Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Politics of Eating

Some folks say food and politics don't mix.

I disagree. It is my contention that family meals very often serve as our first exposure to politics. In any family, especially with more than one child at the table, it is the jockeying for attention or desire for protective camouflage that is often our actual introduction to the basics of the political art.

For me anyway, it was at our family dinner table where I learned my earliest lessons about stumping, endorsements, exposure, collaboration, and spin.

My Mom was one of those "clean plate club" Moms. As a registered nurse she apparently battled some inner demon about the importance of offering a balanced diet to her family. She was a lackluster cook for various reasons but seemed driven to nonetheless present a variety of foods that represented some combination that added up in her mind, to "healthy".It was not enough for her merely to offer, however. We had to willingly eat. She seemed to think if I was left alone at the table with a chilling plate of unwanted vegetable matter, I would somehow learn to eat whatever it was I didn't like quickly next time, while it was warm. What I learned, rather, was how to hide food in the remainder of a glass of milk, under a pile of potatoes, or smashed into a napkin.None of these dodges worked long term, but even my nutritionally vigilant Mom wouldn't make me eat milk soaked cold green beans. I'd get a lecture about wasting food and starving children who would be grateful for the food I would not touch, but I felt that a fair trade for my eventual release from cold green bean Hell.

This periodic vegetable exile lasted until my baby brother was old enough to graduate from baby food. Due to the combination of his exalted status and particular palate, once the golden child, the male essential to my Italian Father's need for a happy heir apparent entered the dinner time mix, the game at meal time morphed from "the child must be made to eat her vegetables" to "how do we get this little boy to eat"?.No matter how demanding I might have been at the table, I never got close to my baby brother's requirements. I had a favorite sandwich I wanted every day fixed with the same three ingredients. He had a favorite sandwich that had to be served on white bread with the crusts cut off. If I was a bit of a lettuce, cucumber and tomato purist in terms of what I felt constitued a proper salad, he trumped that by only agreeing to eat cucumbers. Cucumbers that had to be thinly sliced and seasoned sparingly with salt. No. Pepper. Ever.

As my brother got older, his range of acceptable tastes naturally expanded as did mine. When it finally came time for both of us to head our own families, it was with a special admixture of delight and dismay that we gathered our two families at a table together and watched our combined broods "express" their own food preferences. Although neither he nor I were of the "clean plate club" bent, the baton had clearly been passed and we had become our parents.

It was in the mid 1980s when my baby brother grilled fajitas to serve at our first combined family dinner, which was also the first time he had ever cooked for me. Fajitas was one of my brothers "on demand" dishes that has since become legend for both our families. The fajitas were so good, so well received by all three of my own picky eating trio, that I quickly asked for the recipe.He happily obliged. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, long before fajitas were de rigueur at any number of drive through Tex-Mex fast food franchises, not to mention in any of several dozen different national restaurant chains, my younger brother had the great good fortune to be working in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Central Texas alongside a woman whose name remains unknown, but whose own family recipe for fajita marinade quickly became our family's gold standard.

This marinade, made so often in my family the recipe is now rightfully part of our culinary DNA, hits all the right notes for a classic in any repertoire. The ingredient list is short. The components are easy to find and inexpensive. The results are spectacular and reliable. Best of all, the resulting meal is reasonably healthy and, depending on how you source your meat, does not necessarily leave you directly responsible for another penguin death or an additionally denuded acre of rain forest.

As with any sort of family tradition in our bunch, there quickly evolves a "right" way to do things. OurWay to fix fajitas is to use this marinade recipe, chicken breasts (no skirt steak, ever!) monterey jack cheese, grilled onions, peppers, sour cream, and flour tortillas. I am not saying there are not other delicious fajitas out there but they aren't "our" fajitas. This is the way we do it and this is the way we like it done. You might, too.

Here's the recipe:

My Picky Baby Brother's Fajita Marinade

One bottle beer
One bottle prepared Good Seasons Italian Dressing
One tablespoon fresh lemon juice
One generous tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
One tablespoon garlic powder

And here is how we make Fajitas OurWay.

Combine all the ingredients above in a large plastic bag with a good seal. Place skinless, boneless chicken breast halves into marinade and slosh around in bag to ensure they are in full contact with liquid. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours but no longer than 24 hours. Grill chicken breasts, drizzling liberally with marinade, and when done, cut into strips. Discard any remaining marinade. Place meat strips in warm flour tortillas with sauteed onion and pepper strips, sprinkle with grated monterey jack cheese and drizzle with sour cream. Roll and serve immediately.

I have updated this recipe only once in all the years I've been making fajitas for my family, and that update was to incorporate the new to our area version of flour tortillas that come "listas para el comal" - ready to finish up in a hot skillet so they are freshly baked and heated through on demand.If I can't find these for any reason I use the thinnest flour tortillas I can find as they are only a delivery vehicle for the marinated meat and I find the thicker tortillas interfere too much flavor and texture wise.My rule of thumb is to figure on one chicken breast half per adult, but I almost always have leftovers. I admit, I like to grill more chicken than I'll need for fajitas. The resulting cooked chicken is a great standby ingredient to press into service atop a beautiful Caesar salad. It also reheats for fajita do-overs with no real loss in flavor or texture.Give these a try on your own and I think you'll agree. Some of the time, having a "picky" eater in the family is just the ticket.

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