Over Thanksgiving break, my father poignantly asked me, “Do we have any holiday cooking traditions?”
Embarrassingly, I pulled a blank. Of course we had dishes we enjoyed and shared every year — my mother’s mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving, and tri-tip for Christmas, for example — but were these “cooking traditions” that we celebrated and passed on for generations? No.
It wasn’t always this way. When I was younger, we would join my extended family at my maternal grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My grandmother would make traditional Mexican dishes, while other family members would pitch in and help with cooking or bringing prepared dishes. Grandma didn’t use a cookbook, or even measuring spoons — she knew how to make tortillas, enchiladas, and other dishes from memory. All of us relished her cooking, and the love that went into every meal.
Over time, it got harder for my aging grandmother to make food for us, but she did anyway. It’s how she told us she loved us, and she took pride in her work.
When I went away for college, I became aware of the importance of food as a reflection of culture, family and tradition. I dedicated my first few summer breaks to learn how my grandmother made her magic in the kitchen. I would show up to my grandparent’s house in the morning, and grandma and I got to work. We had wonderful memories together. I wrote new recipes, and copied some from dishes
I had never tried. Ultimately, I wrote a recipe book (which includes a few recipes from mom) and shared it with my family, who then emailed copies to my aunts and uncles.
Sixteen years have passed however, and no one has been able to find either the emailed cookbook or a physical copy of it. We all had vague memories of seeing the cookbook somewhere, but no one had seen it for maybe 10 years. It came up as a topic of conversation, as my parents and I decided to make tamales this Christmas together, but we wanted to replicate my grandmother’s recipe. We are blessed that grandma is still with us and now in her 90s, but she unfortunately is unable to physically cook or tell us her recipes anymore.
With a stroke of luck, I found the original recipe book I wrote in my garage, stuffed in a large box filled with books I never opened after moving to Carlsbad a year ago. I spent this weekend transcribing the recipe book, and rekindled the fond memories I had with my grandma in the kitchen. Tamales weren’t something we ever made before, but I found a recipe in the book I had copied down. “Recipe for 100 Tamales”! Grandma was a pro.
I’m proud to say that my family will be making a smaller version of grandma’s tamales recipe this week, and we will be adding more recipes to our cookbook for the next edition (my father has mastered baking in the last few years). It’s never too late to create new cooking traditions, or reignite old ones. In food, our family traditions will live on, and so will our memories together.
Vince Vasquez is a think tank analyst based in Torrey Pines. He is a Carlsbad resident.