When we fled Oaxaca, albondigas made us feel at home

Meatballs lend comfort on one family's journey from Mexico

By Isabel Torrealba

Published September 23, 2018 8:00PM (EDT)

 (Julia Gartland/Food52)
(Julia Gartland/Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

I remember the day I saw the house that was to be our restaurant for the first time. It was — is — a 200-year-old colonial house in downtown Oaxaca, a city in Southern Mexico. The sheer magnitude of the place — with several rooms arranged around a roofless inner courtyard that included a fountain and a century-old, knobby orange tree — was enough to leave a person in awe, let alone a six-year-old child. It seemed like a mansion to me, brimming with hiding spots. I didn’t know it then and, perhaps, it took losing it ten years later to realize that place was home, with everything that word entails.

Just a few days before my 16th birthday, in May 2006, the teachers’ union went on a state-wide strike. They settled with improvised tents in the central plaza, el Zócalo, and all over downtown Oaxaca, including our restaurant’s street. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. The teachers had been going on strikes that sent children in the public school system into an undesired vacation every year for a couple of decades. They still do it (it’s an effective strategy to get higher wages). Only, that particular year the Governor didn’t budge, and his attempt to remove the teachers forcibly just served to escalate the conflict.

Eventually more political discontents joined, and together they formed the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). This group soon appointed itself as ruling body and demanded the resignation of the Governor. Barricading the city, seizing and burning public buses and buildings, the APPO effectively took control of Oaxaca, all while wrecking its tourism-based economy. Of course, the Governor didn’t resign.

By September, my family was bankrupt and the economic predictions were grim. It was expected — correctly as the future revealed — that it would take a decade for Oaxaca to recover. But families can’t wait ten years to feed their children.

There really wasn’t time to say goodbye. I was two weeks into my junior year of high school when my parents sat my sister and me down and announced that we were moving to the United States “next Wednesday.”

We had six days. Six days to say goodbye to friends and loved ones, six days to take inventory of our lives and select which dearest possessions could fit into a suitcase. But six days wasn’t enough time to say goodbye to the kitchen where my grandmother had taught me what ribbon stage meant for baking, or to the dining room where I’d spend the vast majority of my Christmases. It certainly wasn’t enough time to say goodbye to my father, who stayed behind to settle things and sell whatever he could.

* * *

Our new house in Santa Fe was quintessential New Mexico: adobe-style and just off a quiet dirt road. All I remember thinking was how brown everything was; different shades of brown, beige and terracotta, but brown nonetheless. I missed the encircling mountains and the colorful two-toned houses lining the streets of Oaxaca.

For our first dinner in the new house, my mom made a staple of Mexican home cooking, albóndigas, meatballs in a tomato sauce. Her tomato sauce is spiced with chipotles and the meatballs are laced with capers and Oaxacan oregano, which she had smuggled in her suitcase. There were rice and black beans on the side, along with a basket full of corn tortillas. The beans were not quite the same, and the tortillas were slightly grainier and sweeter than the ones back home, but it didn’t really matter. For a brief moment, as I cut an albóndiga into smaller pieces and placed them inside a tortilla with a spoonful of beans and took a bite, I felt a sense of normalcy. My mom had cooked for us, and it tasted like home.

I imagine cooking was therapeutic for her, because my mom cooked a lot that year. After a long day of being mocked for my broken English and laughing off ignorant and slightly racist questions (“Do you have cars in Mexico?” to which I responded, “No, we all just ride donkeys everywhere”), it was comforting to come home and sit at the dinner table to eat with my family as I always had. We often Skyped Dad and ate “together.” Our shared meals grounded us, they made us feel like we belonged somewhere, even if it was just at that dinner table. Together at least.

* * *

We bought a 1992 Toyota Camry from one of the kitchen cooks my mom worked with. And many kind people gave us their hand-me-downs so we could survive the harsh New Mexico winter we weren’t accustomed to. As the snow fell outside, my mom made mole coloradito—a deep red and smoky sauce that takes a couple of hours to make, as well as a few chiles and more smuggled oregano— because I had asked her for it. A little bite of Oaxaca in the middle of a Santa Fe winter.

I can only be certain of how I was feeling and what I was thinking during those days, but I can imagine everyone in my family felt very much like I did. Months had passed and we had all become American citizens by then, but our new reality hadn’t quite sunk in.

I would often sit in my room for hours, looking through old photos, and I would close my eyes and imagine myself walking down the restaurant corridors. I thought of the summer days when I helped my mom, measuring the ingredients for mole negro or placing hibiscus flowers in a large bowl. I thought about my grandma, who would hide Kinder eggs (yes, the ones that are banned in America) around the courtyard for Easter. It felt that if I just imagined hard enough, long enough, I would transport myself back to Oaxaca.

“Dinner’s ready (ya está la cena),” my mom would call. I would put away the old photos and leave my room, and sit at the dinner table to eat tinga verde; milanesas; mole amarillo; albóndigas. That was home.

Almost six years after moving to the United States, my dad planted a small orange tree near the entrance of their new restaurant. It turned out to be a lemon tree instead. But as with the not-quite-the-same beans and tortillas from that first dinner, it didn’t matter. In a way, it was almost perfect. The original orange tree never gave oranges either.

Albóndigas al Chipotle
Serves 8

  • 3.3 pounds Roma tomatoes, halved
  • 2 pieces garlic cloves
  • 1/2 piece white onion
  • 1 tablespoon dried Oaxacan oregano
  • 2 pieces cloves
  • 3 pieces black peppercorns
  • 2 pieces canned chipotle chiles
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1.1 pounds ground beef
  • 1.1 pounds ground pork
  • 1 piece egg
  • 1 piece stale bread
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 12 pieces capers, chopped
  • 1 pinch salt and pepper, to taste

Click here to read the full recipe.

Isabel Torrealba

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Albondigas Food52 Mexico Oaxaca