My Family Recipe

My Life Is Nothing Like My Jichan's, But Our Tortilla Eggs Are the Same

In this week’s My Family Recipe, one writer explores the many lives of her Japanese-American family—and the kitchen-sink egg dish that binds them.

September 19, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Sophie Strangio.

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.


In American popular culture, weekend mornings often consist of stacks of impossibly fluffy pancakes, crispy hash browns, and platters of wavy bacon. But when my siblings and I were growing up in suburban Orange County, Calif., on any given Sunday, you’d be more likely to find us ripping up tortillas over a skillet of hot oil—under the watchful eye of my father, who was on standby with a bowl of scrambled eggs, ready to douse the jagged little triangles at exactly the right moment.

Tortilla eggs, as my grandpa (or jichan, as I called him) dubbed them, is one of those dishes that’s as basic as a dish can be, but no less delicious for it. It can be as easy as tossing torn bits of whatever kind of tortilla you’ve got on hand into some oil, then mixing in scrambled eggs. Like migas, a similar Tex-Mex dish, they’re affordable, easy to cook up in a hurry, and especially good with hot sauce, scallions, and shredded cheese (or, if you were my jichan, crispy hot dog slices).

The exact origins of my family’s tortilla eggs are unclear, but over the years we’ve theorized that my jichan must’ve learned the technique from one of the Mexican immigrants who worked alongside him at his ranch, and with whom he shared many meals.

Photo by Caroline Hatano

Jichan belonged to a now-nonexistent community of Japanese-American ranchers in Rancho Palos Verdes who grew “cut flowers”—sunflowers and baby’s breath raised to someday adorn a vase somewhere. He kept farmers’ hours, and, in my memory, had the calloused hands of one. I like to picture him polishing off a plate of tortilla eggs alone in a dark kitchen—a welcome albeit brief moment of solitude before the day’s to-do list kicked in.

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Top Comment:
“It captures the magic of food shared by generations of family members and shared across cultures. I so enjoyed the author's reflections on how this recipe connects her with the lives and aspirations of her grandfather and father--warm, familiar continuity amidst inevitable generational change. It was also moving to read of a farmer who shared mealtimes and worked alongside those he hired to tend his fields. A lovely piece. Thank you to Ms. Hatano!”
— Joyce
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I can’t remember ever making it out to the ranch or eating tortilla eggs with my jichan, instead piecing together scenes through bits my father’s shared over the years. My earliest memories of my grandparents take place much later, when they were living in a squat single-story in San Pedro just a short drive from “the hill.” My jichan was still working at the ranch most days, but by then they’d swapped a houseful of kids for peace, quiet, and a towering avocado tree. Every time we drove up, my dad would scale the tree’s winding trunk and collect a massive haul of avocados to bring home with us. My bachan and I would stand below, trying to spot the clusters of black orbs among the waxy leaves.

Instead, tortilla eggs came into my life on slow weekend mornings, when my dad would cook up a panful with whatever we had in the fridge, transforming leftover vegetables and cold cuts into breakfast. As an adult, I’ve realized that this tradition was my father’s way of carrying forward some of my jichan’s routines, in spite of leading decidedly different lives.

My dad had pursued and landed his own career path: Rather than dreaming of someday taking over the ranch, he grew up fantasizing about holding down a corporate job where he’d get to put on a suit every day. And after becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree, that’s exactly what he did.

Certain things about my jichan’s way of life stuck, though. To this day, my dad wakes up in the dark every morning—long before his commute requires—to eat breakfast on his own. And, in nearly everything he does, from baking pie crust to watering the roses to jotting down notes in neat, practiced penmanship, he’s got the persistence, precision, and patience of someone raised by a parent who does farmwork for a living.

I began cooking my own weekend tortilla eggs as soon as I had a kitchen in college, but it didn’t strike me until recently, when I was reflecting on the growing pains in my own relationship with my parents, that our lives don’t necessarily have to mimic those of our parents to honor our upbringings. And the food we cook can bridge that gap. Tortilla eggs were a breakfast of convenience for my jichan, who operated on a tight budget and even tighter time constraints, but for my dad they were an abstract way of keeping his father’s teachings—of maintaining a work ethic, of making the most of what you have—alive in our home.

It didn’t strike me until recently, when I was reflecting on the growing pains in my own relationship with my parents, that our lives don’t necessarily have to mimic those of our parents to honor our upbringings. And the food we cook can bridge that gap.

Today, as I find myself hurtling towards my 30s, at a kind of philosophical crossroads with my parents, tortilla eggs are a way of paying homage to my roots and the traditions they raised me with. I’ve willfully resisted many of the things I’ve associated with suburban attitudes over the years: I rent an apartment in a city, have no plans to own a car, and enjoy the idea that I could uproot myself for a new environment on a whim. In many ways, my life looks nothing like theirs did (or what I suspect they mostly privately hope mine would) as they neared their 30s, with a mortgage, two kids checked off, and far more certain career paths.

But each time I hear the familiar sizzle of tortillas landing in my skillet, the satisfying crack of eggs, the glug of my Tapatío sauce, I think of my jichan heading off to the ranch day after day until his eventual retirement in his 80s. I think of my parents showing me that kitchen scraps like leftover beans, a knob of cheese, and a bit of onion are all just opportunities for experimenting in the kitchen. And best of all, that differing paths can still lead to the same goal...one very delicious egg dish.

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Caroline Hatano

Written by: Caroline Hatano

5 Comments

KatiMay October 4, 2020
I made this recipe this morning - delicious! I love reading about food and family. This article is so special.
 
mhowrigan October 1, 2020
This was a wonderful piece that I truly enjoyed reading. I'd love to read more of this type of article about family recipes and the stories behind them.
 
Joyce September 29, 2020
What a wonderful, evocative piece. It captures the magic of food shared by generations of family members and shared across cultures. I so enjoyed the author's reflections on how this recipe connects her with the lives and aspirations of her grandfather and father--warm, familiar continuity amidst inevitable generational change. It was also moving to read of a farmer who shared mealtimes and worked alongside those he hired to tend his fields. A lovely piece. Thank you to Ms. Hatano!
 
heidih September 19, 2020
Great story and back pocket comfort recipe. Go Tapatio! I grew up "on the hill" and have enormous respect for the dry farming that the Japanese farmers did. Their resilience after the indignity of internment was extraordinary. I cried when the Ishibashi family closed their last stand. I bought some of their corn seed, a packet of soil from the ranch and one of their signature strawberry baskets. Thank you!
 
Arati M. September 19, 2020
What a lovely comment to read. So glad you found this heartwarming connection to Caroline’s essay, Heidi.