Cooking has always triggered my anxiety. The idea of having someone depend on me to feed them, to make something that will fill them up and have them maybe even go back for seconds and thirds, cripples me to no end. Some people find zen in the process of creating a meal for others; I see it as an easy opportunity to fail.
My mother rarely made a bad meal. Even my father, who never cooked until my sister and I were in high school, couldn’t mess up a dish. But me? I’m the cook who burns ground beef. My dishes are either overcooked or undercooked, too watery or too dry. You name it, I’ve probably messed it up somehow.
I’m very newly married—ten months, to be exact. I joked with my husband when we started dating that I wasn’t much of a cook. There weren’t many dishes I liked to make, but I could make a few. (Emphasis on “few.”) He assured me that that was all right because he really enjoys cooking. (Thank God.)
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But self-isolation has proven to reignite my cooking anxiety in a new way. Now there seems to be nothing to do but cook. Since my husband and I run an equal-party household, I deemed it only fair that I pull my weight and feed us a few nights a week, too. Maybe now would be the time to learn some new dishes, I thought as the quarantine started: Find my inner chef! I know she’s in there!
My aforementioned anxiety inspired a series of rapid-fire spiral questions: “What can I make with limited ingredients? What if I mess it up and we have nothing else to eat! What if we have to tap into our backup, emergency-only soup supply! What if—? What if?!”
I now live in Los Angeles, where I work as a television writer, but I talk to my family back in Texas often, especially these days. When I shared my cooking concerns, my mom, Lena, reminded me of a dish that I hadn’t even considered: a family recipe for what we have always called “carnita con papas.” (This should not be confused with carnitas, the shredded pork you can order at any Mexican restaurant. It’s derived instead from its literal translation, “little meat.”) It’s a simple ground beef and potato stew that can feed you for days. As my family and I went on and on about how much we loved it, my husband sweetly asked if I could make it for us. It sounded like just the kind of comfort food he was craving. And for the first time, I knew I could actually cook with (some) confidence.
As I assembled my ingredients, I reflected on what I remembered. How Mom used to make this when my sister and I were kids. Eating it out of a small bowl with a clown on it. Eyeing the ground beef, how it chewed in my mouth but wasn’t chewy. How the potatoes looked hard but then melted away in the broth. How the cilantro went from vibrant green to a wet, deep forest color that danced around in my bowl. It wasn’t at all like the chicken nuggets or pizza I ate at my friends’ houses.
We apparently ate it so much, Mom recalls, that one day I asked, in a little squeaky voice, if she could please stop making it because I was tired of eating it. So she did, and it disappeared from the family menu for a while. However, my freshman year of college, I suddenly started craving it from afar. I told Mom that it was the first thing I wanted her to make when I came home for Christmas break. I think she was surprised by the request, but she happily obliged. After that it was in frequent rotation in our home again, and still is to this day.
As my mom made step-by-step instructional videos for me, I came to learn more about the dish’s history. My great-grandmother died when my grandmother (Gloria, whom we called Memo) was three years old. My great-grandfather couldn’t afford to take care of Memo in a post–Great Depression San Antonio. The youngest of her siblings, Memo had to go live with her oldest sister, Ramona, but would visit her father’s house on weekends. She’d watch her grandmother, and later her mother-in-law, cook various Mexican dishes.
In my mom’s home growing up, Memo would call this dish a “poor man’s stew,” because she remembered being sent to the store as a kid with nothing more than a quarter to buy everything she needed to make it. And considering that this dish was born during wartime and a depression, Memo likely had to put together a minimal amount of ingredients to feed the family. Since my mom came from a family of six, it made sense that the dish would continue to be made. The ingredients are inexpensive even today.
Mom recently told me that she, too, never had much of an interest in learning to cook. It wasn’t until she was also in her early thirties with a family to feed that she started to look back on what Memo cooked. Mom told me this recipe instantly came to mind because it was cheap and easy to make with two little kids running around.
As I prepared to make the stew on my own, I realized something I hadn’t considered before: the parallels between my grandmother, my mother, and now me cooking this dish. How it was born of Memo’s learning to feed your family during a time of uncertainty and fear. How Mom rediscovered it around the same age as me because of its ease. How all three of us seem to have found comfort in making it. My hands making this are born of both of their hands. It’s something that I can pass down to another set of hands in my own family one day.
For the first time ever, my anxiety over cooking melted away. What makes this dish so intuitive is that it’s a conversation with my family. It allows me to access a place for which only I hold the key. A place filled with memories and sounds that play on the walls like old home movies: Memo’s indoor chanclas tapping the linoleum floor of her kitchen as I watched her dance around it. The shape of the nails on my mom’s hands as I watched her make this, stirring the pot ever so carefully. The way the Texas sky looks in the summer, so blue that you have to squint. The faint sound of “Tu Quieres Volver” playing on a stereo somewhere. All of it’s there, and it comes out when I make this dish.
I know a lot of us are scared right now. We have no clue what the world is going to look like when this is over. We’re all doing our best to keep busy, calm, and sane. If cooking is one of those things for you, allow me to put this recipe in your hands now. Perhaps it can bring you comfort as it has me.
As I move forward through all of this, I’m finding peace through grounding myself in my roots. Because being confined at home has taught me a very important lesson: Your home isn’t where you reside. Your home is within you.
Gloria & Lena’s “Carnita con Papas”
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 white onion, diced
3 to 4 cloves of garlic, diced
1 pound lean ground beef
2 to 3 large potatoes, preferably gold, peeled and cut into bite-size cubes
6 to 8 cups water
6 to 8 beef bouillon cubes
1 ½ handfuls cilantro leaves
1 to 2 teaspoons cumin
- Combine onion, garlic, and ground beef in a large soup pot over medium to high heat.
- Get the meat nice and brown, until all of the water from the onion has evaporated, about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Add potatoes and pour in the water until the meat and potatoes are fully covered.
- Add 6 bouillon cubes, along with a handful of cilantro (save the rest for garnish).
- Add 1 teaspoon of cumin.
- Bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover and reduce the heat to low. Let it simmer for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so.
- What gives this dish its flavor is your tastebuds. The bouillon cube and cumin measurements are guesstimates; if it needs more salt, add a bouillon cube. If it tastes just like beef broth, add more cumin.
- After 30 minutes, check to make sure that your potatoes are nice and soft. Once they are, you’re ready to eat.
- Garnish each bowl with the remaining cilantro before serving. You can also add diced avocado, lime juice, and Tabasco. I also highly recommend serving this with a side of cheese quesadillas as the perfect dipping accompaniment!
Marcelena Campos Mayhorn is a writer from Seguin who now lives in Los Angeles, where she most recently wrote for the upcoming Netflix show Selena: The Series.