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My Nontraditional Latina Kitchen

Photograph by Twenty20

The first time I finished a batch of my mom's tamales, she proclaimed, "Ya te puedes casar." (You can now get married.) Even though I wouldn't be married for several more years, she clearly hadn't watched me close enough. If you asked me to make her tamales from scratch, I wouldn't even remember the entire list of ingredients. I know that's bad, especially by Latina mother-daughter standards!

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Few of the meals I make my family resemble the foods my mother made for us growing up. Her garden grows chilies; I grow basil. She serves pozole on her dinner table, I'll make ahi poke bowls. I don't know my mom's recipes by heart. I feel guilt about that because so much of our culture is expressed through food. I also understand that if cultural knowledge isn't passed down, it's lost. There's a lot at stake.

At the same time, many of the foods I grew up don't always fit our life these days. A busy week doesn't always lend itself to making arroz con pollo, oxtails, or chiles rellenos. We relish these foods when my mom visits from out of state because she loves to cook for us—as any abuela does. But it can also be so much food that I end up feeling like I need a juice cleanse afterward.

I don't know my mom's recipes by heart. I feel guilt about that because so much of our culture is expressed through food. I also understand that if cultural knowledge isn't passed down, it's lost. There's a lot at stake.

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That's another thing: my eating habits have recently changed, and more than ever I'm focused on nutrition and balance. I'm perfectly happy serving my family a hearty spinach and veggie-filled salad for lunch. My mom, on the other hand, would be more apt to serving an iceberg lettuce side-salad — with rice and carne con chile. When it comes to complexity, my mom is the better cook. But if we're talking range, I think have an edge. I've gotten a toddler to eat roasted seaweed. That has to count for something!

Sometimes I wonder what other Latina moms are making for dinner. Are we using the intricate recipes of our grandmothers or are more of us building nontraditional kitchens with a variety of influences? My kitchen has Indian, Mediterranean, American, and Latina notes — due in part to our being a multicultural family. I'm also a multicultural Latina, so my palate is Cuban, Guatemalan and Mexican.

Not all is lost. Like my mom and grandmother, I still care for my family through food. Mealtime is sacred. And like my mom (and possibly all Latinas moms) my kryptonite is a hungry child. I also weave in traditional flavors in different ways. Sometimes I'll make something just as my mom would: tortilla de plátano maduro, a Cuban-style picadillo with sliced banana on the side, or arroz con leche sprinkled with cinnamon. But other times, our foods becomes hybrids. Maybe we'll eat scrambled eggs and pesto wrapped in whole wheat tortillas. Or I'll sneak a quinoa salad ("What is this? Me gusta.") at our family carne asada.

Foods change, but family is the constant.

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Explore More: home, mamá a mamá, vida, familia, comida, Latina Mom
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