I’ve seen movies that show families eating dinner together, but it wasn’t like that at our house, a Southern California bungalow tucked into a working-class neighborhood out by the tomato cannery.
Mom went to bed as soon as she got home from work. My older sister and I cooked dinner and ate together at the Formica dinette dominating our tiny kitchen. We served a plate to Dad, who ate on a TV tray in the living room.
My father was barely domesticated, but somewhere he learned to make the best tacos on the planet. On taco night, everything was different. Out came a special tablecloth, the soft white cotton stained and torn with a fading vintage pattern of red and blue fruit.
Mom emerged from the bedroom and shopped the list:
1. Corn tortillas
2. Ground beef
3. Cheddar cheese
4. Iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion
5. Hot sauce
While Mom made salad and my sister grated cheese, I spread the shabby cloth as if decorating for a fiesta. I’d brown the meat, adding salt, pepper and generous sprinkles of my secret ingredient, celery salt.
Mom poured 1/8 inch of vegetable oil into a cast iron pan and set the flame to medium. She’d run her hand over the pan until the oil felt hot. Then she’d holler for Dad.
“The grease is ready!”
Dad took a flat tortilla and held it in his palm, adding a spoonful of browned meat onto one half of the tortilla. He would carefully lay the meat side of the tortilla in the oil, allowing the tortilla to soften at the crease so he could fold it on top of itself. After the first side was golden, he’d flip it over and lightly brown the other side.
When the tacos were done, he held them with tongs over the pan to drain the extra oil before laying them side-by-side on a sheet pan lined with paper towels. Cooked properly, the body of the tortilla gets crisp and lacy, while the part near the fold stays moist and supple.
My father taught me to dress them so the cheese melts against the warm meat, then hot sauce, then salad. A shake of salt. Mom declared them, “A la supreme.” We’d all laugh, as we ate tacos together, just like in the movies.
I still make tacos the way Dad did. It’s like time travel. I drop the meat in the pan, and it begins to sizzle. I break it apart with a metal spatula. Flip and chop. And just like that, it’s taco night, and everything is different.
Donna Pekar is an aging badass (for real) who lives in California and writes Retirement Confidential.