Photo by  Ann Cutting

Photo by Ann Cutting

Mario Rodriguez

Some of us are born with a golden spoon in our mouths—most everything we taste is a potential treasure to be collected into our food palate memory. For the imaginative and confident cook, each taste experience enriches our palate awareness, inspiring an ongoing process of replication, adaptation, and the creation of ever new recipes and tastes. In the case of my friend Mario Rodriguez, a discussion about food memory and influences lasted well into the night. His memories encompass both generation and geography: the Rodriguez, Contreras, and Lujan families that represent farm, town, and city-life in Mexico and the Southwest, as well as the rich diversity of Los Angeles food culture.

From the farm, there is Abuelita Maria, his paternal grandmother, who lived in San Acacia, New Mexico, near Socorro, where she raised sheep and searched for piñon nuts. She made candies and syrups in a small copper pan handed down to Mario, who plans to reproduce her delicious quince syrup. His Uncle Toño, one of Maria’s sons, hunted rabbit and pichon to be transformed into stews flavored by pîpian moles. His Tia Victoria also lived out in the country in Mira Valles, Nayarit state, in Mexico. This was where Mario first learned to milk a cow—he likens the taste to a warm, rich milk shake. Everything was fresh: corn tortillas, produce, meat.

Town dweller Tia Rita, a resident of Chihuahua, Juarez, Mexico, is described as a flavor- profile queen who filled delicious freshly baked bolillos with bologna, mayo, avocado, and cheese. In contrast to this salty goodness, there was always Coca Cola—an appetizing combination for young Mario.

And in Los Angeles, Mario’s father Chuy’s idea of fun was to bracket errands with eating by searching for the perfect morcilla, fried hushpuppies, and lumpia. Nothing was off limits to his dad, including truck food, of which he was an early patron. As a supervising social worker for Los Angeles County, Mario travels for work, which allows him to follow his dad’s habit of lunch-time food explorations. Mario's mother, Lupe, remains his most consistent teacher, handing down her expertise in making pozole, chile rellenos, and tortitas de camarón con nopales y chile colorado.

Mario's wife Monica's stepmother, Mavi, from Escuinapa, Sinaloa, just south of Mazatlán, is a maker of the intensely flavored ceviche de camarón, a sauce made of dried shrimps spiced with habanero chiles. Monica’s brother Luis is a master baker, recently relocated to Eureka, California, to expose these far-northerners to great bread. Monica herself is no slouch, travelling near and far for authentic ingredients for the family’s frequent and beautifully executed communal feasts. Monica’s long-time friend Patricia provides another link to Mario’s growing food family. Patricia is married to David Féau, a well-known chef in Los Angeles originally from France. David led Mario to the Truffle Brothers, extraordinary purveyors of many things Italian, especially truffles. Mario and David redefine tamales in their annual tamale-making fest; David’s latest favorite is filled with foie gras.

Mario and Monica’s daughter, Paloma, is well on her way to attaining the rarified status of fearless gourmet. When I last saw her, this nine-year-old quizzed me on my method of whipping cream, a very good sign.