Sometimes a taco is not just a taco …

A taco is not just a taco for me, and never will be. Tacos trigger mindful cooking and eating, always infused with memory as much as any other seasoning, and the awareness that – for this gringa – there is more than a hint of the colonial in my choice to cook Mexican food. I know, too, my writing about these memories and foods cannot help but be compromised by the unjust convolutions that brought them to me.

I grew up in South Texas in a middle-class Anglo farming family with two working parents, which is tantamount to saying that we had not only farm hands but also household help, all of whom were Mexican-American people or immigrants from Mexico. That terminology itself telegraphs the problem: referring to someone as a “hand” or “help” indicates that you think of them only in utilitarian terms. You are not seeing them as whole people. This is convenient when you do not want to feel responsible for a fully human relationship with that person, because that would reduce your ability to derive gain from the relationship. Very few people in South Texas had Anglo farm employees or housekeepers: white employees cost too much.

A woman named Julia Bravo kept house for the bachelor farmer who would become my father; Julia continued to work for our family after my dad married and we children came along. Julia had been born in the United States, and had a high-school education, but had not married or had children. She taught me my letters, to write my name, and to “Baile!” to the music on her favorite norteño station. On days when both my parents worked late, she would take my brother and me home with her, and we would sit around the potbellied stove in that house with Julia’s nieces and nephews, eating just-made warm flour tortillas with butter. That taste is still the taste of love to me … just as much as the white-bread-with-butter-and-sugar foldovers my grandmother used to make for me.

About the time I started school, Julia met a man and married and soon had a son of her own; she was in her early 40s when all this happened, and I remember there being some whispers of concern, but happily she and the child were fine. I was jealous of that baby; he got to have Julia all the time. I loved her, and I knew she had loved me; I also knew she loved that son of hers a whole lot more, and that the jealousy I felt could not be named or assuaged.

A succession of other women came to work in our house; unlike Julia, these women did not speak English, did not have a legal right to work in the U.S., and for the most part did not take time to play. Most of them lived in our house, with Sundays off.

The first of these women – Amelia Hernandez – was not only the housekeeper and supervisor of children (and who ever else she was, outside of our employ and outside of our ken); she was also an exceptional cook. Once or twice a month – it was understood that this was a privilege not to be abused by too-frequent request – my mother would ask Amelia to cook for us, and her afternoon would be spent preparing a pan-ful of enchiladas and an equal abundance of tacos.

Amelia was very different from Julia (of course; but a child thinks more absolutely about these things); where Julia had been loving and affectionate, Amelia wore a protective armor of near-instant irritability and a hair-trigger temper (who could blame her? we spoiled children were in her way too often). Where Julia was a mother-sized woman still willing to talk and dance and chase, Amelia was grandmother-shaped and not remotely interested in us beyond preventing mayhem and physical harm.

I hope my Dad put something extra in her paycheck the weeks that included her cooking, because not only did she have to go to the extra effort of cooking for us on those nights, she would invariably have me underfoot, because I was fascinated by her recipe-less competence – not to mention the copious amounts of cheese involved. It soon came about that if I did a good job of grating the cheese, I would be allowed to lurk while she cooked.

I remember the darkened metal of that oft-used, oft-washed grater. I remember the little snip of metal near the handle that had peeled up and that I had to be careful of so as not to get pricked. I remember that I got to eat the little pieces of colby that were too small to run up against the grater any more. The cheese bits would be soft and warm from my hands, salty and satisfying as they melted onto my tongue.

As I grated, I would watch Amelia. She set the ground meat to browning in a big heavy skillet rarely used for any other purpose; it was a dull silver, speckled with black nick marks on the outside and shinier on the inside from the scrape of metal spoons and forks (this being years away from non-stick pans). She’d shake salt and pepper into the meat, and while it began to brown she’d chop a white onion into tiny chunks and scrape those into the pan to brown with the meat in the fat beginning to render out. Another onion was chopped and set aside. As the meat and onions browned, she peeled tomatoes, ribbons of tomato skin falling from her paring knife. Then – to my endless amazement – she would cut the tomatoes up in her palm, pressing the knife down through the tomato over and over, until it lay sliced in her hand; she’d toss it up and turn it so that she could cut again, making long dice.

Just as quickly she’d core iceberg lettuce, peeling off the outer leaves, and then slicing through the whole head with the biggest knife, like a kitchen machete, the thinnest shreds falling away to be tossed in a bowl and fingered apart. Working the lettuce apart was my second job; I knew I was just about grown up when Amelia started letting me learn tomatoes (though she never let me cut into my palm; good thing).

By the time the lettuce and tomatoes were cut up, the meat was done and she’d pour it into a colander set over another bowl to drain. Putting a smaller skillet onto the front burner, Amelia spooned up a chunk of white vegetable shortening from the Crisco can and plopped it into the pan. As the Crisco melted, she readied an enormous stack of corn tortillas. For the enchiladas, she slipped each tortilla into the hot oil, flipping it quickly with the metal tongs and fishing it out and onto a pan lined with paper towels, set aside to cool somewhat.

