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Grind the spices in the molcajete. Taste the gritty texture on your tongue.
“No, mija,” my grandmother says as she shows me how to mash the cumin, garlic, onions, and tomatillo. She is in Michigan for the summer, and I think she is homesick. After all, she spends most of her time cooking traditional Mexican dishes that remind her of home. The dishes are not ones I typically associate with Mexico, but, then again, I have not lived there in fourteen years.
Sometimes my grandma asks me to cook with her. We make albóndigas or meatballs and smash the spices in the molcajete. My grandma sighs a little when she sees it is relatively unused; she explains that the remaining traces of other salsas made in the molcajete give the food a unique flavor.
Put some milk in a bowl. Add bread and let it soak in the milk. This will make the albóndigas soft and sturdy.
When I was little, my mother wrapped quesadillas in tinfoil for my lunch. I ate these quietly and carefully, trying to attract the least amount of attention possible. I desperately asked my mother to pack a PB&J sandwich instead.
My mother refused to buy peanut butter. She braided my hair into two tight pigtails and taught me to read in Spanish. I watched jealously as the other kids began reading Junie B. Jones, and I stubbornly resisted the Spanish vowels.
Guests to my house were greeted by vibrant colors, tinga, and my mother’s broken English. I felt myself cringe when she messed up a verb conjugation, and I watched with horror as the guests bit into a tostada.
Integrate the herbs and spices into the beef. Roll the beef into small, even balls.
Now my grandmother is humming along to Los Panchos. Her hands are strong and fierce as she smashes the spices together. I can see that she is comforted by the rich smell that is filling the kitchen.
I try to follow her instructions because I want to bond with her. She will return to Mexico soon, and I will not have her hands to guide me. I want to remember the recipe so I can recreate the rich odor that my body is instinctively pulled towards, even as my mind disagrees.
Mostly I just watch her graceful movements. She cooks with a steady rhythm; I have not seen gracefulness like hers except when I watch my mother dance and see the way she is able to sway her hips. I want so badly to have that innate sense of rhythm. My mother once tried to teach me cumbia, but I was too foolish and embarrassed to learn.
Bite down and taste the tomatillo in the meatballs. Do not forget it’s there.
I am gulping down the albóndigas while Los Panchos play Spanish guitar riffs. The albóndigas are bold, zesty, and delicious. To me, they speak to the distinct Mexican flavor my grandmother transmits into her food. It is a flavor I have tried to ignore for many years. But it is delicious, and I eat voraciously. I am undeniably Mexican, and, for once, I am proud of this. For years my mother tried to show me how important my culture was, but I was too afraid to listen. Now I have tasted Mexico in the albóndigas and have felt it in my grandmother’s strong hands. I will continue to dig for my once buried Latin spirit. I will place it on the stove and let it cook, watching the edges crisp and ripen. I will not forget the chile.
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