Cookbook author’s history inspires thoughts on food and Thanksgiving

Immigration has been on everyone’s minds lately.

It’s been on my mind, personally, in the months after an ancestry trip to Sweden, where my own family lived before moving to the U.S. almost 125 years ago. Immigration, of course, was a major part of the presidential election, and as we prepare for Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, many are talking about the idea of a wall and what it might mean for Americans and Mexicans alike.

Mexico City is Pati Jinich’s hometown, and around Thanksgiving, especially this year, she spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to move to a new place and be welcomed with open arms.

The PBS host and cookbook author first moved to the U.S. nearly 20 years ago, first to Dallas for her husband’s job, and then to Washington, D.C., where she earned a master’s degree in political science and worked as a political analyst at a think tank.

But immigration played a powerful role in her life even years before Jinich moved from her home country. Jewish grandparents on both sides of her family immigrated to Mexico from Eastern Europe to flee persecution — at the turn of the century on her father’s side and, on her mother’s side, just before World War II. They were among many thousands of Jewish immigrants who made a new life in countries other than their own during the last century.

Jinich knows that the circumstances around her own immigration story are much different than her grandparents’, but she sees Thanksgiving, her new favorite holiday, as a time when we can all take a moment to pause and think about the role immigration has played in making America great in the first place.

“Thanksgiving is the one holiday that couldn’t be more open to immigrants in its soul because it’s thankful for what people contribute and can bring to the table,” says Jinich, who was in Austin for the Hispanic Alliance’s Authentic Mexico gala in September.

Americans tend to forget the circumstances of that first Thanksgiving, when the pilgrims were the strangers in a strange land who needed a hand from the American Indians who were already here.

When Jinich thinks about Thanksgiving, she thinks about the sharing of ideas as much as the sharing of food, and she sees parallels between the current conversations about immigration and food culture.

“Mexicans and Americans, we think we know each other,” she says. “Oh, American food is hot dogs and Mexican food is only tacos. But we’re like cousins. When you live with someone for so long, you don’t take the time to go deeper.”

She’s seen Mexican food evolve from a distance, but her heart has evolved just as much.

“During the 19 years I’ve been away, I’ve become so humble in my perception of American and Mexican food. I used to think American food was unidimensional, but it’s much more diverse than I thought.”

The same is true of foods from her own country. Having grown up in Mexico City, she didn’t travel much to the other regions of Mexico until after she lived in the U.S. Through those trips, she’s been able to gain a much deeper appreciation not only of just how diverse her fellow Mexicans are but also how older food traditions are being reinvented in kitchens throughout the country.

When she first moved to the U.S., she scoffed at Tex-Mex, but as she got to know the people who have loved (and been in charge of cooking) those sizzling fajita platters and cheese enchilada combo plates, her perception changed.

“I remember eating my first combo platter in San Antonio and thinking, ‘This is not Mexican rice. These are not Mexican beans. These enchiladas aren’t made with corn tortillas,’ but I licked the plate when I was done,” she says. “It took a few years, but I realized that Tex-Mex is not Mexican, and maybe that’s the point.”

She understands the impulse, in the food world and beyond, to hold tightly to what we know and love. Look at cookbook author Diana Kennedy, the traditionalist, and Enrique Olvera, the chef behind Mexico City’s internationally acclaimed Pujol who is at the forefront of nouveau Mexican cuisine.

“Both of their roles are very important. They have a healthy push and pull and keep each other balanced,” she says.

We all must resist the urge to eliminate those differences because we’re tired of what feels like a tug of war.

“Some people want to keep things exactly the way they are, but when things don’t have room to breathe to evolve naturally, they are bound to die,” Jinich says. Even a beloved restaurant that has been open for 60 years can’t keep the menu the same that entire time. That food — and the energy and emotions behind it — will grow stagnant.

But on the other hand, the new generation of chefs has to know the history behind the food culture in order to understand and innovate.

The author, whose newest book is called “Mexican Today: New and Rediscovered Recipes for Contemporary Kitchens,” finds herself somewhere in the middle, intensely curious about everything and far less judgmental than she used to be.

“I love pushing the envelope, but in a homestyle way,” she says, and with one eye looking to the past and another looking to the future.

“It’s been a journey for me,” she says. “I feel like I know so much more than before, but at the same time, I feel like I don’t know anything at all.”

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