What am I? Chef Patricia Jinich on being Mexican-Jewish and reflecting her culture in the kitchen
There are many words I can use to describe myself – so many in fact, that I prefer to share my identity, my Mexicanness, through food and at the table: the one place where it all seems to make sense so beautifully.
My story begins in Mexico City, where I was born and raised in a middle class, Mexican-Jewish family. My three sisters and I were taught to work hard, study hard and above all, to appreciate good food, like the magic made when a touch of salt is sprinkled onto a warm and soft corn tortilla. At home, the conversation always revolved around food. From “Grandma made egg salad with mashed ripe avocado and gribenes!” to “Did you get to the school cafeteria on time to eat Doña Lupe’s sopes?” and “Papi will kill us if he finds out we stopped at El Galan for a spicy hot dog on our way home!” food was always on our minds.
I attribute my love of food partly to my grandparents, both sides of whom immigrated to Mexico from different parts of Europe and Eastern Europe. Our heritage and home was reflected on the plate, when we ate many traditional Jewish foods for the holidays – like gefilte fish – in a very Mexican way, a la Veracruzana, simmered in a spicy tomato sauce dressed with pickled chiles, olives and capers. Being Mexican and Jewish were one as I grew up eating pan de muerto, sucking on sweet sugar skulls during Day of the Dead and always enjoyed matzo ball soup on Fridays. Celebrating Passover and going to mass on Sundays with my nana was also a way I continuously tread between my two worlds.
Then everything changed when I moved to Texas. Overnight, I went from being undeniably Mexican to being someone who unexpectedly didn’t conform to people’s expectations of what it meant to look and sound Mexican. And so there I was, alone in Texas with a husband always on the road, writing my thesis on Mexican democratic institutions and missing everything that had made me feel at home: Mexican food. Though I had flirted on countless occasions with the idea of a culinary career, I tried to stay true to the policy analysis path in order to become an academic. “Snap out of it Pati!” I would say, reminding myself that I could indulge my love of cooking on vacations and Sundays. Years later, already in Washington, D.C. with undergraduate and graduate degrees under my arm and a job in a prestigious think tank, I switched careers and dove right into the culinary abyss. Since then, I’ve made sharing Mexican food my mission as a cooking show host and cookbook author in the United States because it was through food that I have been able to reconnect with my home country.
Mexican, Mexican-Jewish, Mexican-American: Now, 15 years after moving to the U.S. and raising a family, I feel confident sharing what it means to be a Mexican. In a way, I hope I can break down myths about Mexican food (it’s not greasy and cheese, nor always laborious with hard-to-find ingredients, nor always spicy) but I also want to tear down walls surrounding Latino identity. I’ll never forget when I was a guest on the Paula Deen show a few years ago; when I was introduced as Mexican, the adorable Paula said bluntly ‘you don’t look Mexican at all! And what is that last name?’ So while my last name is European and I have blue eyes, I am Mexican and extremely proud of it.
Because there are so many words to say how I feel about my culture and identity – countless, really – I prefer to share fabulous food, heavy with the flavors, scents and colors of Mexico to share my story and what it means to be Latino and Mexican in this country. After all, when you stir, blend and season contradictions into one pot, they taste absolutely delicious.