Universal Language

Two families bond over a shared love of food

By Francine Prose

Published on May 18, 2012

My son Leon and his wife, Jenny, joke that their love blossomed over enchiladas. Jenny prepared them for him on one of their early dates. Jenny is from Mexico, and we couldn't have been happier to discover that she is not only an enchanting person, but also a terrific cook. Like Leon, in no time, we fell for her and her delicious food, too. It's hard to choose between Jenny's pozole, a meaty stew made with hominy and chiles; nopales, cactus paddles peeled, sliced, boiled, and served in a salad; chiles rellenos, poblano peppers stuffed with cheese, then lightly battered and fried. Each time she'd visit Mexico, Jenny would return to New York with a mole sauce that only her aunt knows how to prepare, or with tamales that no one makes like her grandma.

Ever since a mutual friend in Brooklyn introduced Leon and Jenny, he's made numerous trips to Mexico, where her parents and grandparents rapidly discovered that her gringo boyfriend was a nice guy who loved her. But distance and everybody's busy schedule had conspired to keep the rest of our family—my husband, Howie, me, and our younger son, Bruno—from meeting Jenny's relatives until she and Leon were to be married. It might seem a little unusual to first meet one's new in-laws minutes before the wedding takes place. But when the families assembled on the steps of the Brooklyn courthouse, everyone's affection for Leon and Jenny was so intense that it seemed as if this was how it was supposed to be. Even the judge was visibly moved by the sight of three generations weeping with joy.

The three-day fiesta that followed was catered by a modest but brilliant Mexican luncheonette in Queens. There were mariachi musicians, a Cuban dance band, plenty of tequila, and a crowd of family and friends from New York, Los Angeles, and several cities in Mexico. The party, in a loft in Manhattan, was the sort of occasion that ends with everyone exchanging heartfelt vows to get together again as soon as possible. Among those promises was one I gave Jenny's mother, Lourdes, to visit Morelia, the capital of Michoacan—the city where Lourdes grew up, where her family still lives, and which, she promised, is the most beautiful in Mexico.

the night Howie and I arrived in Morelia to celebrate the wedding once more, this time at the home of Jenny's great aunt, it was obvious that Lourdes was right about the beauty of her hometown. The zocalo, the leafy main plaza, was brightly illuminated and gorgeous, as were the towers of the magnificent 17th-century stone cathedral. Founded by the Spanish in 1541, this historic center of the stately colonial city, which was designated a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO, evokes its Spanish counterparts—Ávila, Segovia, and Seville. Except that there was livelier music thrumming out of the car radios and playing in the cafes beneath the arched portals of the plaza.

But architecture was only one of the things that Lourdes raved about. Along with Puebla, Morelia is considered a gourmet's paradise, the Lyon of Mexico. In the morning, Lourdes and Jenny's father, Jesus, came to pick up Howie, Bruno, Leon, Jenny, and me from the hotel to take us to the central market for breakfast. Jesus spoke perfect English, while Lourdes was more hesitant about her grasp of the language. It was certainly better than my Spanish, which was virtually nonexistent, except for perhaps 200 words, mostly having to do with food. After a quick coffee, we were off to eat.

I was astonished by the variety of vegetables at the market, the artistry with which they were displayed, the stalls that sold chiles, spices, shelled beans, straw baskets, bright piñatas, bags of mole sauce, and mounds of the chiles rellenos that are probably my favorite Mexican dish. Jesus ordered several plates of corundas, which he told me are unique to Michoacan. Shaped a bit like pyramids, they're a regional variation on the tamale. Like tamales, they're made of masa and steamed inside the dark-green leaves of the corn plant. They were delicate, served with red or green salsa and a dollop of crema, a pleasingly tart cream, which pleasingly offset the sweetness of the corn.

Jesus and Lourdes went off to fetch the car, and we set out for Quiroga, a town known for its meat—namely carnitas, giant loins of pork that, in this town, were braised in orange juice and chiles, then deep fried. You purchase the juicy carnitas and tortillas by the kilo from a vendor, then find a seat under the shady awning of the stand, where you can also buy sodas. Jenny appeared with ripe avocados that we sliced and added to the pork, which we tore with our fingers and rolled between fresh tortillas. Though communication with our new in-laws had its limits, the food we shared created an unspoken bond.

After lunch, we headed back to Morelia to rest and dress for dinner at Jenny's great-aunt's home. Promptly at eight, we arrived at a pretty house in an outlying neighborhood. All day, I'd felt so at ease with Lourdes and Jesus that it slipped my mind that we were the new relations arrived from north of the border. For a moment I became aware of being an outsider, but my anxiety instantly dissipated, because everyone acted as if Jenny had brought home a group of long-lost relatives. The women hugged and kissed us, the men shook hands. Jenny's great uncle, Tio Flor, brought out a volume of photographs, and we marveled over how adorable Jenny was as a baby. The bilingual ones translated and, with a little help, conversation flowed: One of the uncles talked about his racing pigeons; Teo Flor told us about his passion for dancing and the legendary contest in which he won fourth place.

All this time the little cousins were eyeing us shyly until everyone headed up to the roof for the breaking of the large, star-shaped piñata. The scene reminded me of my own sons' birthday parties: kids gone wild with baseball bats and blindfolds. It was pure bedlam until finally, the piñata lay in shreds on the roof. Full of candy, the kids led us back downstairs.

By then, platters of food were appearing from the kitchen: a huge turkey marinated in a spicy mole sauce, fresh tortillas, salads. After dessert—a rum cake iced with buttercream—the tables disappeared as magically as they arrived. Someone put on a CD, and Teo Flor took the lead. If he won fourth place in a dance contest, I'd like to see the guy who won first. His dove-gray leather shoes skimmed across the floor as he spun and twirled. Lourdes, the family's other passionate dancer—as I recall from the wedding—joined him, and the rest of us watched, awed by their expertise.

An uncle poured snifters of brandy and led us in a toast. We wished for happiness and health, and raised our glasses to what people everywhere toast when there's love and good will in the room. As I thanked our new relatives for their delicious dinner and warm welcome, and expressed my joy at being part of the family, I found myself in tears—which needed no translation. All of us were moved by the power of love, aided by the fabulous food, to transcend the differences in our backgrounds and to lift us to a higher plane on which we all believed, for the moment, that borders don't exist.

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