A Mother’s Quest for Good Food

Finding fresh food in the Bronx isn’t always easy.
Finding fresh food in the Bronx isn’t always easy.

Of all of mother’s signature dishes, tripe stew was my least favorite. Our building, comprised of mostly Latinos, smelled of garlic, peppers, cilantro and bouillon cubes, with hints of cumin and turmeric from Apartment 3D, but no amount of coriander or oregano could mask the unpleasant stench of boiled tripe. Even with a part-time job my mother devoted hours to her stew, carefully cleaning and cutting the tripe into bite size pieces the night before she planned to serve it for dinner. I whined every time she prepared it. My sister always joined in protest, a rare occurrence considering her enormous appetite for all things edible. Despite our pleas, my mother continually stood her ground and often reminded us of the alleged nutritional benefits of tripe as if we would somehow change our minds. The more she made a case for cow innards, the more we voiced our disapproval.

At some point during my childhood my mother became somewhat of a potato salad legend. Requests for the spud salad came in so often that Yukon golds and cartons of brown eggs became a household staple. I disliked the smell of mayonnaise and white vinegar. Her recipe called for both, combined to create a smooth, pungent concoction. I was assigned the task of chopping cooked eggs into small cubes and mixing the creamy dressing until it formed the preferred consistency. We never had the proper kitchen tools, so I was forced to use a dull knife to chop and a dinner fork to whisk. My mother believed that great cooks didn't require the aid of fancy gadgets to get the job done, so preparing the salad always took longer than it should. Any protest on my part would lead to a stern punishment in the form of taste-testing the final product. I knew better than to complain.

As the eldest, I was expected to accompany my mother in the hunt for fine fare. Once a month, we walked a mile from our home in the Bronx to Arthur Avenue, where we stocked up on fresh pasta, cured meats, oils and Italian sweets. To my mother, Italians were food gurus placed on earth to spread their culinary wisdom. She chatted with shopkeepers and asked for recommendations while I listened in with very little interest, unaware that someday I would regret not paying close attention. We bickered about my lack of interest, mostly because she worried I wouldn't know how to cook a proper meal for my future husband. These arguments often occurred in front of store owners, who took my mother’s side and offered her a few kind words and a small discount for having to put up with me. They knew better than to upset a loyal customer.

There were several butcher shops my mother favored on Arthur Avenue. She'd enter a shop, take a number, and paced back and force studying the goods while she waited her turn. She was always on the look out for the bargain of the week, no matter what part of the animal it was. In her opinion, almost every bit was fit for human consumption as long as it was properly prepared. I tried to find charming qualities of a place that wrapped its kill in waxed brown paper and tied it with white string as if it were some sort of present. I was often distracted by the dangling animal carcasses, bloody aprons, and floors covered in sawdust to find a single appealing aspect. One day when I was twelve my mother surprised me with a proposal. She knew I didn't like entering the shop and said I could wait outside as long as I remained in plain sight. It was one of the few times we reached a compromise.

Most weekends, we traveled from the Bronx to the farmer’s market in Union Square for crisp greens, plump fruits, and honey. We weaved in and out of of the sea of people from one vendor tent to the next, often circling around in case we missed any of the items on the shopping list. The second lap was always my favorite; it was when I asked for nonessential items, like sunflowers and daisies. I started to realize that other families in our neighborhood didn’t shop farmer’s markets or small specialty shops. To some of our neighbors, it seemed odd that we spent so much time running around New York City in search of food when we had access to at least two supermarkets, a few bodegas and a string of fast food restaurants at our disposal. To my mother, knowing where the dairy, meat, produce, and grain products we consumed came from seemed important. Back then, leaving our neighborhood in pursuit of quality foods wasn’t my favorite pastime, but it made me aware of the lack of nutritious food available in my community.

The Bronx, where the childhood poverty rate is 43%, is one of the unhealthiest places in New York. Thirty percent of adults in the Bronx are obese with the highest rates in the Fordham, Bronx Park and South Bronx neighborhoods. Limited access to healthy, affordable foods contributes greatly to the obesity epidemic in these working class, low-income communities. In general, fresh produce is more expensive than processed foods and supermarkets in urban communities tend to offer substantial discounts on foods that contain high levels of sugar, sodium and fat. Fast food chains and take-out spots are accessible at almost every turn in the Bronx, with 44 McDonald’s locations throughout the borough, 3 within walking distance from where I grew up. Bodegas provide the convenience of locale and are the heart and soul of many Bronx communities, but many proprietors have yet to include wholesome food options to their inventory. It’s hard to imagine how a borough in one of the greatest places in the world doesn’t have enough nutritious food to feed its residence, but it’s a serious issue in the Bronx and other cities nationwide.

My mother wasn’t against shopping at the local bodegas, but only for a few items at a time. Every bodega looked exactly like the next, with packaged foods neatly stacked across dusty shelves and fatty artificially flavored snacks showcased on metal shelves conveniently located near the cash register. I often forgot about the delectable fruits waiting at home whenever I stepped into a bodega. Bags of fatty chips and individually wrapped pies containing “real fruit” were my weakness. Every now and then, the bodega received a shipment of overripe sweet plantains, causing a bit of excitement amongst the residence in our community. The plantains always sold out quickly despite their appearance. Everyone knew the darker the skin, the softer and sweeter the maduros. Aside from plantains, there were a couple of other bodega items my mother kept in our home year round, two in particular: A yellow and red can containing ground espresso from a company founded in the Bronx in 1928, and a blue tin of Dutch butter cookies. Both items came in handy on days when guests stopped by our home to report the latest gossip.

These days my mother has a different relationship with food. She became a pescatarian over a decade ago, a conversion that didn’t surprise me considering we ate some type of seafood at least once a week when I was a kid. I often wonder how far she travels when she craves fresh seafood, but won’t ask. I try to avoid conversations about food. I once had the best prosciutto from a butcher shop in lower Manhattan, but never shared my experience since it will most likely upset her. To me, there is no right or wrong and everyone’s food journey is unique, marked by good and bad experiences along the way. Embracing all types of foods has become my way of making up for lost time, although tripe remains on my list of unsavory foods. Yet, I’ll admit I learned a great deal about food from my mother. Those lessons continue to play a big role in the way I select ingredients and prepare meals. I am grateful for the invaluable food education.

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