Idecided to move across the country when I was nineteen years old. It was a strategic separation from everything I knew and found familiar—and for the sake of politeness, I’ll describe it as a mutually beneficial separation. I had recently dropped out of college, and I was frightened to death that I’d be stuck in Brownsville forever, that I’d blown any chance to have the sort of life I wanted but was afraid to hope for. So I decided to move to the polar opposite of my hometown: Seattle. It was 1992, and the Internet boom was just beginning. Even a dropout could make it there—look at Bill Gates.
The last thing I expected was that I’d miss the South Texas food. I’d never even really noticed it; we just made it and ate it. After a while, though, I began to realize that not only did I miss the food, but I also missed the ritual around it, the larger devotional meaning of simple routines and preparations of protein sources and how they harked back to generations past, rooting me firmly in a global context as a human being and making me who I was.
Actually, if I’m being perfectly honest, even that was a bit of a stretch. There were few family rituals worth noting from my time growing up on the Matamoros-Brownsville border in the seventies and eighties, and fewer still that I bothered to integrate into my adult life later on. My family never seemed particularly steeped in tradition, and my memories of Brownsville were mostly of lurching from crisis to crisis, stopping just long enough to barbecue something in between, if my mother hadn’t made Hamburger Helper for dinner that night. My grandmother made huevos rancheros and moles and would sometimes drive us to Matamoros for cabrito, but my siblings and I were all for assimilation and advancement. We didn’t trouble ourselves with the old culture, the old recipes that had never been written down, just passed along in the oral tradition like invocations and witchcraft, always adapted to what was on hand—none of us thought twice about leaving the Spanish rice behind.
There was, however, one ritual we strictly observed: the Sunday luncheon after church. Growing up Mexican Catholic in Brownsville, it was a fixture in the landscape of our days. When my father’s trucking business was doing well, we ate at the Luby’s on Boca Chica Boulevard. The Sunday morning muster would come at about nine, and all five kids would vie groggily for the one bathroom, after my parents had showered and my mother had begun her long process of transformation for the eleven o’clock church service. Somehow we’d manage to pile into the family car and make it to Christ the King Church about ten or fifteen minutes after the service had started. We’d enter through the large rear doors, drawing scowls from the priesthood and lecherous stares from the men and boys when my sisters sauntered by, looking fresh and virginal in their sundresses.
The beatification and exultation of Christ crucified was usually lost on me and my older brother, Dan, itching uncomfortably like Huckleberry Finn in our short pants. Thirty or forty minutes into the service, we’d become restless and unmanageable with hunger, and our fussing would draw painful pinches from my father and threats growled under his breath about what he would do to us when we got home if we didn’t shut up and sit down.
“Voy a darte cinco fajazos,” he’d hiss. I’m going to give you five belt-whippings.
This would freak me out, so I’d fuss more.
“Seis,” he’d say, and there would come another pinch and twist on the fleshy part of my thigh, as if my father had become part lobster, and the pain would make me settle down for a few minutes. But then it was my brother’s turn to start up, and Dad would lobster-pinch him, and I’d laugh at Dan, who was trying to keep from crying, and our mother would shoot us murderous looks from down-pew, until the damned priest would say, “And God be with you; Mass has ended, you may go in peace,” and I’d think, “ Finally! Screw these kneelers and their house of worship—get me to the Luby’s and NOW!”
This was church for my brother Dan and me. Probably why we still avoid it.
In the car on the way to the cafeteria, Mom and Dad would chronicle our failures in low, menacing voices while Dan and I hung our heads in shame like Jesuits. They’d list in searing detail the sorts of punishments awaiting us both, as the unruliest of the children. My sisters were well behaved in public and seemingly beyond reproach; they didn’t do things like spit their gum into the hair of the kid sitting in the pew in front of them, like Dan did once.
At Luby’s, Dan and I would always have the fish with tartar sauce, like Jesus would have had, if he’d known how to batter fish and mix mayo with pickle relish. Dad would have roast beef and a bowl of the most unappetizing spinach known to human civilization. Somehow he just loved the stuff.
“He thinks he’s Popeye,” I would whisper to my brother.
“No,” Dan would reply, always a bit more worldly than me. “He thinks it helps his hangover.”
Eventually, Dad had a real reason to drink, when the bust hit Brownsville and, as he watched helplessly from the driver’s seat of his dump truck, the construction business slowed and then dried up entirely. That was when our Sunday ritual turned away from church, and away from Luby’s. Instead, our brunch, which came before the Cowboys game or an afternoon of lazy, unlicensed fishing or shooting beer bottles in the Rio Grande, would be barbacoa, with a stack of fresh corn tortillas, a three-liter Coca-Cola from H-E-B, and the best goddamn warm homemade salsa in the known