How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Introducing the giant Frankenjalapeño

Photo by bunchofpants/Flickr (Creative Commons)

No, it's not big enough to ride like a horse

Perhaps it's because I grew up in a part of L.A. where people grew chiles in their backyards, but I did a double take the other day upon coming across a press release heralding the introduction of a giant genetically modified jalapeño.

It has a rather creative name, the NuMex Jalmundo. From the release: ..."the name Jalmundo is a contraction of jalapeño and the Spanish word for world (mundo), implying that it is as big as the world."

That's a lot of rajas. Though according to the chile's breeders, the mega-jalapeño is intended not so much for tamal consumers as it is for the patrons of chain restaurants that serve jalapeño poppers, to be used as a plus-sized vessel for cheese. The release bills the chiles as "perfect for poppers."

I'd somehow perceived chiles as a humble, untweaked crop. As it turns out, the NuMex Jalmundo - a cross between a standard jalapeño and a bell pepper - is one of a number of engineered chiles. It was developed by the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State University, which has a chile breeding program.


Tamales, champurrado, a cold December night

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Cold revelers, hot tamales. December 3, 2010

Tonight I braved the southbound I-5 to make it to a favorite annual holiday event in San Diego, December Nights, which draws what seems like half the city to Balboa Park for two nights to eat, take in the lights, duck into the museums and listen to carolers. Mostly, though, to eat.

My favorite tamales cart was parked near the same spot where it was last year. There's nothing like an outdoor meal of steaming tamales and hot champurrado on a cold, damp night.


Got masa?

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Dry masa mix on the shelf in a Westlake grocery store, November 2010

Now that the turkey thing is behind us, it's officially tamales season, the time of year when bags of dry masa mix begin flying off grocery shelves. Ready for your tamaleadas?

I'm not, but I'll be hitting the grocery store this weekend for my Maseca and hojas.

See you back here Monday. In the meantime, I've tracked down a couple of good tamal-making videos, one for Mexican-style tamales (starring a hip hop-loving chef), and one for Central American-style tamales. No language comprehension necessary - the demonstrations are easy to follow.

A good holiday weekend to all.


A Thanksgiving retweet

Photo by Lane & Anne/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The table is set, November 2007

RT @NeffStarr Turkey with my white family @1pm Then my mexican family @6pm

I caught a retweet of this little gem from someone in Houston yesterday. I liked it because it captures, in less than 140 characters, the transitioning between cultures that is also a big part of Thanksgiving Day for many in Southern California, where families are of mixed ethnicity, mixed race and mixed status.

For recent immigrants who celebrate it, the holiday is part of their adaptation to a new culture. For those who have been here a long time and have raised children here, it is a tradition that captures a cross-generational blend of voices, attitudes and languages at the table.

And for those of us raised here, the second and third generations (and the 1.5s like me), it's a day of transitioning between the old and the new, the families that raised us and the families we have perhaps married into, which, in this part of the country, might be from a different culture altogether.


Three turkeys, three cultures

Photo by cobalt123/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Okay, so there are four turkeys here and not three, whatever. November 2005

It's two days to Thanksgiving and a turkey dinner prepared with...mole? Fish sauce? Heck yeah.

This morning I came across two posts on two different ways to prepare turkey, and they have nothing to do with basting it with butter or Mrs. Cubbison's.

Tasting Table Los Angeles featured a post on the secrets of Oaxacan-style turkey cooking as practiced by Guelaguetza restaurant chef Maria de Jesus Monterrubio, one of which involves a bird seasoned with chile paste, spices and chocolate and served with rich, chocolatey Oaxacan mole. KCRW's Good Food blog had a recipe for Vietnamese-style turkey seasoned with coriander, ginger and fish sauce.

Mmmm. Of course, Thanksgiving turkey made the immigrant way is about the only way I've ever eaten it at home. In my family, the bird is soaked overnight in mojo criollo, the garlicky marinade made with sour oranges that Cubans typically reserve for roasted pork. My parents must have decided that if they were going to assimilate and eat turkey instead of pork, they were going to do it on their terms.