Chow Bella

Roots: Cooking with Cactus and Connecting to Family

They call me a whitewashed Mexican.

I'm a third­-generation Latina, and more traditional Mexican- Americans call me whitewashed because, according to them, I act more white than I act Mexican.

True, I don't know much Spanish. The Spanish I do know is from my required language courses in college. I never got chased around and hit with chanclas. (Chanclas are sandals in Spanish, and every Mexican­American cringes at the sight of their mom or grandma reaching for their chanclas.) I can't stand banda music. I went to sleepovers with my friends when I was little, although most Mexican moms are overprotective and don't allow their children to sleep over at friends' houses. Unlike more traditional Mexican-­Americans, I don't have a strong need to live on the same block with my family, which is why it was easy for me to pick up and move out of state for college.

See also: Nopales for the Masses: A Mission to Bring Cactus to Valley Diners

But when I was 12, I came face to face with my heritage. It was summer 2004, and we were already late for a family party, so I was (reluctantly) responsible for making a dip while my mom finished getting ready.

"What are these long green things?" I asked, inspecting the jar with a bright yellow lid and label. At first I thought they were bell peppers.

"Nopales," my mom called from the bathroom. "Cactus."

"How? They're not spiky," I thought to myself.

I followed the recipe my mom had obtained from a friend.

Carefully following each step of the recipe, I chopped the slimy canned nopales, fresh jalapeños, green onion, cilantro, tomato, and avocado. Then I measured out lemon juice, garlic powder, and salt. To finish, I crumbled soft cheese and broke up the pieces of dry, crunchy -- fried pigskin. I was confused by what I had just made, so I tried it to see what it was all about.

I was fascinated and hooked. Cactus -- I had never tasted a vegetable like that before. Who knew those green things I'd seen in the desert could add so much flavor?

After that, I demanded my mom keep a jar of nopales in the refrigerator at all times.

The nopales proved useful one day when the pantry and refrigerator were almost empty. My mom, always creative in the kitchen, pulled out the last of a package of Trader Joe's whole­wheat tortillas, some mushrooms, a block of cheddar cheese, and that trusty jar of nopales.

Butter sizzled in the saucepan as my mom, and I chopped the mushrooms and nopales. A few minutes later, we had a nopal­-and­-mushroom quesadilla. And at that moment, I was completely okay with our depleted stock of food.

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Natalie Miranda