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Food for thought during Hispanic Heritage Month

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- My grandparents' immigration to the United States brought great challenges and hardships I might never fully understand, but one legacy stirs in my mind and in my kitchen.

During National Hispanic Heritage Month, nothing awakens my fondest childhood memories more than food in the U.S.-Mexican border town where I grew up. In my grandmother's Southwest Arizona kitchen, meals burst with vibrant colors, rich flavors and aromatic seasonings of Mexico. On our table, there was no fast-food mediocrity to taint our taste buds, and the only mixed dishes could be traced back to the Spanish colonization of Mexico and the Southwest.

No meal lacked tortillas--corn or flour, Spanish rice, beans and a variety of salsas and sauces. And no week was complete without my family's ritual of fried tacos. Biting into a generous pat of seasoned, raw beef folded in a corn tortilla and deep fried in lard, or animal fat, was always a visceral, sacred experience.

What table guests considered exotic, I found familiar and intoxicating. What others considered pungent delivered a savory, in-your-face punch. No morsel wasted, every plate wiped clean.

Tamales were our Christmas ham and a day-long family affair. In assembly-line fashion, we mixed, spread and wrapped the cornmeal paste in water-softened corn husks. Stuffed with a variety of meats, cheeses and Spanish olives, these fresh treats were steamed and generously dredged with red chile sauce. Served seasonally, they represented a spirituality deeply rooted in our home, while leftovers helped usher in the new year and our cultural rebirth.

Although I prepare different ethnic foods, my grandparents' Mexican dishes like enchiladas and Chile Relleno (stuffed chile peppers) still prevail in my home. Today my fare reflects variations, but I do my best to maintain the integrity and essence of my culinary inheritance.

Today's fast-food culture has reduced the palatable experience to processed solids and some concoctions that bear little resemblance to why my ancestors converged in the kitchen, but there's hope.

According to food critics and authors like Mexican food expert Diana Kennedy, low-scale eateries, cantinas and finer establishments are re-energizing flavors of civilizations that have given us an aesthetically pleasing and infallibly delicious repertoire.

In her book "The Essential Cuisines of Mexico," Kennedy hopes a "reincarnation of old friends will reach a new audience as future generations of Mexican Americans become more aware of their culinary heritage and a new wave of young chefs delves into these exciting, authentic recipes."

If I'm to be a bridge of hope between these generations, I better get cookin'.

Team Eglin members who are interested experiencing the diverse flavors and cultures during National Hispanic Heritage Month may attend the following events:

Oct. 1, 11:30 a.m: Luncheon with music, guest speaker, invocation and food at enlisted club

Oct. 3, 1 - 3 p.m: Dance/music presentation at BX

Oct. 16, 2100-0100: Music and dancing at enlisted club

Sept. 22, 29 and Oct. 6, 13, 9 - 11 a.m: Bilingual readings/art contest at Eglin Elementary School

Oct. 9, 4 - 6 p.m: Arts/crafts evening with piñata making and other arts/crafts at Eglin Youth Center