Would I ever taste food like my mom's again?
Posted in , Apr 12, 2010
Mother wasn’t a good cook.
She was a great cook!
She was of German heritage, but hands down, her favorite cuisine was Mexican.
She grew up in Colorado and moved to San Diego after she married Daddy. There’s no doubt the amazing Mexican restaurants in town inspired her. Enchiladas were her signature dish for our church’s fund-raisers, and her salsa—a recipe from a neighbor who grew her own tomatillos and cilantro—was out of this world.
But nothing got her going in the kitchen more than making tacos. Mother’s, overflowing with lettuce, tomato and onion, simply couldn’t be beat. In fact, it was those tacos, many years later, that would bring my family close after a difficult time.
I was preschool age when my older sister, Amy, and I first followed Mother to the kitchen, huddling close while she made her specialty. Instead of browning the meat first, she’d use her hands to spread some over each tortilla. Then she’d fry each one meat-side up, fold it in half and fry it again on each side.
Occasionally Mother handed me a spoon. “Karen Rae, it’s your turn.” Carefully, I’d drop the meat on a tortilla, pushing it to the edges with my tiny hands, trying to get it just right. “You’re going to be a great cook when you grow up,” Mother would say proudly.
Right before dinnertime, I’d help Mother grate and chop the cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion, put them in dishes and set them on the table. “Thank you, God, for this food,” Mother would say before Amy and I grabbed a taco.
Nearly all of our extended family lived in the same county, and there was no better way to celebrate birthdays and special occasions than over Mother’s tacos. One of my cousins, Lee, liked them as much as I did. He and I really bonded over the years. Actually, those family meals kept all of us—cousins, aunts and uncles—connected. For a time, at least.
We kids grew up and left San Diego—I moved to Oregon. Amy moved to Oregon too, but several hours away, and Lee to northern California. We stopped having those big family get-togethers.
You can probably guess what became a staple on our menu when my husband Douglas and I married. Tacos, Mother’s way. “These are as tasty as your mother’s,” Douglas said. But to me, nothing could compare to hers.
Through the years, it wasn’t just physical distance that separated Amy and me. I’m not sure how it started, but we argued over everything. Those misunderstandings got between me and family members who were close with Amy—even Lee. “You’re sisters; why can’t you forgive each other?” Mother would say. “And you’re not talking to your cousins either?”
I know our estrangement hurt her. Truth be told, I felt like I was letting God down too. Lord, I prayed, help me make things right with my family. I daydreamed about somehow getting us together for one of Mother’s taco dinners just like old times. But I didn’t get a chance. Last May, Mother died.
My grief was compounded by guilt. Why hadn’t I tried harder to mend fences with my sister and cousins? I could have given Mother the joy of one last family reunion! Now that wouldn’t happen. Still, slowly, Amy and I reached out to each other. Life was too fleeting, we agreed, for spats. Time for me to patch things up with the rest of my family.
The first person I needed to see was Lee. I called him. Our conversation was awkward, but he said he was up for company. Douglas and I drove to his home in California. “I’m sorry we drifted apart,” I said, hugging Lee. Soon it was like we were kids again. We talked all afternoon.
“I’m heading over to my son’s for dinner. Why don’t you join me?” Lee said. I hadn’t seen Matt since he was three. Matt’s wife led us into their kitchen. I couldn’t believe it. There were tacos lined up on the counter, waiting to be fried. Not just any tacos. The meat was flattened on each tortilla and spread out to the edges. These were Mother’s tacos!
“How did you learn to make tacos this way?” I asked Matt.
“I just know that’s the way tacos are made in our family,” he said. Our family. Those words never meant more to me. I knew Mother would be proud.
Try making the tacos yourself!