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I Finally Get Why My Mom Always Said ‘Hay Frijoles en la Casa’

Photograph by Maura Wall Hernandez

It's an experience so universally known amongst first generation Latino-Americans that it's become a running internet joke. So it goes: you're a kid begging your mom to take you to some fast food joint and your mom is shouting, "¡Hay frijoles en la casa!"

Frijoles pervaded my childhood in different ways. There were the black beans of my Guatemalan mother—velvety, savory, and sprinkled with crumbly white cheese. Then there were the refried pinto beans that my friends' moms made, sometimes indulgently mixed with curls of lard, sometimes spiked with green chiles. Dried beans that got combed over for pebbles, mom’s hands guiding your own. Beans that sat on the stove for hours. Never be that kid who forgets to add a little extra water to the beans when your mom goes away to run an errand!

When money was tight, someone would say "bueno, mientras hayan frijoles," and that kind of statement made everyone feel better because of course you'd always have beans. In a way, they represented a threshold level of food security. At our home, beans were a side dish. Our mom would remind us there were people who only had a pot beans on the stove for dinner. That meant we had something for which to be grateful: our food was simple, but we had enough.

Eventually, I learned beans were uncool. They lacked the bright colors and cartoon characters I saw in my friend's lunch boxes. I'd certainly trade my mom's beans for a Coca-Cola and some McDonald's any day of the week. Ironically, those same foods are uncool in the health-conscious in the community where I live now.

Becoming a mom awakened my food senses. I cared about what our daughter was eating because I understood her eating habits would be shaped, at least in part, by her childhood. That meant we all needed to eat healthier. I always have an eye out for nutritious foods and recipes that are kid-friendly.

Healthy food doesn't have to be sold at an overpriced market. Our moms and grandmothers knew all this.

Earlier this year, I had pinto beans at a Mexican restaurant that tasted like they'd been tended to by a grandmother for hours. Why had I ever stopped eating these? Not long after, I stumbled upon a cookbook called “Decolonize Your Diet,” which calls for a return to ancestral foods and food wisdom. That's what led me to recall the foods of my childhood and made me question why I'd strayed from them.

Here's what I finally have come to understand about beans. They're a superfood. They're high in fiber and antioxidants. One author examined the lifestyle of people who live to 100 and beyond and found beans to be one the foods they most commonly ate. They're cheap. Dried beans are widely available. If you make them with care, they're incredibly tasty. Healthy food doesn't have to be sold at an overpriced market. Our moms and grandmothers knew all this.

These days, I'm simmering three-bean chili, stuffing black beans into breakfast wraps, folding mashed beans and grated mozzarella into whole wheat tortillas (which my daughter gobbles up).

While out about town one day, my daughter asked for pizza. While tempted by the convenience of a quick slice, I remembered what I had in the fridge. “We have something yummy at home,” I said.

The tradition lives on.

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