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Mexican Food Cook-Off: A Story About Family, Food and Faith

With the grills and chiles fired up, the Mexican Food Cook-off this Saturday, will sure to please the taste buds featuring some of the best Mexican food in the country. While that holds true, there is one story that comes to mind about the little kitchen my mother cooks up some of the best — bar none. It’s a story about struggle, faith, my Mexican culture and the food that not only serves a family of eight, but serves to the poor.

My mom pushed her grocery cart out of the bread aisle and toward the piles of produce.

She wasn’t there to take her time and look around  or see what over-the-top dinner she could make that night. Rather, she was there with a short grocery list, where even the basics of her list were compromised. She needed just enough food to get her through the week. Calculating the total in her head each time she placed something in her cart and pushing that cart slower as she neared her $15 budget — she remembered she needed one more thing: potatoes.

A sign above the sacks read “Buy one Bag get one FREE.”

She didn’t need that many potatoes. It wasn’t a big family gathering where her famous potato salad would be hunted down by cousins, uncles and aunts. She just needed enough to make caldillo for the week – enough to get by.

She was a smart shopper, a bargain finder and a strong Hispanic woman who could quite literally serve an army a memorable Mexican dish with the last three things in her fridge and cabinets.

She knew how to stretch a dollar and spend her time wisely. After all, she had six kids to feed and budgeting was her forte. But not one of us kids growing up recognized the struggle she endured in stretching the family dollar after my dad went on strike, when I was born. He worked odd-end jobs, blue-collar pay and graveyard shifts to put food on the table. For breakfast, lunch and dinner — we ate like a traditional Mexican family would. From her famous huevos rancheros, bean burritos, chicken enchiladas, carne molida, chile rellanos and her own twist on sweat tea — you’d never think we grew up poor.

It wasn’t until I went to high school did I realize my parents gave us every last penny they worked tirelessly for. Whether it was for school lunch, extra-curricular activities or just to have fun with friends at the movies. My mother is a woman of God, a soldier of love and a person who exudes pure peace and calm. She’s in tune with her Holy Spirit, and is one who knows the power of unceasing prayer, petition and thanksgiving. Sometimes as a child, I wondered if she knew God personally – just like I believed she knew Santa when I was a kid.

As the six of us have grown and entered new phases of maturity, we’ve begun to recognize the daily sacrifices my parents made to make our lives better. They sold their wedding rings to support us when no other options were available. The two things that binded them in marriage were obviously not tangible pieces of gold flaunted on their left hands – but rather the deep connection in their hearts to give their kids everything they could.

That day as she stood before her shopping cart, she stared at the sign thinking, “Why would I need two large bags of potatoes?” She laughed as she placed both bags in the cart thinking, “You can’t keep me from a good bargain. Maybe, I can even tell them to charge me half price since I only need one bag.”

She neared the register watching nervously as each item paraded down the conveyor belt and was scanned: $9.55…beep…$10.78…beep…she second guessed herself as both bags of potatoes passed despite the free bag. “I didn’t need that many,” she thought. “I hope I don’t go over my budget.” Total: $14.88. She offered up a sigh of relief and herself the reassurance that she was a smart shopper. She handed the clerk her crumbled ten and five.

Her short drive home from the store was enough to stir up questions in her mind about why she had to get two bags of potatoes instead of just one. She pulled up to our small, humble home on the other side of the railroad tracks. She got her two bags and was ready to make dinner. My brother, Gabriel, was washing his car outside as she pulled into the driveway. She walked in the house and just as she began to put the groceries away the doorbell rang.

“Who could it be?” my mother asked, stressed about feeding more than she presumed. My brother came in the house and said, “Mom some man is outside asking for you.”

She approached the door. There stood a small man with desperation on his face, a loss of words and possibly his dignity. He smiled at her as he sat on his beat-up bike. She kindly asked how she could help him. He didn’t ask for money for a quart of beer as one might stereotype his presence, didn’t ask for help with a broke down engine across the street — he didn’t ask for anything she’d ever heard a stranger need. He uttered: “Ma’am, by any chance do you have two, maybe three potatoes, I can borrow? I’m trying to cook and just don’t have the money.”

My mom was beside herself. And right next to her was my brother also baffled. It was at that instance my mother connected with why God nudged her in the grocery aisle to get that extra bag of potatoes. She walked off to her pantry, where she proudly said, “You know what sir, I don’t just have a couple, but I just happen to have a whole bag of potatoes you can have.”

His eyes were wide and her heart was fulfilled. “Thank you, thank you – truly I didn’t need all of these. But thank you.” My mom replied, “I’m sure you didn’t come here asking for this many – but God knew you needed them so I bought them for you before the doorbell even rang.”

She closed the door. My brother and her shared one of those stares that said more than words could speak. My mother knew God was testing her, and she followed her Holy Spirit. You never know what form God will present himself in your life, but He will if He hasn’t already.

While some may see this as a meer coincidence, it’s these acts of God when he uses everyday people to serve as His Angel for that moment. You may say potatoe, I might say patatoe, later that evening my mother called out to the family – “Papas con chorizo. It’s served!”

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