Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.
My mother may have been a white woman who grew up in Texas, but she could talk your ear off in Spanish, sprinkled liberally with Peruvian colloquialisms such as regio (awesome) and huachafo (tacky). She'd moved to Peru in the early 1980s to be with my father, but things didn't go as planned. She didn’t plan for her new country of residence to be plunged into one of the worst economic and political crises in its history, for one. When I was 4 years old, we left Peru and returned to the United States, where my mother also did not plan to experience a messy divorce, or to raise her three children almost single-handedly. But she was with us through all of this.
She never spoke much about herself, unlike my father, who took any chance to tell my siblings and me about the heroic acts of his youth, like when he confronted the neighborhood witch by rubbing chile peppers in her eyes, or the time he used a clever trap to rid his block of a menacing dog. (These tales may not have been entirely true, but we believed them.) Perhaps she considered her life unremarkable, or didn’t want to bore us with the details. The story of her green spaghetti shed light on some of what she'd experienced.
Her life in Peru was very challenging. There were food shortages. The inflation rate saw the price of basic necessities like canned milk and rice multiplying every day. My father believed he existed in a machista society, and thus was not expected to concern himself with domestic tasks; my mother, broke and alone, reached out to her neighbors for support. Another young mother in our building offered her regular childcare tips, including recipes that were always qualified with the words “muy nutritivo” (very nutritious). They'd chat together from open doorways in our building, where our neighbor gave my mother advice on Peruvian home economics.
One recipe she shared was for tallarines verdes ("green noodles," literally), a pasta dish attributed to Lima’s prominent Italian community. It is said to be a Peruvian adaptation of pesto Genovese using local ingredients, although it really is a thing unto its own. My mother had never had this dish before, but it sounded appealing to her, in part because it could be dangerous to go out and she already had most of the ingredients at home: dried pasta, onions, and garlic, along with evaporated milk, which she diluted with water for my infant self’s bottle.
There was just one ingredient that stumped her: albahaca. Our neighbor, who didn't speak English, explained that it looked like spinach but had a strong, distinctive flavor. Since my mother regularly kept spinach at home to make our baby food, she decided to use it in place of this mystery ingredient. She figured that spinach’s mild taste might be better for us kids, anyway. What she ended up making for us wasn’t quite the traditional tallarines verdes, but it came close enough to deserve that title in our home.
At the time, Alan Garcia was the president of Peru. He came into power the year I was born, and his tenure was marked by social unrest and a devastation of the Peruvian economy; it took nearly 20 years for the country to recover. During that period, several terrorist groups, including the militant communist group the Shining Path, wreaked havoc.
My father didn’t just use his gift of the gab to tell his children stories; he spoke out against this terrorism on a political radio show. He began to receive death threats, one of which detailed the location of my preschool. Supplies had become so scarce that my parents could no longer find essentials like medicine. We fled to Miami soon after.
Back in her home country, where my mother could turn to the foods that comforted her as a child, she ceased to put tallarines verdes on the dinner table. Instead, she served us Spaghetti-O’s; it felt almost as if she were trying to feed us an accelerated assimilation.
In her understanding, the United States she'd left was not friendly to foreigners, especially Hispanic ones. She thought that if she could emphasize that her children were half-Caucasian—by fighting with my teacher to remove me from ESL classes, by insisting we speak more English at home, by enrolling me in tee-ball instead of soccer, by feeding us Spaghetti-O's—she could save us from discrimination. At one point, she even entertained the idea of having me answer to Carter, my middle name, instead of Carlos.
Thankfully, the city we'd moved to was nothing like the Texan town my mother had grown up in. Miami was overwhelmingly Latino, and Latinos held considerable sway in its politics, economy, and culture. Soon enough, my mother realized this, especially after she returned to the workforce post-divorce, where most of her clients only spoke Spanish. She relaxed, loosened the reins, and let me be as Peruvian as I felt, which meant tallarines verdes made a welcome comeback to our dining table.
In revisiting her already-tweaked version of the dish, my mother made some American modifications: Fresh milk, which was always in our refrigerator, replaced the evaporated milk that was common in Peru. For extra richness, she added cream cheese. This would mimic the queso fresco that appears in “real” tallarines verdes, without the gritty texture that my mother did not like.
The end result is a dish whose vibrant hue instantly catches your eye. The sauce is creamy without being too rich. The flavor is subtle enough for a toddler to enjoy while possessing enough nuance for an adult to appreciate. (You can make it more adult with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and a dollop of my mom’s nutty aji amarillo hot sauce.) The best part, though, is that it is quick and easy to make, and doesn’t require you to source any special ingredients.
Years prior, my mother had discovered that albahaca, the original dish's mystery ingredient, was actually...basil! But even at that point, it was too late to go back—she'd made it dozens of times with spinach—and she never included it in her recipe. She also continued to call the dish tallarines verdes, keeping the name as a reminder of the place where she learned how to make it, complicated as her time there was, and the kindness of her neighbor. As I see it, the recipe is a record of our family's journey.
I have since tried to experiment with my own recipe for tallarines verdes that recreates the “authentic” version. I’ve substituted the cream cheese for queso fresco and the spinach for basil, but no matter how much I try to go the traditional route, it's never as satisfying as her version. After all, her tallarines verdes were the ones I knew for most of my life. While they may remind her of difficult times, they remind me of her love.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large red onion, roughly chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 10-12 ounces frozen spinach, thawed
- 1 chicken or vegetable bouillon cube, optional
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 cup evaporated or whole milk
- 4 ounces cream cheese (half a package)
- 1 pound spaghetti, or pasta of your choice
- 1/3 large red onion, roughly chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 4 orange scotch bonnet chiles, seeded and deveined
- 1/4 cup evaporated milk or whole milk
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter
- 4 ounces cream cheese (half a package)
- Salt, to taste
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