slow. Everything felt fresh, or at least genuine.
My parents and grandparents prepared all kind of delicious foods from scratch. My grandpa makes the best homemade ice cream which he amazingly still does to this day, and sells it from a little cart. He also used to sell churros, a fried cinnamon and sugar confection, during festivals and holidays. In addition, the family made fresh cheeses and pico de gallo with fresh mango, cucumbers, and papaya.
There was plenty of candy to buy, but my grandma made natural homemade fruit roll ups (before I even had a notion of what a fruit roll up was). We also had natural aguas, or drinks made from fresh fruit, instead of Kool- aid, that we froze in little plastic bags to make hielitos, a treat similar to ice pops. The aguas frescas included horchata, tamarind (right off the trees), jamaica (using the hibiscus flower), and agua de acebo (barley). When spring came, we ate natural sweets from our own little grove of plum and mango trees, and we took regular excursions to get guamuchiles and pitayas from cacti.
In terms of daily fare, we enjoyed a host of delights. I actually had snake once. However, we mainly ate nopales, or fresh cactus paddles, beans, and vegetables and meats. Of course, there were always homemade tortillas. They were best were when grandma cooked them with squash flowers inside for a delicious empanada called flor de calabaza. They grew in our garden along with tomatoes, potatoes, chiles, and cucumbers. My grandpa had a potrero, a farming plot, where I would help him tend his crop of corn and peanuts. We had our own chickens for eggs, and everything we did not have or grow could be obtained at the local mercado, or market. There, I always enjoyed getting a milkshake while grandma bought meat from the butcher. As for the milk, it was whole milk, fresh from the cow or a neighbor. Our cows roamed free, eating grass and grain.
Another fragrant memory came from Guadalajara where an uncle owned a bakery. We loved to visit them and taste their fresh baked bread. And we didn’t just have plain bread, there as plenty Mexican sweet bread, pan dulce, too. Nothing really beats the aroma of a bakery.
Coming to the US changed much of this. There were more heavily processed foods in our lives since coming here. But times keep changing, and though there is still much that could be better, depending where you live you can see the blending of cultures with references to how I grew up in Mexico. You can find some fresh nopales or stumble into a tortilleria.
I do not want to brag about how good I think I had it as a kid. What I shared sounds idyllic in several ways but life was indeed hard—such that the family made a decision to come to the US. However, I offer this for everyone to think back: how has food changed as I have grown up? What will my kids be eating as they grow up?
Those are questions I still struggle with as genetically modified foods and synthetic products creep into our eating lifestyle—and I feel part of my past leaving me.
Back in Mexico, I do have concerns as Wal-Mart pushes into rural towns like the one I grew up—I do not know how it will affect children in regards to how and what they eat. But I can say that in the few times I have returned, many of the practices from my childhood are still there. Many have changed, but I can still have fresh tortillas, fresh fruit, and some delicious paletas my aunt and uncle make.
So what can you do here and now? Unless you live on a farm, own a bakery, or have ample gardening space, it can certainly be difficult. You may be in an environment, both physical and social, that does not easily support the kind of diet I mentioned.
You need to evaluate how and if your whole family can live this way, interdependent with everyone pitching in. Yes, it is a lot of work but worth it if you think of it as a needed investment. Big companies care about making a profit first. What do you care about in thinking about how you feed yourself and your family? If your approach is different than the current “norm”, that may be a good thing.
You can take small steps if you have not started already. Experiment with cooking but pay attention to the ingredients you use. Try buying from local farms or growing vegetables in your back yard. Bake your own bread or get some chickens (where permitted). Be in control of the sugar and salt intake in your food.
When you are stuck, we now have the wonders of the internet to provide you with ideas, steps, and information. But it will still come down to you taking action and living the kind of life that promotes a healthy body and mind for your whole family. As I think about growing up in Mexico, I could leave them as memories, or recollections I can put in action. I choose the latter.