I did this cookbook for the family. It’s called Healthy Mexican Cooking. I did all the old recipes—and all the recipes have stories to them. This recipe reminds me of Tucson in the summer—the story I want to share is about a summer salad. It’s called Salpicon. It’s a very old recipe. It was always used specifically for Dia de San Juan, which is June 24. It’s a day in Mexico, in Sonora, that the rains used to start. When people moved up here, they expected the rains to start at the same time, but usually they don’t start, so the people said, maybe if we keep making this special food for San Juan, he’ll come back. The main thing in it—you may not like it—is tongue. My mother-in-law was born here in 1898. They would plan for this all year, talk to the Chinese people who grow vegetables to make sure they had them. What it includes are lots and lots of vegetables, black olives, and hard boiled eggs, and the tongue is made ahead of time, marinated in vinegar. You don’t mix the salad. I still think of my mother-in-law every time I make it—she’d just get so excited about it. My daughter knows how to make it now, too.
Alba B. Torres, 83
My mother made a lot of tamales. In today’s world, you use a mixer to make the masa—well, she didn’t believe in that. You had to do it by hand. She always had a glass of water next to the mixing bowl. She’d do it and do it, and then take a little piece of masa and if it didn’t float to the top, it wasn’t any good. My three sisters and I would be kneading and kneading and kneading forever. We’d say, “Mom!” And she’d say, “keep going.” And finally, it’d float to the top, and she’d say, “O.K., it’s ready.” And then she’d add the red chile in there and mix it all up, and she’d say, “O.K., knead it a few more times.” But she wouldn’t stop until the masa was totally mixed with the red chile and it was just the right color, a nice orange-red. We would be kneading forever! We still talk about that today.
Rosa Bradley, 70
We had a house in Armory Park, and in the back of the house there was a two-bedroom guesthouse. In between, there was a shed with an old-fashioned stove, where Mom used to make homemade tortillas. There were eight of us. The tortillas wouldn’t last. Because every time we’d pass that shed, we’d snatch one.
There was a special dish that Mom used to make; it was called pan perdido. It was like a cornbread, mixed with red chile, corn, meat. She’d put it in the oven so there’d be a good crust on the top. It wasn’t seasonal—she’d make it anytime we’d asked her to make it, which was every other week. It was good food because it was home grown. We had pigeons, rabbits. We had fig tree plants, pomegranate plants, grapes. Everything was right there, in the backyard.
Alex Higuera, 80
During the war, they needed men to work on the planes at Davis-Monthan, so that’s what my father did. We lived in the projects right there by 15th Street and Plumer. My mother made a lot of chile con carne. We grew up eating a lot of different things. I learned about eating vegetables from our next-door neighbor. They were always serving peas and string beans, things we never had. I saw her eating them, and I got interested.
Today, I like nopalitos. My sister says she never liked to think about nopalitos—it’s a cactus—but I like to make them in different ways—scrambled with eggs, or with tomato sauce and onion. I also like to eat kale. I was working with the Community Food Bank—they came to my backyard to show me how to make the raised garden bed just a couple of years ago. That’s how I learned about kale. I like kale a lot—it’s very nutritious.
Betty Padilla, 80
I was born and raised in Tucson. My mother used to make tortillas so we could have them hot for lunch when we came home from school. We always had refried beans on the table. We always had meat, chile con carne—it’s delicious. I like to make it at home myself. I make better chile than most people.
I don’t think I have a secret. You get good meat, chile, and beans—you just have to cook them right. Tortillas are a very big part of the meal for me. They’re hard to make. You don’t just put it in the oven and pull it out. Each one has to be made separate—it’s a lot of labor.
Carlos Vasquez, 91
One of my favorite things when I was a kid was in the mornings, on Sundays, we would have menudo. We made it at home. Menudo is a soup with the cow … what is it called? Tripe. And hominy. That’s basically what it is. My mom made it. It takes three hours to make, because the tripe has to be well cooked. They put cilantro and onions on top, and lemon, and we ate it with tortillas. That was what we had for breakfast every Sunday—that was our treat. It was so delicious. We’d look forward to it. A lot of times, we’d get together on Sunday and have a family get-together with a special meal. It wasn’t hard to make, too. We made the white menudo, not with the red chile, the Texas menudo. I always say, go to Texas if you want it red. I’m past 70—I’m of legal age, that’s what I always say.
Aurelia R. Mesa, 70+
My favorite food? Enchiladas. From here in Tucson. My grandmother made them, and my wife makes them, too. During the holidays, and special occasions and gatherings, birthdays and anniversaries. My mom’s enchiladas are the best because they raised me. They’re a little spicy. My grandmother made them spicy, but my wife made them not too hot for the kids—I have three kids. In Mexican culture, when you eat hot stuff, you drink more beer. I go to restaurants and they make enchiladas, but not the way my aunt and my mother made them. The ingredients they use now, it’s way different. You go to a restaurant now, I can tell you, they don’t taste like the old ones, since they’re using different ingredients.
Ramon “Chino” Quiroz, 75
Header image by Stephen Meckler.