Of Recipes and Storytellers by Héctor Octavio González Hernández
“What am I doing here?” was my initial thought after the whole list of 50 Mexicanx recipients was announced. I saw talented English and Spanish speaking writers, poets, illustrators and even sculptors. I’m just a cook. Impostor syndrome started to settle in but I consoled myself with the initial announcement: they were looking for fans too. Yeah, that’s enough. I guess.
Then John Picacio entrusted me with preparing the food for the reception and things changed. I felt that I could share something that could be appreciated firsthand. Also, new anxiety. If I made something traditionally Mexican, I would be judged by fellow compatriots.
I’ll be honest, when I cook for Americans, they see my dishes as a window into my heritage but there isn’t a huge comparison point. With Mexicans, it would be introducing my version of something they had experienced hundreds of times, something that was dear to them. I might not fare too well.
I saw this also as my chance to either make it or break it. It would be between “There goes the guy that made all that awesome food!” and “Did you hear about the Mexican that food-poisoned over 100 people at Worldcon?” There was no middle ground for me. The food had to be grandiose and exciting or terrible and forgettable. The latter was not an option.
Carnitas, a crowd pleaser, popped in my mind. I would use my grandmother’s recipe. I only learnt it after coming to the US, where she had lived since she was 30 years old. I was also 30 when I first arrived in the US and finally got to know my grandmother. Mi abuela Elena had only existed in the same realm as Santa Claus does to many children: She lived far away, came only once a year, bearing gifts I was queried about by my mother. She arrived and requested a hug but I had no emotional attachment to that woman. While many friends had their abuelitas as an integral part of their lives, mine was far away, unknown to me. That changed 14 years ago.
I listened to her stories, her memories, her recipes. The phrase that always makes me tear up about her past was her answer when I asked why she came to the US. I never expected the answer.
“Para comprar a mis hijos de vuelta.” “To pay to get my children back.” Myths were erased, truths were uncovered, gruesome deaths and other tragedies revealed. Those are stories for another time.
I want to share her recipe, as well as my take. To me, recipes are stories, one of the best examples of open source knowledge. We see steps and ingredients and each cook becomes a storyteller. Adding a pinch of salt here and there, substituting ingredients when something is missing or disliked. At the end, each dish is like a theater play, each performance, unique; each ingredient, consumed only once; each meal, ephemeral.
Her recipe helped a woman get the chance to bring her family to the US, mine allowed this nervous cook to be welcomed by a new community that he now loves.
Carnitas estilo Michoacan By Elena Resendez
6 lbs of boneless pork shoulder, cut in 3-inch cubes
1 cup of whole milk
1 cup of 100% orange juice, freshly squeezed is better
3-5 lbs of lard Salt
In a large pot, put the lard over high heat, allowing it to reach 500 F. Put the pork carefully in the boiling lard and let it fry, tossing every 6 minutes. The outside of the pork will start looking crispy after 25 minutes. Carefully pour in the milk and orange juice. WARNING: this is very anticlimactic. You are expecting an ebullient explosion, what you get is just the lard looking different and a sweet smell coming from the pot. Let the carnitas cook for another 12 minutes, tossing from time to time. Grab the pork with tongs and lay the pork on a baking tray. If you want it even crispier, cook under a broiler on high. Shred and eat with anything you want.
Sous Vide Carnitas By Héctor González
4 lbs of boneless pork shoulder, cut in 3 inch cubes
1 medium white onion, cut in large pieces
8 cloves of garlic
1 large orange
1 large bay leaf
2 tablespoons of milk powder
1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
Salt to taste
In a large pot of water, set your sous vide circulator to 170 F. In a bowl, mix the pork, onion, garlic, bay leaf, milk powder and cinnamon. Squeeze the orange juice and cut the orange into pieces, tossing with the rest of the ingredients. Put everything into two large ziplock bags and submerge into the pot with the hot water. Cover the pot with foil to avoid evaporation. Let it cook for 13-20 hours. Put through a strainer and removed the onion, garlic and spices. Over a baking tray, shred the pork (it will be super tender) into pieces and toss a bit of salt over it. Put under the broiler set on high for 8 minutes, toss, sprinkle more salt, then broil again for 8 more minutes. Repeat until desired crispiness is reached. Serve whichever way you want.
This version is leaner as the lard doesn’t make the carnitas greasy and the flavors are more intense, due to the sous vide process and the cooking time. If you want to know how the food was received, the best compliment I received was by fellow Mexicanx sibling Gabriela Damián “… acabamos raspando la charola de carnitas.” “We scrapped the bottom of the tray where the carnitas were served.”