Analysis of a Meal

Clifton Arizona, as you may not know, is the true hometown of Geronimo. The town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico also claims him, but my grandfather, that is my father’s father, says that it would have been too cold in October when Geronimo was born for his family to be in TRC (as it’s called) and they would have been in Clifton instead. Of course the area was Mexico at the time and all of these places had different names. Today Clifton is a small mining town with an aging and dwindling population that is ever aware of the fluctuating price of copper and how that relates to the price of fuel. The biggest social club in town is the group that organizes the funeral banquets.

Joe, my fiancé, and I made a last minute trip to Arizona so that I could say goodbye to my great-grandmother. She is my mother’s mother’s mother, and a few weeks ago when she turned ninety her pancreas failed. My mother was raised in Duncan, Arizona, a neighboring town of Clifton, and though she and my father were born in the same hospital and both of their fathers worked for the copper mine, my white mother and hispanic father did meet in their segregated towns until they were in their twenties.

I took one of the new and still warm tortillas, tore it in half, and gave part to Joe.

Friday night we made the three hour drive from Tucson to Clifton with my sister and her two kids to stay the night with my father’s parents. In the morning it was our plan to drive to Safford, where the hospital is, to visit my ill great-grandmother. Saturday morning I could hear my grandmother in the kitchen; just as I could when I was a child visiting. I got up and Joe followed me and we sat at my grandmother’s kitchen table and she rolled fresh flour tortillas out and put them on a hot flat skillet behind her. I took one of the new and still warm tortillas, tore it in half, and gave part to Joe. He ate it and said, “This is the best thing ever.” He likes to use superlatives, but he always means them.

My grandmother keeps her tortillas in a drawer in her china cabinet and I went for another and tore it in half and shared with Joe and we talked with my grandmother about Chicago and her plans for breakfast. As we ate tortillas Joe told my grandmother of our efforts to learn to speak Spanish, and how his favorite thing in the world is fresh corn tortillas and that I don’t make them often enough. My grandmother good-naturedly tried to speak to us in Spanish, and though I followed her better then Joe did, she soon returned to English so we could communicate. My grandfather came in and sat at the table with us and my grandmother finished cooking her tortillas and started chopping poblano chilies and tomatoes with a giant freshly-sharpened knife. “How old is that knife grandma?” I asked, already knowing the answer, but I wanted Joe to hear the story. My grandfather answered, “That knife is from the Mexican Revolution. A man gave that knife to my father as a trophy and it had a real nice scabbard on it and he kept it mounted on the wall. One day I came home and your grandma was using it as a butcher knife.” My grandmother smiled, “it works really well.”

For breakfast my grandmother made green chili meat. It’s a kind of thick stew, usually made from beef, poblano chilies, jalapeños and tomatoes, though the beef is sometimes replaced with goat. I asked if I could help her cook, and my grandma handed me a block of cheese to grate. Apart from my nephew rolling out the last ball of tortilla dough, my grandmother was the only person cooking. As the green chili meat finished, my grandmother made some corn tortillas, which she pressed between two ceramic plates. Joe immediately felt badly, “I didn’t mean for you to make these just for me,” he said, “but they are awesome.”

Green chili meat (and much Arizonan cuisine, actually) is eaten by tearing off a small piece of tortilla and then using that, and your fingers, to pinch up some of the meat and juices. The difficultly for beginners is trying to keep the juices from running down to their elbows. This is a new method of eating for Joe, and he was the only person at the table that morning to use a fork.

What part of a cow is not a cow?

After breakfast I helped my grandmother clean up and then we sat in their living room and I asked my grandfather about his hunting trophies. There are three huge heads on his walls; all of them have been there since I was a child. One is antelope, one is elk, and one is a deer. My grandfather remembered the weight of each animal, and how many dozens of tamales and bags of jerky each animal made. I told him about how hard it is to get good menudo (a tripe and hominy soup) in Chicago, and he explained the long process of cooking and cleaning the tripe, he said, “Some people don’t like tripe, don’t like the idea of it because it’s the cows stomach, but my question is, what part of a cow is not a cow?”

This meal is the result of hundreds of years of cross cultural interactions between the Old World, with its flour and cows, and the New World, with its chilies and tomatoes, between the Spanish, who my grandmother traces her heritage to, and the Apache warriors that my grandfather resembles. It’s about agrarian societies becoming industrial towns and the tradition of hunting and eating what you kill. It is also a story about what the Southwest looks like to someone from the Midwest and how small towns all over are dying with the older generation. For me, this meal was important for sharing family history with my fiancé, and though my sister’s kids weren’t interested this history was told for them too. This meal is a series of stories, some of them small and some the size of a revolution, but they become meaningful to my family when they are put together, simmered a little, and wrapped up in a fresh tortilla.