I’ve always been a numbers person. Tell me the odds, tell me the statistics, tell me the chances, and I’ll make it happen. For example, when I see that an online recipe has 4.8 stars from over 1000 reviews, my confidence in the dish soars and I am much more likely to attempt it. If so many people found the dish doable and delicious, surely I would too. I’ve been pretty successful this way, making chicken piccata and matcha cookies and chicken satay noodles that my roommates scarf down every time. However, there are some things that numbers cannot tell you. There’s no way to measure the electricity in my chest when my sister and I share a bowl of slippery nopales. You can’t count the number of times my fingers crossed over each other in the hopes that there were strawberry paletas left in the freezer at the liquor store. There’s no quantifying the exact gradient of the browning on tiny fideo noodles floating in tomatoey broth. While numbers cannot tell me these things, I know them as intimately as myself.
I grew up eating and loving Mexican food made by my dad’s side of the family. They filled my early childhood with sopes, tamales, and agua de jamaica and molded me into an adult with an insatiable craving for the flavors of cumin, oregano, and cilantro. If that’s the case, why do I find it so challenging to bring myself to attempt to cook the Mexican food that I have loved my entire life?
While my dad’s family cultivated my love for their food, its influence ended at my front door. Neither of my parents knew how to make authentic Mexican food — my mother isn’t Mexican and my dad is inexperienced with cooking due to traditional gender roles that kept him out of the kitchen.Therefore no one could not teach me what I so desperately wanted to know. My mom worked for years to replicate my late grandmother’s fideo recipe and has just about nailed it. When I said I wanted to make my own guacamole recipe, she bought me all the avocados, cilantro, and limes I could ever want. I ended up being the default guacamole maker at all kinds of assorted gatherings for the next few years (the secret is to add everything twice; as soon as you think it has enough lime or salt, top it off with more).
When I moved into my first apartment at 20 years old and was in charge of what was in my fridge for the first time, I realized that I was massively lacking in my knowledge of what ingredients I would need to make what I knew I would eventually crave. How many chipotle peppers in adobo sauce could I add to enchilada sauce before it became a danger? What was the difference between guajillo chiles and árbol chiles? Where could I get tomatillos? I was deeply embarrassed that I had these questions and just bought canned enchilada sauce and jarred tomatillo salsa instead, hoping that it would be the same. Unsurprisingly, it was not.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everyone was panic-buying the first thing they could think of. For some people, it was toilet paper and disinfecting wipes. For my dad? Massive bags of dry pinto beans. I knew that he had no idea what to do with them, but in the face of something so huge and frightening, he leapt for the things that would give him comfort when it felt like the world was aflame. It reminded me of the comfort that we both experienced in our childhoods (nearly 30 years apart) through the food we ate. With the world at a standstill, I was committed to reclaiming the things that would bring me comfort.
In 2021, just as I had committed to beginning this venture, my dad’s family experienced a massive falling out that shattered any chance that I had of being mentored by the people who had given me my love for my favorite foods in the first place. I felt alone and utterly overwhelmed by the idea of embarking on my culinary journey alone. So, just like any other Zillenial would have, I turned to the internet. I was ready to use my faith in numbers to guide me and looked at the most popular recipes online.
One of the most reviewed — but not necessarily best — chilaquiles recipe has a rating of 5.0 stars and 615 reviews on the New York Times Cooking site is written by Martha Rose Shulman, who describes chilaquiles as a “top-of-the-stove tortilla casserole.” Hmm. Interesting way of looking at it. The comments on the recipe are filled with suggestions for the addition of basic spices (specifically cumin and cayenne, neither of which were present in the original recipe), using fire-roasted tomatoes, and using dry chiles or chiles in adobo sauce instead of jalapeños. Bingo. This was exactly the kind of guidance I was looking for. I ended up scrolling for what felt like hours through the comments on online recipes for my favorite dishes: pozole, albondigas, enchiladas, pollo asado, just about anything I could think of. It was through these comments that I found a sense of community in which everyone was helping one another find authenticity in their cooking. Maybe I couldn’t actually see the people who were guiding me, but somehow I felt they could see me.
Since then, I have compiled a flavorful and mouth-watering amalgamation of recipes that combine online recipes, online comments, tips-and-tricks blogs, and feedback from friends and family. Even though I have only been working on most of them for about a year, I can already feel my passion for cooking strengthening. I now have the confidence and tools to tackle dishes that I was too intimidated to even attempt out of fear of being a Latina who couldn’t cook Mexican food. After each mushy serving of arroz rojo and every drop of split enchilada sauce, I remind myself that when my grandmother was younger, her food looked just like mine.
I recently made chilaquiles for breakfast for my dad’s birthday. I make them every year because I know that it reminds him of the food that he grew up on. This year, he told me that they were the best that I had ever made. I thought of all of the failed attempts in my own apartment, the years of overly-thickened sauce and the inconsistency in chip softness. Nothing except my childhood memories had told me that those were wrong, but now his childhood memories were telling me that these were right. I might be getting a late start, but I’m determined to take advantage of all of the time that I gained by giving myself a chance.