I came here to give you my chicken salad recipe, but my 10-year-old found out.
It’s a secret family recipe, he says. You can’t have it.
I’m real good at telling my boys what they can’t do — too good, notes Mr. No-recipe-for-you as he reads over my shoulder to protect the secret —and switching roles holds no appeal. But I’m listening to him on this because he’s trying to make an important point. He doesn’t know the word, but he’s telling me my chicken salad is his patrimony.
I can respect that, especially coming from a boy who’s lunged for every bit of his heritage that he’s caught a glimpse of for the last year or so. Yesterday it was my wife’s European family roots, when he plucked a jewelry box from a forgotten stack in the basement and then waved me away as he poked through the watches, pins and baubles inside. It might all be cursed, he warned, and I, an outsider who married into my wife’s clan, didn’t have the protection of her family blood that he was born with.
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Since I obstinately refuse to teach him to swear in Spanish, food has been his route into my Mexican heritage. He’s slowly mastering my habanero salsa, and any time he gets a little cash he pleads for a trip to the local Latino grocery so he can load up on the spiciest candy he can find.
I get it. Food might be the strongest tie to the cultures we came from. It lets us relive our childhood and honor our ancestors.
It wasn’t until I really listened to my son explain what a betrayal it would be to give up my recipe that I finally understood why my dad cooks fish the way he does. He grew up in the Arizona desert, where some of his favorite meals were cooked over mesquite that he and his friends had gathered. He lives in California now, but I realize I saw that desert kid every time he came back from deep-sea fishing and laid his catch not over coals or gas, but a hardwood fire in the backyard. Those flames are his heritage.
Me, I’ll happily spend all day cooking if someone will clean up after me, but my favorite thing to eat takes just a couple minutes of work, a few hours of patience and three ingredients: dry pinto beans, water and salt. Those stripped down frijoles de la olla taste like home. My mom can work magic with a chicken we slaughter out back, mix vegetables from her garden into a mouth-watering salsa and, together with her sisters, steam the best tamales you’ll ever taste, but it’s her simple pot of beans that I’ve claimed as my culinary birthright.
I wonder how this dish my son is protecting so fiercely (he refuses to sleep until he can read this over like a military censor) would have turned out if I knew what it would mean to him. Probably something closer to those complicated tamales than to the wonderful, plain beans. Thankfully, unburdened of expectations, I was free to quickly mix leftovers into what’s now my family’s favorite meal.
I can tell you there was chicken, beans, cilantro, lime, avocado and bright vegetable slivers. You’ll have to work your own magic of balancing, heating and chilling.
Looking back, I know there are a lot of combinations of protein, filler, herb, acid, fat and color that would have worked. It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d spread it on bread, scooped it over lettuce or tucked it into a corn tortilla. I bet what really mattered is that my son was having a great day when he sat down with the people he loves best to dig into that first batch of my chicken salad. It wasn’t dinner he savored that night, but his life.
Now his feelings are inextricably tangled with those flavors. If he’s lucky, he’ll always be able to conjure the spirit of a Midwestern childhood with a just a few minutes over a cutting board. That makes the chicken salad his. I can share a dish of it with you, but I can’t give up the recipe.
Reach Richard Espinoza, a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News, at firstname.lastname@example.org.