My Family Recipe

When We Fled Oaxaca, Albondigas Made Us Feel at Home

September 18, 2018

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones. This week, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we follow a family's journey from Mexico toward another home (with everything that word entails).


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.

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“I’m going to stay in the heart of Oaxaca City did the first time at the end of October. Any experiences or places you all recommend I visit? ”
— thebubblygirl
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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.

Photo by Julia Gartland

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 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.

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.

Our shared meals grounded us, they made us feel like we belonged somewhere, even if it was just at that dinner table.

“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.

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When Food Heals

26 Comments

Geri September 26, 2018
I’m thinking I missed the directions?
 
Smaug September 26, 2018
Click the "Go To Recipe" button at the bottom of the ingredients list and it will take you to the full recipe.
 
MBE September 25, 2018
Wow! I thought I was doing well to use two types of oregano (Mexican and Mediterranean/Greek/Turkish). Thanks for the education-now if Penzey's will start sourcing we'll all be better cooks for it :-)
 
OhMisha September 24, 2018
I don't understand why it is that we can't seem to get the key Mexican fresh produce we all see on the cooking shows that we have here in America with Mexico so close by! I have often seen stuff like asparagus etc. produced in Peru offered in my local Publix and Cosco supermarkets, but Bitter Orange from Yuccutan, or epazote from Oaxaca, Queso fresca, forget it. Seems fishy and a damned shame... And a really good business opportunity for someone with the right mix of knowledge of these cuisines.
 
thebubblygirl September 24, 2018
Wonderful tale from the headline to the last sentence. Thanks for sharing it with us, Isabel.<br /><br />I’m going to stay in the heart of Oaxaca City did the first time at the end of October. Any experiences or places you all recommend I visit?
 
Author Comment
Isabel T. September 24, 2018
Thank you for reading! And I hope you love Oaxaca as much as I do. I have tons of recommendations, and if you send me a message on Instagram (@beltorrealba) I’d be more than happy to share some with you!
 
Sonya G. October 3, 2018
Oaxaca is AMAZING! Casa Oaxaca is a must for fine dining. Visit Monte Alban, hierve el agua and teotilan (we visited a rug maker and they showed us how they made the rugs and the dyes from natural ingredients). The museum in town is great and so is the stamp museum (esp. if yo have children). Visit the inside market place called nov. 20th.
 
thebubblygirl October 3, 2018
Thanks Sonya — I’ll add those to my growing list!
 
MJ H. September 23, 2018
Thank you for sharing your loving story. Interesting discussion on oregano. As a Texan living in North Carolina, I miss access to some herbs and good corn tortillas. I’m a gardener so I’ll be looking for seeds to grow my own Mexican oregano....epazote too! <br />
 
Smaug September 23, 2018
Good luck in your search. From experience I can tell you that Lippia G. is a very tender plant, dying at the first sign of frost. It is, however, very easy from cuttings and can be overwintered that way. Epazote (known to me as chenopodium ambrosoides; same genus as Amaranth and quinoa, but I think it's been reclassified) is pretty weedy in my area- it has no trouble with mild frosts- even unprotected in a container- but I don't know how far it will go.
 
Lane O. September 20, 2018
Nice tribute to leaving your home--never leaving your home--and making the best of a new culture. I wish I could share a bowl of Albondigas with you, and your lovely family!
 
Author Comment
Isabel T. September 20, 2018
Thanks Lane! You’re right, more like never leaving home. Next time we see you you better not eat a salad!
 
MarieGlobetrotter September 19, 2018
Such a powerful story. As someone who does research on human rights, immigration and refugees, I was touched by your article. The way food can connect you to the country you have had to leave.
 
Author Comment
Isabel T. September 19, 2018
Aw that’s so sweet of you to say, thank you so much!
 
Smaug September 18, 2018
Is Oaxacan oregano different from other Mexican oregano?
 
Author Comment
Isabel T. September 18, 2018
It is! You’ll get closer to the taste by mixing Mexican oregano, and even Italian of Greek, with marjoram.
 
Smaug September 19, 2018
Interesting- do you know what plant it comes from (on the off chance that anyone cares, European oregano is origanum vulgare, marjoram is origanum majorana, and Mexican oregano is Lippia Graveolens).
 
Author Comment
Isabel T. September 19, 2018
I wasn't sure, so I asked my chef mom, who's done extensive research on Mexican food. Here's what she said: "In Mexico there are more than 15 different kinds of “oregano” even some that are not exactly true oregano (Origanum vulgare), but regionally are known as oregano. Among these are a long-leafed oregano (Lippia graveolens) in the North; and a milder, minty one in Oaxaca that is closer to a marjoram. In the Yucatan, the oregano has a much larger leaf that turns tobacco-brown when dried (Lippia berlandieri). In Nuevo León the “oregano is closer to a satureja. Mexicans use only dried oregano. The leaves are dried whole and crumbled when used."<br /><br />Hope this helps!
 
Eric K. September 19, 2018
I love this thread. Very interesting!
 
Ann S. September 23, 2018
There's also something someone told me is called Oregano Brujo. It actually looks like a succulent and has light green pillowy scallop-edged leaves that have a velvety feel to them. It doesn't taste at all oregano-ish to me, but instead is lemony. I had a plant years ago but can't find it anywhere now!
 
Smaug September 23, 2018
I believe the plant you mean is Plectanthus Amboinicus, of the same genus as coleus and similar to Plectanthus Argentatus, a sprawling ornamental I used to grow- had to look to Wikipedia for that one, an interesting little article if you care to follow up.
 
Smaug September 25, 2018
Ran into this (plectranthus amboinicus) elsewhere listed as "Cuban Oregano"
 
Ann S. September 25, 2018
Some images I get when I search that term are right, like this one: https://goo.gl/images/JjU9gx. It's a rounded leaf, and quite thick (some images show a thinner, pointier leaf). Oh, I wish I could find one! It was *so* nice for stuffing in a fish. Very lemony and herbaceous.
 
Smaug September 25, 2018
It's listed on Amazon as plants and seeds. Not my favorite place to buy plants, but they list several sources- I think I'll give it a shot, practically anything will grow here.
 
Bob P. September 18, 2018
You have caused me to think of a wonderful vacation spent at the hotel Marquise de Valle, overlooking that same zoccalo. I had thought mole was a dish! It turns out that mole is a universe of flavor. Thanks for a great article!
 
Author Comment
Isabel T. September 18, 2018
That hotel is still there! You're right, moles are colorful and flavorful universe. Thank you so much for reading.