As a kid, I knew it. We. Were. Poor. How poor? Rationed-milk poor; Rationed-everything, poor. Sometimes, our meals were comprised entirely from government issued food products. And, for some odd reason, we didn’t qualify for food stamps or any other social assistance. But, my Mom figured it out; She had to. Sometimes, for dinner, we’d have an avocado and two tortillas each, period. I remember one Christmas, the only reason we had any type of holiday dinner is because the Police dropped off a box of food—some sort of neighbor outreach program. We were thankful, but I remember sitting there with my immigrant mother, wondering what you could POSSIBLY use cranberry sauce or stuffing for; it just made no sense, why not send a bag of beans instead?
It is from this struggle that my mother’s tostadas were born. Like all overpriced cuisine, it was born from desperation and brought to you by the poor. My Mother could make a meal out of nothing. I don’t remember the specific date, but the memory always starts the same: I was hungry and all we had in the refrigerator was a take-home-plate from a party we had attended over the weekend. The plate was composed of two or three pieces of chicken, rice, salad and some hardened tortillas. For Latinos growing up in Los Angeles, this was a common food given at parties, because it was cheap to make. Other times, it could have been what looked like a bare-bone chicken on a plate. Whatever the set up, my mother would pluck the remaining poultry meat from the bones, and add whatever veggies she could. She would deep fry the tortillas, once crisp, she would smother a teaspoon of fried beans over them. The chicken layer would be next, and it would all be topped with shredded lettuce, chile and a sprinkle of cheese. The result: The world famous Crenshaw Tostada. It was perfect. It was warm. The flavors of freshness would explode in your mouth. If we were doing well, it would include Guacamole. The tostada is perfect, no matter what the occasion. As I bit through the warm crunchy awesomeness, using my hand to hold it together as my teeth created a cracked fault line through the middle of the deep fried tortilla, I knew we would be okay. I have continued the tradition of the Tostada and have renamed it the Bell Gardens tostada. It costs about .80 cents to make, but you can get one at Broken Spanish in Downtown L.A. for $13.00.
Overpriced cuisine, inspired by necessity
The Burrito. $12.87 for the Quesarito Burrito (Chipotle secret menu). Neither Taco Bell or El Cholo are responsible for the Burrito’s creation. Though there are cultural references of the Burrito since 1848, it made the Oxford English Dictionary in 1934. The visual we get of a Burrito is a modern model, it is the “Mission style” burrito. Though people have been putting food inside a tortilla since the creation of the tortilla, we understand that the burrito is a product of the labor force. Poor workers would wrap meat and whatever other leftovers they had into a large tortilla to-go, only to unwrap it many miles later, perhaps while sitting under a tree. Without access to refrigeration and too far from the farm house for a quick trip back for lunch, the Burrito became the most efficient way to “take your lunch” with you.
Fried Chicken. $200 for a fried chicken meal, Ad Hoc, Yountville, CA. Scottish-Irish Immigrants to the United States introduced their motherland cooking tricks to the Southern States, where African slaves were able to incorporate American seasonings to make it, well, American. Think about it, how do you feed an entire family with one chicken? You bread it. Increasing the calorie count and obviously flavor. The same recipe was given to Catfish, creating a separate famous southern dish.
Gumbo. $18 a bowl, Harold and Belle’s. According to Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux, expert on all things Cajun, the first documented references to gumbo appeared in the 19th century. In 1803, gumbo was served at a Gubernatorial reception in New Orleans, and in 1804 gumbo was served at a Cajun gathering on the Acadian Coast. Today’s Gumbo however, is very different from what was served in the 1800’s. Most people associate Gumbo with seafood gumbo; it isn’t rare for it to also include chicken, ham, bacon, oysters, crab, shrimp and beef. The modern version of Gumbo is a result of the poor getting together trying to have a good time with everybody bringing a little something to the party and throwing it “in the pot”. Everybody eats.
Chile con Carne. International Chili Cookoff First-place prize: $25,000. Historians agree that J.C. Clopper, from Texas, was the first to document the phenomenon. In his visit to San Antonio in 1828, he documented his observations and wrote “When they [poor families of San Antonio] have to lay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for the family; it is generally cut into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat–this is all stewed together.” Like most things in Texas (cowboys, spurs and music) Chili con Carne is Mexican influenced. Before the dividing lines of border politics, poor Mexican and poor American cowboys met along what is now the border, to discuss topography and ranching. It was not rare for a witch’s plot full of hash meat, chili peppers and beans to be sitting over a fire.
Lobster. $16.29 for one Maine Lobster Tail, Red Lobster. Seafood is supposed to be a poorman’s food. So as long as you have a hook and some string, you can catch and cook your own seafood. During peak season, Lobster was approximately $3.69 a pound, in Maine.
Modern day Tostada Ingridients:
6 crunchy Tostadas
Two boiled chicken breast
1 can of tomato sauce
1 garlic clove
Half a chopped onion
Half a head of lettuce
One chopped tomato
Shredded Parmesan cheese
1 can of beans (any color of beans)
The Bell Gardens Tostada Ingredients:
Chicken. Restaurant left-over chicken is the best. It is seasoned differently than you would. The local food bank would provide us with a box of produce occasionally. This allowed for my mother to sautee the chicken meat with carrots, onion, potatoes, carrots, celery and tomato.
Beans. We always had boiled beans in the house. Tostadas require the beans be mashed and fried; with pork fat, or Manteca. Throwing in a little chile and/or Cotija cheese in the frying process was always an option.
Side Sauce. Tomatoes are blended and poured into a deep, hot pan, where garlic and onion have been caramelized. This is your topping sauce.
Tostadas. Tostadas must be served hot, so they are the last to be prepared. Day-old tortillas are preferred. Once you decide if you will be dipping them in enchilada sauce or not, put them in hot oil until crispy.
Please reference paragraph two for preparation instructions.
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“Four Big Facts The Daily Got Wrong In Its History of the Burrito.” OC Weekly. N.p., 27 May
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“History of Fried Chicken & Spotlight on Chef Duff Goldman…” Ergo Chef Blog. N.p., 15 July
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Chicken Come From? – History Stack Exchange. Stack Exchange, 28 Sept. 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2016. http://history.stackexchange.com/questions/15364/where-did-southern-fried-chicken-come-from.
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