I’m convinced that meeting the parents often happens over a meal so you have something to stick in your mouth—besides your foot.
But sometimes, that’s just not enough.
When meeting my parents, my boyfriend, being a chef, offered to make the meal. My mother resisted this arrangement at first. After all, it’s not proper to have a guest “do all the work.” I insisted that cooking isn’t a chore for Marcos; it’s his passion. And it makes him happy to see people eat and enjoy.
She finally gave in to the idea. I had successfully saved him from having to stomach some Jell-O-based thing that rural Midwesterners try to pass off as “salad.” But then there was the question of who should be invited to this momentous occasion.
A few weeks earlier, my family had gotten together for Mother’s Day. I brought an assortment of homemade mini cheesecakes—plain, chocolate chip, raspberry and pecan. My brother tossed me a compliment over my improved culinary skills. I smiled and declared, “I’m dating a chef!”
And then the crickets started chirping while everyone continued stuffing their faces with cheesecake. I think they took my divorce harder than I did. And they did not know what to do with this new situation.
With that in mind, I declined having my two older, married siblings and their seven screaming children at this dinner—or supper, as they would call it.
Growing up in small-town Sioux County, I’d often hear people say, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.” And Marcos is Mexican. I figured he was in for enough of a culture shock. I’d spare him some family drama.
On the night of this dinner at my parents’ house, Marcos appointed me as his sous chef and put me to work making a raspberry vinaigrette in my new food processor, one of those gadgets my mom doesn’t own. It caught my dad’s attention. I’ve never seen him so interested in anything happening in the kitchen besides eating.
Usually when my family gathers, the men sit in the living room, talking about business and politics over the hum of football or Fox News while the women scurry around the kitchen, handling hot pots and pans.
With Marcos in the kitchen, cooking became an inclusive family affair.
I had braced myself for this evening to be painfully awkward. Not only was Marcos the first man I’d brought to meet my parents post-divorce, he was also, uh, as far as I know, the first person of color to ever sit at their table. There were a couple Canadians, but they don’t count.
So things were going great. Right up until the moment dinner was served.
That’s when my dad pulled out his chair at the kitchen table and said, “Where are the big hats?” And my mom said, “You don’t always need them.” I could have died.
At this point, I should have jumped in and said, “This isn’t a Mexican restaurant!” But I stood there, in stunned silence, really wishing for some cheesecake. Marcos—that beautiful man—didn’t seem to notice. He was too busy plating the food—cedar plank salmon, smothered in Hollandaise sauce, with a side of rice and grilled zucchini. Not a burrito in sight.
Four days later, I finally asked Marcos if he’d heard that exchange between my parents. And he did. He just chalked it up as one of those bad Dad jokes. I just wished they could have looked past his brown skin and sombreros to see what I see.
We are more alike than different. But bridging the divide over race, ethnicity and culture can’t be done in one night. So we do it one meal at a time.
Much of this is new to me too. I’ve traveled abroad and experienced other cultures, but the fact remains that there was only one Hispanic boy in my high school class and even he had a Dutch Van-Something surname.
So, when I met Marcos’s parents two weeks earlier, I was filled with fear and fascination. Fear, mostly because, according to him, he has the “best mom in the world,” and she’s like a fricken saint.
Growing up, he’d see her come home from work and make dinner from a box—mac ‘n’ cheese, frozen pizza, chicken nuggets—anything that would cook fast so she could get to her second job. But she wouldn’t eat. And it wasn’t because of the mystery meat in those chicken nuggets. She often went hungry to feed her three boys.
Now, even though both of them work odd hours in restaurants, he tries to make it over to her apartment at least once a week, just to sit at the kitchen table and talk over coffee.
He wants to get her name—Hilda—tattooed on his arm, for everyone to see.
If she didn’t like me, I was toast.
But upon meeting her, she called me bonita, which means beautiful in Spanish, and gave me a big hug—even though Marcos told her not to do that. Because this is the Midwest, not Mexico, he said.
With his step-dad at the wheel, we drove over to South Omaha’s 24th Street, also known as La Plaza de la Raza, “the gathering place for the races” or “for the people.” The area was once known as Magic City because of its rapid growth in the late 1800s. When the stockyards opened, thousands of immigrant workers moved in.
Today, 24th Street is lined with Latino-owned businesses. Around corners, murals capture the culture and heritage of the latest wave of immigrants, as well as the earlier Poles, Lithuanians and Croatians.
Outside of El Dorado Restaurante Mexicano, two men plated and packaged tacos al pastor under a tent. One fried the corn tortillas. The other used a large knife to cut marinated meat from the trompo, a vertical rotisserie, stacked with thin-sliced pork, topped with pineapple.
The trompo slowly spun in front of an open flame. Juices dripped down the searing mound of meat. The taquero caught the shavings in warm, crisp corn tortillas. The other cook finished them off with a sprinkle of chopped onions and cilantro, offering salsa on the side.
The way I used to make “tacos” involved a microwaved flour tortilla, two slices of Velveeta and tavern, which, in my mother’s kitchen, meant ground beef smothered in ketchup, a squirt of mustard, some brown sugar and a dash of pepper. I would say that’s a tavern wrap, at best.
Marcos had taken me to the authentic Mexican taco hut outside the restaurant once before, and we got our food to-go.
This time, though, we sat down inside. The server took us to a corner booth, where I could see that I was the only white person in the restaurant. His mom kept talking to him and his step-dad in Spanish, and I couldn’t help but feel a little left out.
I heard pollo. And got excited. Because four years of high school Spanish classes taught me—that’s chicken! At least then I knew she was talking about the menu and not me. Unless she thought I was a chicken, which was entirely possible at that point.
After placing our orders—mine in English, theirs in Spanish—we got to know each other over the sound of a live mariachi band playing in the background. And yes, they were wearing “big hats.”
Once the server arrived with la lengua sopes, all of my insecurities fell away. I sunk my teeth into the crispy corn cakes, tasting beef tongue for the first time. Then, I sat back and took a sip of horchata, savoring how food can bring us together. Even when we feel far apart.
I think my dad would have liked it. With or without the sombreros.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
We’re hosting Ode’s 2nd Anniversary Show on Friday, February 2 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. We’ll have live music by Shawn Blomberg, starting at 7 p.m., followed by stories about “Risk.”
Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.