Pati Jinich knows what it’s like to be a new immigrant in the United States. She came to this country on a visa when she was 24 years old and newly married. Homesick and unable to return to Mexico until her immigration papers were finalized she brought comfort to Texas by cooking the chicken soup of her youth for herself and her husband. The scent gave her rented duplex in Dallas a connection to home.
Today, 22 years later, Jinich is still making chicken soup, but no longer just for her husband. She is now the host of Pati’s Mexican Table, the James Beard-award-winning TV series with a U.S. audience of more than 30 million. Many of the things she makes use chicken soup as the base so she cooks a large pot of it every week, and uses it in her rice, stews and as stock for her bean soups. The chicken soup combines Jinich’s Jewish food memories and her Mexican culinary traditions, two sides of her identity that were each fully realized only once she grew roots in the United States.
Those weekly cauldrons of soup bring her back to her Eastern European Jewish grandparents—her father’s parents from Poland, her mother’s from Austria, both sides emigrated to Mexico to escape European persecution—as well as her Mexican-born, Jewish parents, and her beloved Catholic Mexican babysitter, Sara. The soup, she says, is made with “the usual suspects of chicken, onion, carrot, and celery,” but then deepened with the very Mexican addition of thyme, marjoram, cilantro and sweet potato for sweetness.
The combination of Eastern European with Mexican accents is one ingredient in the story of her food life. From her earliest years, she was, she said, “treading between worlds,” one Jewish, one Mexican. She was one of only two Jewish students in her grade in school. In synagogue, which she attended at holiday time with her grandparents, she was one of the only Jewish children to NOT attend Jewish day school. She was the Jewish kid in one realm, the Mexican in the other.
While her parents were not active participants in the Jewish community of Mexico City, each Friday night Jinich and her family marked Shabbat in her paternal grandparents’ home. Her grandmother made classic Ashkenazi dishes, infused with Mexican elements: guacamole topped with gribenes (crispy chicken skin, an Eastern European favorite) or Veracruz style gefilte fish, a familiar ground fish dish in a tomato- and olive-infused sauce. Her mother’s mother was a wonderful cook, too, whose food reflected her refined, European background. It, too, blended Mexican influences with the country of her youth.
Jinich was raised, she says, in “two culinary scenes–one simple, one sophisticated, both delicious.” Both sets of grandparents “found ways to weave Mexican flavors into their old world dishes. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States, and became an immigrant myself, that I came to understand what an amazing job they did in bringing these different worlds together.”
In the United States, Jinich studied at Georgetown University and was awarded a master’s degree in Latin American studies. She and her husband soon realized that it was not political affairs that called to her, but the diversity and art of the foods and culture in her native Mexico.
Although she had physically left Mexico, bit by bit she re-immersed herself in learning about the regional foods of her native country and sharing them in her adopted one. She had left Mexico City interested in political science and with no cooking ability and then, living in the U.S., evolved into an authority and chef on the foods and culture of the home she left behind.
And something else changed. The Jewish identity that was peripheral to her life growing up, and so confusing, called to her as well. Now living near Washington, D.C., she and her husband decided to send their three sons to Jewish day school. She picked up where her grandparents left off and began making Shabbat dinner every week.
“Being Jewish has been a journey, a changing, transformative journey,” says Jinich “I grew up embarrassed by my Jewish background. My last name, Drijanski, was different. I didn’t fit in. Today, I feel a stronger connection to my Judaism than ever before.”
So, what is Shabbat dinner like in Pati Jinich’s home? She lights candles, often her boys say the blessings over the wine and the challah. Sometimes she makes the Veracruz gefilte fish or matzoh ball soup. A special favorite is a sweet and savory, spicy chicken made with tomatillo, piloncillo, and chipotle (recipe follows). And when she doesn’t have time to bake, she will serve her favorite babka, made by Green’s bakery in Brooklyn.
“I feel 100% Mexican,” says Jinich. “The way I think, the way I drive, the way I act. I feel Mexico is my home. But as the years have gone by, I have grown roots in the United States. My identity has become enriched here. And the Jewish identity that I couldn’t really place while in Mexico now makes complete sense.”
“The more the years go by,” she said, “the more I embrace my Jewish identity. I am proud of everything it brings my family and me. It makes me appreciate even more being an immigrant and connecting to other immigrant stories.”
Check out Jinich’s recipes for Chunky Guacamole and Chicken in a Tomatillo, Chipotle and Brown Sugar Sauce
Rachel Ringler is a writer, museum docent, challah instructor, and cook who has strong feelings about the important role food plays in life, in family and in community.