For the tacos, the oil-softened tortilla was folded over onto itself into the half-moon taco shape and allowed to crisp slightly, turned once, twice, and fished out onto another paper-lined pan. When all the tortillas were done, the pan of tortillas for tacos went into a warming oven. The tortillas for enchiladas had another step to go: each tortilla was filled with some of the browned ground beef, a sprinkle of colby, another sprinkle of raw onions, and then rolled. I got to hold the enchilada in place until another one lay next to it; ten enchiladas in a row, two more to fill out the sides of the pan, then more grated colby over the top and more raw onions and then the enchiladas went into a hot oven to melt the cheese.

By then I was setting the table, pouring iced tea, and Amelia was setting out the lettuce and tomato and a stack of plain warmed (unfried, soft) corn tortillas in a bowl lined with foil. “Esta listo” she’d say, and while I called the rest of the family to dinner, she pulled the pan of enchiladas out of the oven and put the taco “shells” on the table. She would linger long enough for my dad to enter the kitchen, pronounce everything “muy bonita” and then Amelia would slip away, back to the bedroom she and I shared (yeah, whole other story).

We sat down to a piping hot perfect feast. She sat down in that back bedroom to wait until we were done eating; and then it would be her turn.

It’s hard to find words for either the pain or the pleasure of this recollection. I can try to imagine what she knew in that time and place – what was needful and what was not, what was wrong and what seemingly had to be, what could have been and what could never be. But I’m just dancing with words. We lived side by side in different worlds, my ease enabled by her lack, my freedom underpinned by her economic need.

Amelia was not easy to love, as Julia had been; and what did love have to do with it, anyway? What could love really be, in a situation of economic and social and political power-over? In a colonial reality, with (seemingly) unconsciously colonial subjects and objects, who nonetheless could not help but know and did in fact know where power flowed and where it was dammed?

In this white child’s eyes, Amelia had my respect, even then. She has my respect now, in the work I do to understand Texas history, and what my apartheid childhood meant, and what justice and love mean for white Christians living into an imperfectly perceived and unjust reality, our privilege still enabled by the oppressions of low wages paid to those we consider “less than” … and she has my respect in my kitchen, on those nights when nothing will do but Amelia’s tacos.

An intolerance of cheese has put the colby-fied enchiladas of my childhood out of reach, but nothing stands between me and those tacos … except an imperfect memory and a truth-seeking consciousness. Amelia’s tacos, adulterated. I add a few things, subtract some others … and wonder – if Amelia had access to all the ingredients and tools of her childhood, her mother’s and abuelita’s kitchens – what her food would really have tasted like. I’d like to know ….

Failing that, with some degree of critical awareness, as we sit down to the table, and a cook remembers, here is the recipe for a dish named with respect for an excellent cook. For tonight, let her be that. It will have to fall to someone who knew her more truly to tell the rest of the story.

Amelia’s Tacos

serves four

1 lb. ground beef (85/15 will do)

1 T cumin

1 T chili powder

Salt and pepper

2-3 garlic cloves (or more to taste)

1 large white or yellow onion (or bunch green onions, if that’s what you have)

1 poblano, ancho OR jalapeño pepper, chopped

2 tomatoes (1-2 cups chopped)

1 head iceberg lettuce (or leafy lettuce of your preference)

1-2 avocados (sliced or diced and tossed w/ lemon juice)

Cheese of choice, grated (colby, cheddar, monterrey jack; crumbled cotija or feta works, too)

1 dozen corn tortillas

Vegetable oil (corn or vegetable oil; not olive or peanut oil)

Jelly roll pan or cookie sheet lined with paper towels

If you’ve read this far, you already know how to make these … but recipes can’t say that, can they. So, turn oven on its lowest setting (150 or lower). Put the ground meat into a large skillet over medium-high heat and stir in the cumin, chili powder, and salt and pepper to taste (I like a lot of black pepper).

While the meat browns, put ¼ inch oil in the bottom of a small skillet slightly larger than your corn tortillas and heat to a ripple. (You can test with a little broken piece of tortilla; when you put it in the oil, it should immediately begin to bubble and crisp.) When the oil is hot, use tongs to slip the tortillas into the oil. Immediately flip the tortilla and then fold it over. Flip once more, and after a couple of seconds, lift it out to drip. Place on the paper-towel lined pan. Repeat until all tortillas are softened and formed into taco “shell” shapes. Cover the pan with another layer of paper towels and place in warm oven. (If you want additional tortillas that are not oil-softened, wrap them loosely in foil and put in oven to warm.)

When pink is almost gone from meat, add garlic, onion and pepper and sauté over low heat until vegetables are translucent and meat is all brown. Add a little water to pan, cover and reduce heat to simmer. While meat continues to simmer, chop tomatoes into fine dice and set aside (I don’t peel my tomatoes; that was something my mother and Amelia did for my dad’s preferences). Slice lettuce thinly and set aside. Dice avocados and toss with lemon juice to prevent browning; set aside.

When vegetables are cut, pour meat into a colander set over a bowl and let drain. While meat drains, set out all other ingredients, including oil-softened and dry-warmed tortillas. Let your eating companions build their own tacos. Say grace while your mouth waters, and send Amelia your respects.

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