My mom learned to make tacos in southern California during the 1950s. She and my dad had moved to the San Diego area because my dad had enlisted in the Marines, and he was stationed for a time at Camp Pendleton. After my dad left the Marines, they moved back home to southern Ohio. I was about 4 years old at the time. My mom soon began to miss tacos. This was long before the ubiquitous Taco Bell and Taco John franchises. Though she kept searching for tortillas in the supermarkets, she could not find them anywhere. Finally she found a supermarket that carried frozen tortillas, 12 to a package. She bought them and brought them home. They weren’t as good as the fresh tortillas she had used in California, but they were tortillas, and soon her tacos became a staple of our family cuisine.
My mom’s tacos underwent very little evolution from my first memories to the last. As far as I can remember, she always fried her tortillas in hot oil. She always stacked them between napkins to absorb the oil. She always used ground beef browned with onions, garlic, cumin, and chili powder. Sometimes she added a little curry powder and thyme or oregano. In the early days, she often added Accent as well, back before we knew how unhealthy MSG is. She always served them with lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and cheddar cheese. We always had Tabasco sauce for those who wanted a little heat. When I was young there was no picante sauce and no queso fresco. When supermarkets added salsa, we added that, but it was never considered essential.
When I got married, I insisted that Belinda learn to make tacos the way my mom made them. She balked at frying each tortilla in oil, so one of the first changes we made was to steam the tortillas by heating them in the microwave for a couple of minutes. I had a hard time figuring out how much chili powder and cumin to use, and I went through a phase where I used way too much curry powder. Belinda, gentle soul that she is, tolerated it all with good grace and even grew to like tacos nearly as much as I did. We began experimenting a little more. We added diced jalapeños sometimes. One time I chopped up a habanero and ate it on one taco. That was an intense experience. I have no desire to repeat it. We started serving tacos with chopped cilantro. Sometimes we made our own pico de gallo instead of just chopped tomatoes.
Somewhere along the way, we got a cookbook called The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl. Even though it had nothing about tacos, it changed my life. The first recipe I made from it was Penne alla Vodka. For the first time in my life I had made a meal that tasted like it might be served at the finest restaurant in town. I tried other recipes from the book, and found that by following the directions and being careful, I could make dishes that satisfied more than hunger. They satisfied a desire for perfect balance and rightness. I made the Pork Chops with Sautéed Apples and Cider Sauce, and it was as if the planets aligned and all was right with the world. My children loved my new hobby. Even the one child who hates everything grudgingly came to admit that Dad’s dinners were pretty good, and my oldest daughter said one day that I had spoiled restaurants for her: she knew she could get a better meal at home than by going out. That was a proud moment for me, even though Ruth Reichl and the staff at Gourmet’s test kitchens deserved most of the credit.
Through all this discovery and initiation into the mysteries of haute cuisine—often not as haute as you might think—tacos remained a relatively untouched mainstay, a go-to meal requiring little thought. Belinda or I could easily whip up a meal of tacos without having to refer to a recipe.
Then, last year, another book came my way, given to me as a Christmas present by my son-in-law, Dave. The book was Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman. It did for tacos what The Gourmet Cookbook had done for the rest of our meals. I made my own tortillas. I made my own salsas. I made tacos that were utterly different from the ones I had grown up with, and they had that perfect balance and rightness that made them seem like gifts from heaven. There are still a lot of taco recipes I haven’t tried, but the one I like best is also the first one in the book. It has no ground beef, no taco seasoning. There are no lettuce, tomatoes, or cheddar cheese. These tacos are made from fresh tortillas and roasted chicken thighs. The accessories are kale, queso fresco, diced onion, and raw salsa verde with chopped cilantro. They are heavenly.
We still have Mom’s tacos, of course, because they are a lot less fussy than the chicken tacos. We still buy tortillas instead of always making our own because making our own takes a lot of time and energy that we don’t always have. We can still make Mom’s tacos with very little trouble, and we still enjoy them immensely. They remind me of my Mom, and they are my ultimate comfort food. But I am so glad to know that there exist in this world tacos that beautifully and delightfully surpass Mom’s, and that I can make them.