Latino Foods Getting Lost Through the Generations February 01 2012

We're adventurous eaters in my house, and I'm definitely a fan of savory international street food, a la Anthony Bourdain. But the less I know about where it really came from, the better. Maybe that's the problem with me and certain Latino home-cooked foods. I know exactly where it came from. In particular, I'm talking about lengua de res, or tacos de lengua, or pretty much anything neck-up from a cow, or anything that flows as part of the gastrointestinal tract. I grew up in South Texas, so I've seen lots of live cows licking their chomps, munching on grass. I mean, people keep livestock pens in their backyards in my hometown. So when you go from that, to a taco filled with a spongy meat, well, I just cannot stomach it. 

So among the food I don't like: cachete (cheek), sesos (beef brains), mollejitas (gizzards) or tripa (tripe). And while I like a good, spicy bowl of menudo every now and again, I've always cleaned out my bowl and left every single piece of panza in tact. The texture is a big part of why I don't like these foods. Chewy and gummy is okay for little bears, but not meat. I've made menudo a few times at home and I've always given my husband fair warning because he says the smell of the boiling meat makes him want to puke. He's not Mexican.

And I don't even care if beef tongue becomes trendy amongst chefs, either. I'm not touching it. Nope. Keep that lengua away from me!

New-Generation Latino Foods

So here's my issue: My parents loved all of the above food. My grandparents loved all of the above. So the other day when I was in the one of the few Latino grocery stores in my area, and caught sight of a foot-long tongue in a meat case, I wondered: If I don't eat these foods that my family enjoyed so much, will my daughter ever know them? Or will they get lost across the generations, just like so many other things? Language is one thing many of us work hard at holding on to. And music is as easy as downloading a song and listening on-demand. But food also plays a central role in defining one's culture. So what happens when you and your kids start trading up for a red velvet cupcake instead of a marranito, or their idea of good Mexican food is Rosa Mexicano, instead of the simple food my grandmother made and ate.


I think part of what's happened is that we don't live in a place where these foods are regularly served up, even though we do live in a much more global and connected world than even 15 years ago. My parents and grandparents ate these foods, but I don't remember them cooking them on a regular basis, or ever (aside from menudo and mollejitas, on occasion). So I never got the chance to learn to cook them. What I do and can cook are other things, like enchiladas, tacos and chalupas -- which is essentially the holy trinity known as 'The Mexican Plate' in South Texas. Really, it should be called the Texican Plate. 

The other thing is simple economics. These meats are cheap, and we're better off than our parents and our parents were better off than their parents, so of course, we eat can afford better cuts of meat. We also eat out more. There are no lack of options, and we love to try foods from other countries. I'll always pick a taqueria first, but second I'll go for Vietnamese, hands down.

And finally, my husband is Latino, but he's not Mexican-American like me. So while other folks might think Latinos all eat the same foods, we don't. Not even close. I mean, we all like rice and beans and a version of tortillas and some sort of chile (sometimes), but that's about it. Over the years as an adult I have come to know and love and crave Peruvian, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Brazilian and Colombian food, among others. I've even learned to cook some of these foods, which are Latino foods, but not foods I grew up with or food the older folks in my family would recognize. Even though they're not "my foods," I still feel a connection to them. Maybe it's the language I read them in on the menu. Whatever it is, I kind of like having a pan-Latino palette. And that, I'm assuming, is what my daughter will have, too.