For the first fifteen years of my eldest son’s life we lived in a neighborhood that was heavily Hispanic. Except for another family down the block, he grew up as the only white kid around, either on the street or in school. It wasn’t any deliberate plan. It just worked out that way but the husband and I took it as a major parental blessing that our son was growing up steeped in a culture other than his own family’s heritage.
By the time he was a gawky six foot tall eighth grader, he insisted on a short fade hair cut and huge jeans that always threatened to make him trip. Among the reasons he had for hating his father, one of the tops was the husband pointing out to him that he looked like an 18th century girl picking up her skirts when he walked. In general, our son didn’t want to have anything to do with us but there was no where to go since his friends all wanted to hang out at our house. And why wouldn’t they when one of the few ways I could think of to keep him–and, by extension, his friends– safe from the increasingly dangerous streets outside was to throw food at them.
Old-school parental insight: Want to get through to boys? Feed them often and a lot.
I became accustomed to doubling the amount of dinner I made for the family. We were pretty broke and the meals were heavily influenced by Mom’s advice to make stews because you can always stretch them out by adding more potatoes. The wildest ethnic food in my repertory were mild curries and fried rice. The boys devoured everything.
Right before his sixteenth birthday the son requested burritos. The rest of the boys wanted them, too. He recently told me that he tasted his first burrito in a small storefront restaurant on Fourth Avenue. He and his friends were out gallivanting, up to no good, which can make fifteen year old boys very hungry and grateful to find a restaurant still open pass their curfew. That first burrito was buried under a salsa verde and he can still taste its fresh savory heft.
I’m pretty sure his friends did not eat burritos at their homes for the reason that their families were Puerto Rican and Dominicans. Even if there was a child from a Mexican family nestled among them, he wouldn’t have eaten burritos, either. Burritos are to Mexico what chop suey is to China, for that matter what corned beef and cabbage is to Ireland–an American invention. The recipe I used was composed from his very detailed description. It seemed simple enough so I just walked up to the vegetable stands and bodegas to find what he said I’d need. This was another great thing about the neighborhood–the heaping availability of a variety of fresh peppers and herbs, different blends of spices, corn husks and fresh tortillas. Once home I rolled a great mountain of them in a way that seemed about right. The son, his brother, the husband and the multitude of boys in the living room loved them and that was how birthday burritos became the tradition in our Irish American household.
The only thing that I will say that is sort of special about mine is I make fresh sauce. Below is the recipe for salsa verde but if I want a straight forward tomato salsa I simply add a lot more tomatoes.
4 or 5 large tomatillos, husk removed, quartered
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
Half a medium size onion quartered
1 small jalapeno pepper, sliced, seeds removed
2 or 3 large diced tomatoes ONLY IF THEY’RE IN SEASON! If not use a 24 ounce can of good quality diced tomatoes. Drain them from the can and reserve the juice
1 large lime
Salt and pepper
Cilantro to taste
Put the tomatillos, garlic, jalapeno pepper and onion in a food processor and pulse several times until roughly cut. You can process more if you like a smoother sauce.
Place the tomatoes in a bowl and add the tomatillo mixture. Squeeze the lime juice over everything and mix once more.
Season with salt and pepper and cilantro to taste.
Make at least an hour before use to let the flavors melt together.
A chore, right? It’s nothing special, the usual recipe. Since it’s very simple and I can pick up all the ingredients down the street I hardly ever use a commercial brand. The sauce doesn’t keep more than a day or two so only make as much as you’ll need.
I understand there is a standard burrito filling of rice, beans and meat but so what? Stuff them with whatever you want. The son requests chicken because that was what was in his first burrito. I cut the chicken into strips, season it with Tajin, then refrigerate it for a couple of hours. (If you don’t know Tajin it’s worth searching for it. You’ll find yourself sprinkling it on everything.
Once ready to make the burritos, line up all your ingredients on the counter. Here are mine, starting on the top row, left to right: reserved strained juice from the can of tomatoes, a can of summer corn, seasoned chicken. Bottom row, left to right: diced pepper, diced half a large white onion, flour tortillas, and a shredded mixture of Monterrey and cheddar cheese.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
After spraying a large baking dish with Pam, I throw in a thin layer of tomatoes and their juices then place several strips of chicken about a 1/3 of the way from the bottom edge of the tortilla. Sprinkle over the chicken corn, pepper/onion and cheese. Roll the tortilla up tightly and place in the prepared baking dish. Proceed until you’re out of ingredients then spoon on top a little sauce and the shredded cheese.
Bake for about 35 minutes. Check to see how much the chicken is cooked by inserting a knife into one of the middle burritos. If the meat is still pink, bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Let stand about 5 minutes before serving on a bed of rice. Dollop Mexican cream on top of each and serve with a bowl of salsa verde.
We moved from the neighborhood six months after the son’s first burrito birthday. It tore us apart but we had to do it, mainly because those increasingly dangerous streets outside our home became too alluring to him and threatened our ability to keep him safe. We moved to a neighborhood exactly 20 blocks south where the most exotic dish the families around us cooked were spaghetti in meat sauce and lamb stew.We were the odd-balls, our sons decidedly misfits, uncomfortable among the neighborhood kids who all had friends who looked exactly like themselves. I kept walking back those 20 blocks to shop but then a few years later new people began moving in and transformed the main market street. They brought in unknown spices, and vegetables, freshly butchered meat, olive oil from almost every Middle Eastern nation. A whole new world spread across our table.
As for the son, he skidded out of his teens not hating us too much, meandered through college, enlisted in the Marines and spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you read the serial the Marines on the Truck, he’s the big white kid. He’s now a social worker. He makes his own chicken burritos.