Possibly the longest-running and most beloved traditions in my family is a monthly event called Taco Night. I grew up driving an hour to my aunt and uncles house in the San Fernando Valley the second weekend of every month. My family, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, cousins’ cousins and family friends close enough to be actual family, gather and catch up over homemade tacos. Knowing that my grandmother (my father’s mother) hosted Taco Night before handing it to her first born son, my uncle, I asked her about the history of this family tradition. In an email, she responded:
“Fact #1: Thelma Pender Wood, my mother and your great-grandmother, was born in Texas, and grew up in New Mexico, Arizona, and finally California–all places known for some very good Mexican food.
Fact #2: While Thelma was in high school, she lived with her eldest brother and his wife in Santa Barbara. The wife, Beatrice Dale Pender, had an Anglo father, but her mother was a descendant of an old, somewhat wealthy Spanish land-grant family, and the Dales lived on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s where Beatrice (nicknamed Jackie–why, I don’t know) learned to cook Mexican food. Now here’s where the “sort of” folklore comes in.
Back sometime in the 1960s I was in Santa Fe with some friends, and we went to a highly recommended restaurant up on Canyon Road. It was in a venerable adobe house, with a historical plaque by the entrance, proclaiming it to be the former home of the (Spanish name I can’t remember)/Dale family. I recognized the names (then!), and told the owners of the restaurant. They were excited that Mrs. Dale, Jackie’s mother, was still living, and asked me to find out what the original use was for a tiny, adobe, shed-like structure in back of the main house. I called Aunt Jackie when I got home, she asked her mom, and it turns out the little place was the home of an Indian (okay, Native American) woman who worked for them. She lived in that tiny space all her life, never married, but raised several children there. She also taught Jackie how to cook Southwestern/Mexican food, and Jackie passed her knowledge along to Thelma, my mom, the year they lived together.
Fact #3: I grew up eating wonderful, spicy food. We had it at least once a week. In Van Nuys, California–not yet Barrio Van Nuys in the 1940s–none of my friends had even heard of a taco, let alone eat one. They were willing to try, though (my mom was a good cook–except for meat, which she turned into charcoal), and after a few dinners at our house, they became true believers. Finally it was decreed that every Saturday would be Taco Night, and so began a tradition.
We kept it up as long as I lived at home, and after Papa Bill and I married and had Chris, we moved the whole thing to our house. We continued with every Saturday, and pretty soon it was Chris, Tim and Jeff’s friends who were coming for tacos, and then friends of friends. One night Papa Bill counted thirteen kids in the living room, all watching television and eating, and he didn’t know a single one of them. Those were the days! Bill also put “money to feed the taco night kids” on his Christmas list.
So…when Chris and Jina married, and Ashley was born, it wasn’t any hardship at all to turn taco night over to them. (Every time I fix just one dish to bring, I thank them!) For a while they went on with the every-Saturday routine, but that got to be too much, so it was cut back to once a month, and for some reason was changed to Sunday for a few years. Ashley pointed out that if it went back to Saturday, she and the other college students (!) could possibly be there, traveling back to school on Sunday. Smart girl!
Not long ago Stacey hung around the stove while Uncle Chris and I were cooking and stuffing the shells, and said because she’ll probably be the first of the sisters to marry (well, maybe), she’d better learn to cook tacos and take over Taco Night someday. Hope she doesn’t plan to do fish tacos–your dad would never come again.
So, that’s the story. Just think how many diverse people come. We’ve had friends, and friends of friends, from England, Switzerland, Spain, Japan, Brazil–where else? It’s all exciting, and comforting, somehow.”
It is not as if my European-descended family has any ethnic ties to hispanic food; however, we have adopted it and structured a family tradition around it. My grandmother even shared the origin story of our adoption of taco- making in a time, the 1940s, when tacos were not particularly popular in the valley.
I believe it is an American tendency to adopt other cultures, since cities like LA are so diverse. Since my family has been in California for generations we are very familiar with the concept.
My grandparents began this tradition, which has been taken over by their children, who will soon have their children take it over for them.The tradition fosters a very strong sense of community, not only among or family with our diverse group of friends.