In college, I spent my junior year abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. To ease the homesickness of the American students, our sponsoring program organized a Thanksgiving dinner. They roasted a turkey and tried their best to approximate some traditional side dishes. But if you’ve never watched your grandmother prepare a green bean casserole, how could you possibly understand the magical alchemy of it?
Just try to explain it: the beans should get mushy enough that they melt into the cream of mushroom soup; you’ll need to add a splash of soy sauce for a touch of umami; and the whole thing must be topped with a layer of fried onions from a plastic container — not homemade — to create the perfect contrast of crunch. It sounds grotesque. Yet for some of us, it tastes like home.
For contributing editor Roberto José Andrade Franco, the dish that tastes of holidays and home is capirotada, a traditional Mexican dessert of Lent. For the April issue, he wrote a beautiful story about the history of his family and the dish, which his mother made every Good Friday for as long as he could remember. When he described the unusual ingredients — peanuts, raisins, mozzarella cheese, bread, piloncillo syrup, sprinkles — I was intrigued. His mother’s recipe seemed simple enough. So I decided to give it a try for a dinner party.
It was an unmitigated disaster. Now granted, I made at least one significant mistake. When making capirotada, like when making turkey dressing, the bread slices should be almost completely dry so they can absorb the syrup without turning into complete mush. I didn’t do that. But I also just didn’t get the rest of the textures: syrupy peanuts covered in cheese, wet bread and chewy bits of raisins without the eggy texture of bread pudding.
It’s the kind of dish that I think, even if made right, you probably have to imprint on as a child in order to truly appreciate it. As is true of all the best family recipes, really. They don’t make any sense without the family history.
But read his story and try to make it for yourself. Let me know how it turns out.