Since it is Cinco de Mayo, I got to thinking about Mexican food. Today we take for granted that tacos and enchiladas and chimichangas and burritos show up in weekly menus as often as the German- and British-derived foods I grew up on. But there was that time in 1966 when I introduced an Ohio family to (American) Mexican food. There was that time when farmer Adam Bair, my husband’s uncle, could not get enough tacos.
The success of tacos at a family reunion of Badertschers and Kohlers and Bairs in rural Wayne County, Ohio, provides a perfect illustration of the way that American food preferences change.
In the late spring of 1966, my husband Ken and I traveled back to our home state of Ohio to visit the relatives we had left behind when we moved to Arizona. We had married in 1960 and moved to Arizona in 1963. Ken’s mother’s family gathered at their home which was surrounded by farms and just down the road from a center of Mennonite culture, Kidron Ohio. All the women would bring a dish to share. They would perhaps make a noodle casserole with the obligatory mushroom soup. Or perhaps they made a J-ello salad with cabbage and carrots. Surely some melt-in-your mouth desserts like raisin pie or dump cake would appear. There would be a platter of ham slices and Swiss cheese and home made rolls.
My mother-in-law told me that there would be plenty of food. Since I came from so far away, I would not be expected to provide a dish. But that did not seem right to me. For one thing, I loved to cook. For another, I wanted to be a part of the family.
When we moved to Arizona I quickly began to explore the new-to-me everyday cuisine of Sonora, Mexico. Sonora was just down the road. From Scottsdale where we lived, we would drive south through Tucson and on to Nogales, the border town. And Mexican restaurants were popular in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area. (We were later to move to Tucson, much closer to the border. As a town founded by the Spanish in 1776, Tucson was much more oriented culturally (and by cuisine) to Mexico.)
To put this in perspective, in the 1960s, ethnic foods and restaurants other than Italian and Americanized Chinese were just beginning to make inroads. Although there were plenty of Mexican restaurants in Arizona there were none in this county. No one at that family gathering had ever been to a Mexican restaurant. There were no Taco Bells in Ohio until 1970. There were no frozen Mexican dinners. There were no tortillas. And that explains why it was perhaps foolhardy of me to decide that I should make tacos for the family. [Note: My mother had been serving us “tamales” from a can in the 50s, but they bear little resemblance to real Mexican food.]
Tacos were simple to throw together, and a dish that I could make without recipes. All I needed was corn tortillas, some oil to cook them in, ground beef, tomatoes, onion, lettuce, and cheese for the filling. Salsa? Hot sauce? Not for these people who had never seen, let alone tasted tacos and enchiladas. [I may be wrong about that–my sister-in-law thinks that I did bring a bottle of salsa back from the store where I found the tortillas. Any cousins remember?]
Ken and I set out to get some tortillas. There were none in the grocery store in nearby Dalton. I don’t remember if we checked nearby Orrville, but they wouldn’t have had them either. So we went further afield–all the way to Mansfield, Ohio, nearly 50 miles away. We checked a couple of stores and they had no tortillas. Dejected, I tried one more store, perusing the freezer case–and there were frozen tortillas! Frankly, I don’t remember if I also found a can of Hatch green chiles to mix in with the meat, but I would have been cautious about using peppers, anyhow. Perhaps I diced a green bell pepper from my mother-in-law’s garden.
Back we went to my in-laws’ home, hoping the tortillas would thaw overnight. The next morning, I stirred the ground beef and diced onions in a hot skillet. I chopped tomatoes, and lettuce and grated cheese. (Plenty of cheese in Mennonite country, even if there was no queso blanco or Monterey Jack.) When the family members began to arrive, I fried tortillas in a inch of hot oil in a large skillet. I maneuvered them with tongs to form an envelope that could be stuffed with the ground beef. and vegetables.
Of course I had second thoughts once the familiar casserole dishes began to arrive. Would I alienate myself from these folks by bringing them alien food? Would they spurn the crispy taco shells spilling contents all over with every bite? Could I compete with J-ello salads?
As I watched anxiously, everyone cautiously took a taco from the warming pan I had put in a low oven. They said they liked them. But Uncle Adam, the German-Swiss farmer who defined the word “raw-boned” wrapped his big hand around one taco. And another and then another. I wound up back in the kitchen making more even more tacos. Ole’!
Of course by the mid 1980s, Mexican restaurants had spread to Ohio. One could find the ingredients to make them at home in every grocery store. But I am proud to say that in 1961. I introduced tacos to a bunch of people who lived in Wayne County, Ohio. They may even be celebrating Cinco de Mayo in Kidron, Ohio today.
HAPPY CINCO de MAYO!
[Note: I have made a couple of additions since receiving comments on this post. Keep the comments coming!]