Writer’s Block: Menudo: The Latino Soul Personified

Port Isabel-South Padre Press

It’s no secret that food and family are two integral parts of Latino culture.

Our family bonds are tightly woven, with our extended family members as close to us as our smaller nuclear families. Family is so important in Latino culture that we oftentimes happily choose to expand the definition of what constitutes “family.” People who aren’t otherwise related to us by blood or marriage become de facto members of our families simply because we treat friends as family and our families are our best friends.

It’s family, and it’s also community. It’s a togetherness that we cleave to when we celebrate our brightest, happiest moments. And it’s a togetherness that holds us close and gets us through our most somber moments of grief.

As pretty much anyone in the Rio Grande Valley could tell you, no family occasion would be complete without a shared meal, where everyone gathers around the table (or multiple tables set up haphazardly in the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the garage, the backyard — anywhere there’s room, really) to eat a meal made with love by the very same family members who have gathered to enjoy it. And more often than not, one of the many dishes you’ll find at such a gathering is menudo.

Why menudo? Because it’s a dish that is as much a part of Latino culture as a serenata of Las Mañanitas on Mother’s Day, or a mariachi troupe singing love ballads, or cascarones on Easter. Put simply, menudo is part of our collective souls.

You’ll find menudo at our biggest celebrations of life’s milestones, like weddings and birthdays. You’ll find it at our funerals, when loved ones gather together to remember the departed. You’ll find it at Saturday afternoon backyard barbecues. You’ll find it at the ritziest Mexican restaurants, and you’ll also find it at gas stations or roadside taco stands.

For me, personally, menudo reminds me of Friday nights in my mother’s kitchen. It reminds me of warm, earthy smells filling the house for hours on cold days.

It reminds me of New Year’s Eve celebrations at church, where all were invited — church congregant or not — to share in a communal meal.

It reminds me of the quinceañeras and weddings of loved ones. It reminds me of family game nights, where beloved cousins and aunts gather around the table to play Lotería.

It reminds me of my late grandmother and her kitchen. Of the warmth and welcome she extended to anyone who walked through her door. It reminds me of how her eyes would scrunch up with wrinkles as she leaned back in the simple mirth of her generous laughter.

It reminds me of earlier this summer, when Mom made a big pot of menudo and invited my aunt and cousins over and we all crowded around the tiny kitchen table, catching up after not having seen each other in a few months.

It reminds me of the knowledge I still have yet to learn from my mother because her hands are capable of making the dish without the aid of measuring spoons or recipe cards. It reminds me that, though it’s a dish I know so very intimately, I still don’t know how to make it from scratch like Mom does.

Menudo is more than something I grew up with. It’s a part of the fabric of my family, and my life, and so much of the love I have known.

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