Made in the U.S.A.

Born and raised in the city of Chicago, I was surrounded by a mix of ethnicities and cultures.

In my neighborhood of Rogers Park we were a delightful blend of spices. A little creole seasoning, chocolate molé, spicy salsa, green curry and other delicious sauces. Me, my classmates, my friends could have represented many of the countries within the United Nations. Countries many of us never visited or will visit. Countries whose language was lost on the boat or plane that brought us, our parents or other ancestor. Countries whose culture was stuffed into a suitcase or strapped to our backs. Cultures that tried to blend with those found in this new country.

Fifth grade
Fifth grade

With all of this diversity surrounding me, my identity became an amalgam of cultures. I loved hanging with my girlfriends who would put french braids in my “horse hair.” Cook refried beans – with lard! – and eat them up with fresh made tortillas with my other girlfriend. Learn how to use chopsticks at our local Chinese restaurant. Learn how to jump double dutch – I was proud to be the only “white girl” who could turn double dutch. We all played together, we all loved each other, we all were a brilliant family.

That was until we got into high school. Suddenly, we were forced to label ourselves as – white or Hispanic or black or Asian, college bound or bound for McDonald’s, athlete or book worm, pretty or ugly, skinny or fat, fashionable or dumpy, popular or lame, rich or poor. I was all of them and none of them at the same time.

The innocence of elementary school was gone.

Kindergarten

Gone were the true values one should categorize someone – mean or nice.

The complexity of all the new labels that befell us as we walked the halls of our new high school – left me wondering where did all my friends go?

Were we all really too busy thinking – she is too white or too tall or too smart or too athletic or too nice or too ugly or too stupid or too whatever – that we couldn’t all be friends just because we were nice and we all grew up together?

Many of us were made in the U.S.A. Regardless of where our ancestors came from or if we immigrated here at an early age, as children we just wanted friends to play with that were nice. As young adults some of us became leery of those who were not identical to us.   Suddenly, some of us felt that our cultural identity would be lost by whom we hung out with.

Suddenly, I found myself a friend of everyone and no one.

Many of us had parents with the same cultural heritage which made labeling easier. I did not. My genetic makeup is a melting pot of Germanic and Latin cultures.

Cultural diversity, cultural tolerance, cultural love, are all genetic expressions of my DNA, although I have been greatly influenced by the environmental stimuli found in Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.

I am really no different than you or you or you. We all have the ability to express these traits. Our biology is all a mixture of many cultures. Perhaps all it takes is to dive deep down and find your child within and remember what was your original truth.

To say to that nice stranger you just met – “Your nice, can we be friends?”

Picadillo Cubano – Pacific NW style

How do you connect to your cultural roots?

I like connecting with food.

Cooking Cuban food floods my house with the smells I remember from my Abuela’s kitchen. I felt her spirit guide me as I crushed the garlic, sauted the sofrito and swayed my hips to the Cuban music playing in the background. Last night, to  celebrate what would have been her 96th birthday, I cooked Picadillo Cubano. This dish of ground beef, raisins, bell peppers, olives and tomato was not her signature dish – that was Arroz con Pollo with Tostones (twice fried green plantain) – but it evolved from the ingredients I already had in my fridge.

ingredients
What was in my fridge…

The centerpiece of the dish is the ground meat. I had a package of ground bison (the Pacific NW part of the recipe), my new favorite meat that is available at Costco. The meat is lean, organic and easy to digest, unlike much of the beef available.

Prepping.
Prepping.

The most important thing I have learned about cooking is to prep all of your ingredients before beginning to cook. It sounds simple, but I know many people who struggle with this simple concept.

Sauteing garlic and onions in olive oil.
Sauteing garlic and onions in olive oil.

I forgot to say that this recipe is not from my grandmothers’s cookbook Cocina Criolla by  Nitza Villapol  or from an online recipe, but adapted from a recipe in the ginormous cookbook Gran Cocina Latina by Maricel E. Presilla. Can I just say that a 900 page cookbook is just not practical.

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After the sofrito of onion, garlic, bell peppers are cooked, add the ground bison and spices.

The other very important ingredient is Cuban music – tonight it is Cubanismo’s first album.  I believe the rhythms playing while cooking, impart a very special flavor into the food.

photo 1
Add tomatoes. I added two cans of organic diced tomatoes, instead of 20 fresh Roma tomatoes.
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Olives with pimentos is an important ingredient as it offsets the sweetness of the raisins, also added at this time.
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Let simmer for about 20 minutes. I put the rice on to cook at this time…

While the picadillo simmered, I left the kitchen to put laundry in the dryer. When I entered I had a flashback to my Abuela’s house. The fragrance of the picadillo embraced me with the warm memories of sitting in her kitchen and watching her cook with love and care. I love the way that food can bring me back to my roots and bring my Abuela back for a visit.

Warm embrace from my Abuela - circa a long time ago.
Warm embrace from my Abuela – circa a long time ago.