I learned the word for bread in English first. The soft syllable already begging for butter, jam, something to spread across our crisp, clean, crunchy alphabet. In Yeshiva (the Jewish school I attended), the word we used was “lechem,” with our tongues hanging out of the mouth at the start of the word, already hungry, as if we children knew it was something to beg for at lunchtime or during the Sabbath.
“Pan” came later. A short, sweet word the Mexican mouth uses to describe what’s eaten in the morning with a cup of hot chocolate before heading out to the fields. “Pan—” the word that invited me in, held the door and asked permission to begin a different kind of family.
It’s September as I write this. We just ate turkey sandwiches with mayo on triangle-shaped bread for lunch, a big round lechem dipped in honey on the Jewish New Year and warm rolls of pan to break the fast on Yom Kippur.
My oldest daughter, almost 6 years old, just started school after being stuck at home for a year because of the pandemic. She asks, “Mami, can you send me to school with a piece of challah?” I’m not surprised by her request; challah is the traditional Jewish braided bread and a delicious part of our Friday night meals. If challah is braided in six strands it represents the six days before the Sabbath, eight strands mean new beginnings, 12 strands for the 12 tribes of Israel—the list goes on.
“Oh, my love, the bakery only sells challah on Shabbat,” I say hoping not to disappoint her too much. “Well then, can I have taquitos?” As any Jewish, American, Catholic and Mexican daughter should know, the next best thing to challah is a fried potato taquito. Mashed potatoes stuffed inside a warm tortilla, rolled like a cigar and fried. Then it’s topped off with sour cream and spicy tomatillo salsa. “Oy, let me think about it Helen,” I say, thinking that taquitos take forever to make.
With two of my three children in school and a baby boy at home opening the fridge every five minutes like a football player, the ritual of packing lunch has become challenging. A million online recipes suggest bento box-style meals. One mommy-blogger recommends cutting your children’s strawberries into mini hearts and placing them effortlessly over a sloping hill of rainbow quinoa. She even has a video of her 3-year-old with a napkin tucked neatly under her neck saying something like “this is so delicious, thank you, Mommy.” As I watch the clip, my own 3-year-old grabs an entire handful of cheddar bunnies and shoves every last one in her mouth, chokes, spits them on the floor and wipes her chin with the back of her hand.
“Taquitos it is!” I shout.
The next day I send Helen to school with a lunchbox full of taquitos, black beans, sliced cucumber and an apple for her snack. At noon I get a phone call from her Jewish day school.
“Shalom,” the voice says, “Helen forgot her lunch today, would you like us to give her something or do you live close by?”
“I’m sorry, but that’s impossible,” I reply in the only way an aggravated mother who has just spent the night before frying tortillas can sound. “Can you double-check?”
“Well,” I say gritting my teeth, “check again.”
I hold. The woman comes back to the phone and assures me that Helen has no lunch. I then proceed to sound like a lunatic.
“Miss, you don’t understand. I specifically placed that lunchbox in her bag this morning. I was up for hours making taquitos last night for her special day at school. Do you know how much work goes into making traditional taquitos? I mean, if she doesn’t have those taquitos, then who the hell is eating my taquitos right now!?!”
“I’ll just give her something to eat,” the voice hung up.
I had visions of Helen’s bus driver finding a unicorn lunchbox and opening it. I imagined him eating the best Mexican meal he ever had in his life and quitting his bus driving job to open a restaurant where his special would be my taquitos. It just wasn’t fair.
Helen got off the school bus five hours later. When I took her backpack off, I opened it and there was her lunchbox FULL of the taquitos, and one with a tiny bite mark in it.
“Helen!” I said trying to hold back my insanity, “How was your day?”
“Good, Mami,” she said.
“Helen,” I started again, my eye twitching a little, “I got a call saying that your teacher couldn’t find your lunchbox. They told me they looked in your bag and it wasn’t there. Do you know what happened?”
“Well,” Helen explained, “It was in my cubby, but they never asked me where it was so when they brought it to me outside at the table, lunch was already over. They were counting backwards from 10 and they said when they got to zero, we had to go inside so I only took one bite.”
Mommies and papis out there, can you believe this!? That very minute, I started a letter to the director explaining my taquito nightmare and how my baby wasn’t given enough time to eat. She is Jewish and Mexican for God’s sake; not letting that child eat is a cardinal sin in both Catholicism and Judaism.
The director wrote back to me the next day. She apologetically explained how it’s the first week back and things were so hectic. She assured me it would never happen again. When reading my initial email, she thought I wrote “tequila” and not “taquitos” and grew very concerned. Then, she laughed after she read her mistake. I assured her that we could all use some tequila and that I would never make taquitos for Helen’s lunch ever again. “I’ll save them for dinner.”
When I buy my challah on Fridays, I’ll put some away for her lunch on Monday.
I should have just listened to her in the first place. The only thing Helen wanted after a year at home, during a pandemic that just won’t go away, the only thing she asked for was a taste of home, of comfort, of the familiar flavor of crispy bread, doughy lechem, sweet, reassuring pan.