| Arts & Culture
Food Making Menudo with My Abuela
“If food is like a language, then menudo is its own dialect in my family.”
I have no memory of the first time I ate my abuela’s menudo. As far back as I can recall, the dish has always been a staple and centerpiece of communion with my Mexican family. Walking into my grandparents’ home, one of the first questions that greets you is “¿Tienes hambre?” and I always answer in the affirmative when it comes to menudo. Around the table, we relish the nourishment we get from this flavorful dish, slurping and sharing my abuela’s transcendent soup, none of us able to deny its power to call us to the table.
I cherish the ritual of menudo for this power, how it brings all of us together in our mutual enjoyment of this familial sacrament, but also because it connects me to a culture I have never felt fully able to claim as my own, largely due to my biraciality. I straddle the boundary between two cultures, one far more imposing than the other. I felt this disconnect all the more keenly during my recent holiday trip to my grandparents’ home in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I was determined to finally learn the secrets of my abuela’s menudo preparation. When you’re in a room among people who share a language in which you lack proficiency, you are an outsider, even when blood binds you together. No matter how hard you try to translate each word and turn of phrase, you will never feel fully present in the conversation. For me, a person who greatly values language and conversation, this proves especially frustrating.
Since I was not immersed in the language as a child, all the Spanish I’ve learned has been acquired in classes or self-taught. Once I enrolled in a graduate-level Spanish course only to drop out before the professor arrived on the first day, intimidated by the fluency and intimacy with which my classmates already spoke their native language. I sometimes give my father a hard time for not teaching me Spanish when I was growing up, but I understand why he didn’t. For him and his sisters, children of immigrants who only spoke Spanish when they first arrived in the States, it was crucial to learn English, which they primarily did by watching TV and attending school. They were often criticized for speaking Spanish. Passing along their native language to their children did not necessarily occur to them, since they had no choice but to speak English while their native language was marginalized.
I can’t ignore the deep shame I feel in never mastering Spanish. My responsibility to language compels me to focus so much on vocabulary, grammar, and saying or hearing the right thing that I can’t relax and learn. I am buried under the weight of perfectionism: too many variables, too many choices, too much to analyze. I do like the way Spanish words feel in my mouth, the way they tumble out like they almost belong. But I have never felt they do belong, because there is nothing that anchors the words—they leave my mouth and nothing deep inside me resonates. Speaking Spanish is like speaking in some impersonal code, one I’m simply trying to execute to convey meaning. I don’t feel comfortable or confident speaking the Spanish I do know in front of my family—I end up feeling like I disrespect them and our ancestors by butchering their language in front of them.
If food is like a language in how it conveys purpose, communion, and meaning, then menudo is its own dialect in my family. Menudo is special: Unlike other Mexican dishes (tacos, enchiladas, or tamales) that have been popularized by American culture, menudo has been largely ignored. Although time-consuming, the dish is relatively easy to prepare.
Made from beef tripe, specifically the cow’s stomach lining, menudo is not a dish you’ll hear many Americans raving about. As Pat Perini notes in a 1974 Texas Monthly article that rings true forty years later, “[T]ripe . . . like most organ meats, suffers wide disdain among Anglos.” Freshly butchered tripe is a white sheet with a honeycomb pattern, a pattern that induces fear and anxiety in some (one Redditor actually claims menudo as the root of their trypophobia). When my abuela instructed me to cut the manteca (fat) from the meat, I could not easily discern the white fat from the strange white meat while making cuts, and we needed sharp knives to slice through the rubbery texture.
The tripa does not, on its surface, appeal to me. But the flavor of the broth comes from this meat, a flavor I was born loving. The fact that this organ meat turns some people off somehow endears the dish to me even more. In fact, I’ve ordered the soup at restaurants (never as tasty as mi abuela’s) only to test the reaction of some of my friends. The difficult meat is like a difficult phrase, maybe akin to an idiom—an expression that can only be appreciated in the context of its origins and culture. Menudo, then, is not for the faint of heart (or stomach). I’m with Victor Balta, though, when he writes , “[I]f a preschooler can handle it, so can you .”
Widely believed to have peasant roots —haciendo owners would take the best cuts of beef for themselves and give their farmers the less desirable portions—menudo means “minute, small” and the word is also used as a metonym for the beef tripe itself. Essentially, menudo exists because of the ingenuity of peasant families, trying to create the most food out of what was on hand and to make it flavorful. Commonly served during holidays and celebrations, menudo also has the distinction of being a cure for el crudo, a hangover.
Most of the work involved in cooking menudo lies in the time spent cutting the tripe and boiling it with copious amounts of oregano for around four hours to soften it. I hadn’t realized until my recent trip that the aroma I associate with menudo is oregano, an herb known for its own healing properties. After the tripe is cooked, you can add other cuts of beef—my abuela likes to boil patas (beef feet) separately with garlic and oregano, then add them to the broth, along with cubes of chuck. The chile paste—made with a red pepper like the ancho and ground up with seasoning using a molcajuete—comes next, creating a rich red color for the menudo that infuses the broth with more flavor and spice. Last, but certainly not least, plenty of hominy is poured into the soup. Once served, we add lemon or lime and onions before diving in.
Each family has its own method. I had always assumed that a dish this delicious would involve a more complicated preparation. Participating in this tradition with my dad and my abuela allowed me a more intimate relationship with this beloved family food. As we prepared it together, I could imagine my ancestors gathering its few ingredients, taking the time to create a healing broth that could feed many people at once (and always enough for seconds). And I can understand and admire the determination and skill that allowed them to take an “unwanted” cut of meat and transform it into this treasure of a dish, the alchemy of waste into wealth.
Interpreting a foreign language is its own alchemy, but one that doesn’t always yield the treasure I hope to find, the essence of meaning, an evasive thing that is often lost when I try to comprehend and translate it. This loss frustrates me, so I turn my attention to something I can understand fully, with only the knowledge of translation a body can bring. Nothing is lost in menudo, a dish created out of loss and therefore impervious to losing.
Menudo’s meaning lies in its roots, ritual, and consumption, and its curative power helps restore me to a past that belongs to my Mexican family and their ancestors, a special bond that deepens my relationship to a culture that has always found creative ways to transcend oppression. Through this custom, I connect to something larger than myself, something more substantial, a thread that can be ephemerally traced back to a heritage and a lifestyle I know little about but now experience as a sharing of flavor and nourishment with my family. Receiving this act of comestible grace , I am momentarily transported without language and without analysis to a place that requires only the lifting of a spoon to my mouth to connect me with my ancestors, each bite affirming the faith I have in the miracle of their hands—how they managed to survive with the gumption and dexterity to create their own reality; to sow seeds of rubbish and create a ritual of abundance.
At home with my family, amidst a language I cannot fully comprehend and a culture that sometimes feels distant and nearly lost to me, I take my place at the table and begin the journey I have always known. I vow to always take that which has been discarded and lost and to try to redeem it, to recognize the power in what others choose to ignore and cast aside with no regard for its potential, knowing that within me is a secret inherited from my forebears that enables me to receive even these poor rations and transform them into a salve for the heart, mind, and body, a magic antidote for everything lost.