My mom makes great Mexican food. Before I was born, she would sometimes help out in the kitchen of a small Mexican restaurant owned by my tio. One Sunday, she was working with a few of the other wives and, it being Sunday, they were busting their asses making menudo. Mind you, all these women are white, not Mexican, including my mom. But they all married Mexican men, and their marriages all came with the unspoken agreement that they had to learn how to cook real Mexican food – none of that ground beef, shredded cheddar, and sour cream in a flour tortilla crap that passes for Mexican food in some states. So there they were, probably sweating up a storm in that tiny kitchen over a huge, steaming pot chock full of hominy and tripe. Then one of the servers came in and asked my mom and my tias to go out front because a couple of old men out there wanted to talk to whoever made the menudo. The way my mom tells it, those three white women marched on out to that table and the old pendejos practically spit their soup all over their laps in disbelief. The men refused to entertain the idea that a couple of white ladies could ever make such delicious menudo and insisted that someone had to be playing a joke on them. I’m not sure that those men were ever convinced that a white person could make menudo that good, but regardless of what they believed, the ladies still took the compliment. It’s not easy to impress cranky, old Mexicans. 

I always found a bit of irony in that story, seeing that my mom doesn’t even like menudo all that much. By the time I was growing up, she’d decided it was time for my dad to learn how to make it. She told him, “You want it every Sunday? Then go out to a restaurant or make it yourself!” My dad wasn’t typically the type to go out to eat; I could probably count the number of times I saw that man sit down in a restaurant. And most of those times were in Mexico where you can see your food being made and sit down in a plastic chair on the curb to eat. But, living a good two hours from the border, all our local Mexican restaurants were the kind to decorate with sombreros and colorful blankets, and invite a mariachi band to come play every Tuesday and Thursday. So, my dad learned to make menudo, and he learned to make it damn good. He still didn’t make it every Sunday, though. He was a bit too lazy for that. But when he got to craving it bad enough, he’d get up extra early in the morning – early for him was eight o’clock – and start his water boiling. I’d become enchanted by the way he’d toil over our hefty, green menudo pot. The way he took care in stirring the broth, pouring in the hominy, and especially how he added his spices; you’d think he was performing a sacred ritual. No, it was just an inconsistent Sunday tradition, one which filled our bellies and seemed to fulfill his spirit. My dad wasn’t a religious man, but sometimes I wonder if he found god in a big bowl of menudo.

I wonder, too, how he might feel about my becoming a pescatarian in recent years. I was a total vegetarian for a while until I started craving fish to the point it became unbearable. It might not work for everyone, but my body is much happier with me on this diet. And sure, I’ll eat the occasional chicken or Thanksgiving turkey, but I keep away from the beef and pork even though I crave them real bad sometimes. I’m quite sure I inherited those cravings from my dad. Everything he loved—menudo, carne asada, pork chops, chile verde—I’ve dropped it all from my diet. I wonder if my dad’s body would have been happier with him if he’d done the same. I wonder if his heart wouldn’t have gone out suddenly, too. I know at this point, it’s a little late to wonder about these things. It really doesn’t matter if he would have accepted me as I am or not. But if I had to bet, I’d wager that he’d be more upset and confused about my present diet than about me being transgender.

I think I could win him over, though, if he’d give me a chance. I’ve learned to make some damn good vegetarian substitutes. When it comes to cooking – especially Mexican food – it’s more about what spices you use than what kind of meat, or lack thereof, that you cook. I learned that from my mom. My skills with jackfruit are honestly impressive at this point. I can shred it into pollo for tacos or chunk it like pork into some posole. Did you know that you can turn walnuts into ground beef right before your very eyes simply by boiling them before a quick run through a food processor? I’ve even been researching ways to make menudo without tripe. There’s apparently a certain kind of mushroom with the same chewy texture that cow stomach is known for. One of these Sundays, once the weather cools down, I plan to find out for myself just how good vegetarian menudo can be.

Now, my mom, she’s the one who taught me to cook. Or rather, she taught me how to learn to cook. There were a few times growing up when she showed me how to make a certain dish, but she never wrote down any recipes for me, and usually focused her lessons on techniques and what worked best for her. I’ll always be thankful to her for that because, to me, cooking is never an exact science; it’s an art form. With any art, you learn by copying until you’ve begun to develop your own style. Sometimes the use of direction is necessary, but any good artist knows when to deviate. I’m lucky to have learned from a cook like her. And I’m lucky to have grown up exposed to incredible, authentic Mexican food. 

Now I’ve thought about this a lot: can I really go around calling her Mexican food authentic? She didn’t grow up in Mexico or even in a Mexican family. But on the other hand, she impressed those old pendejos with her menudo, didn’t she? She cooked well enough to keep my dad – who did grow up in Mexico – satisfied. She even taught him how to make his own menudo! That sounds pretty authentic to me. But I still have to question where that leaves me. I make plenty of Mexican dishes, but I learned all my techniques from my mom. And nowadays, I don’t use real meat, which is basically a staple of the cuisine. Heck, I don’t even speak Spanish because my dad never bothered to teach me. So, is my cooking authentic? Or is it just a copy of a copy?

 I’m sure there are a million different answers depending on whom you ask. All I know is that, authentic or not, I love to cook and I’m good at it. And the more I think about it, the more I realize it all comes down to how I decide to see myself. 

Back when I first began to acknowledge I was trans, I often felt like an imposter. It was much easier to see myself as the person I’d grown used to—even if I couldn’t stand the guy—than it was to see myself as the woman I actually am. It’s all a matter of perspective, and it takes effort to shift the way you see things. With time and practice, it’s become easier to see a confident woman in the mirror. But sometimes there’s still a disconnect between who I am inside and who I see on the outside. I often feel a similar kind of disconnect from most of my family and the community I long to be a part of because I don’t speak fluent Spanish and my skin could never be mistaken for brown. But cooking Mexican food, even if I cook it my way, keeps me grounded in my own identity. It reminds me of who I am and who I’m working to become. It’s a part of me and I’ve given a part of myself to it. Like my mom before me, I find joy in cooking for others. Like my dad, I’m always seeking out something hearty to fill the void. En mi casa, soy el corazón de la cocina. En mi corazón, estoy aprendiendo como a quererme.

About the author:

Alannah Guevara is a Queer and trans poet, wife, and new mother. A senior at Cal Poly Humboldt, Alannah studies English and designs books for the library press. Her work can be found in Madwoman CollectiveToyon Literary MagazineThe J.J. Outré Review, and scribbled inside half a dozen notebooks. She is a winner of Toyon’s 2022 Sana, Sana Competition for her poem, “Fresh Fruit.” Next year, she will be undertaking the role of editor for an anthology of children’s poetry.

Feature image by Masha Rostovskaya on Unsplash