As a Mexican-American chef with his debut cookbook, Mi Cocina, out May 3, Rick Martínez knew discussions about a specific holiday would be inevitable during his US book launch
“The question the publisher asked was, ‘Do you want to acknowledge Cinco de Mayo or use that date in any way?'” he told TODAY Food. “And to me, denying its existence as an American festival makes no sense. I’ve spent a good part of my life celebrating it here and I have no problem with it at all. But imagine if you found out that Finland was known for throwing parties on Pearl Harbor Day. It’s kinda weird, isn’t it? That’s the equivalent for me. This day is about a battle that took place in Puebla. It’s not Independence Day. But here in the United States, it’s one thing.
“So I think we should raise awareness of Mexican and Latin American culture beyond the typical margaritas and tacos. I use dishes from the book to celebrate food beyond what people would normally eat at Cinco de Mayo.”
“Mi Cocina: Recipes and Enthusiasm from My Kitchen in Mexico” by Rick Martínez
‘Where do I fit in now?’
Texas-born Martínez is a third-generation Mexican. He said that as a “brown boy” he was called “Mexican” even though he had never visited further than the border towns. “We weren’t taught Mexican history in school,” he said. “The history we were taught in Texas was like the Alamo. And other than that, it was Cinco de Mayo and Tex-Mex food. That was who we were and my overall understanding of Mexico.”
For their part, Martínez’s parents were busy fitting in in Texas. “My mother explored American food,” he said. “She got married in 1963 and bought Betty Crocker’s cookbook. It was her way of not only expanding her culinary repertoire, but also being more American. We ate things like salmon croquettes and fried chicken steak. My parents went to so much trouble adjusting to American society and the Texan culture that you kind of let go of the past to try and fit in. So for me the question was: Where do I fit in now? I’m American, but I had this past that I couldn’t deny that I wanted to understand more about.”
“You don’t look like me, I don’t look like you, so why are you becoming an authority figure in Mexican culture?”
It didn’t help that as a teenager in the late ’80s and ’90s, Martínez said that all Mexican food he saw on TV was prepared by white people. “I watched the Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless cooking shows and that was my only other connection to Mexican cuisine. And I watch this Brit who lives in Michoacán and goes to these beautiful markets and prepares food… and then I see this white man from Oklahoma traveling across the country presenting his favorite dishes in Mexico. And as a brown Mexican American, I don’t understand why they are allowed to represent my culture and my cuisine. And I respected what they do. and I was like a little sponge soaking it all up but they don’t look like me, I don’t look like them, so why are they becoming the voice of authority in Mexican culture?
“Even to this day, when Diana Kennedy’s documentary came out, she’s still – still! — the voice and authority of the queen of Mexican food when there are so many incredibly talented Mexican/American/immigrant chefs in both countries who know so much more about the culture,” he said. “I neglect the work that she has done , no, but it makes me very angry that we don’t celebrate the Mexican immigrants or Mexican Americans who are doing so many revolutionary culinary projects in both countries who know so much more, so I looked at them and decided in that moment me as a 16-year-old Rick that one day it would be me.”
“Probably the biggest thing[my mother]taught me was to cook for love, to show someone your appreciation.”
As a young adult, Martínez was discouraged from attending culinary school by his parents, who said he needed a “proper” degree. “They didn’t want me stuck in restaurants. It’s a tough business. So I went this other way. I’ve worked in advertising and marketing.” During that time, he found fulfillment in cooking for friends and a desire to make people happy through food passed down from his mother.
“Probably the biggest thing she taught me was to cook for love, to show someone your appreciation,” Martínez said. And eventually he found his way back to food in Bon Appetit magazine, where his fan base grew. “I’ve discovered that there’s so incredibly satisfying being able to show people these recipes and have them cook them and then tag you in them and tell you how much they loved it. That’s 100% why I do this. It fills you with happiness to know that something you have made is being shared in this way.”
Thus began a lifelong journey that would take him through Mexico, to the “predominantly white” world of New York food media, and back again. “When I first traveled to central Mexico, it blew everything I knew about Mexico out of the water. I asked, ‘Why do we have this label? Why, as Mexican Americans, have we accepted that label when it’s so different from what we were?’ The reality is that as third-generation Mexican Americans, we were so far removed (from our roots there.) I love Tex-Mex, I think it’s a cuisine that deserves a lot of attention, but it’s Texan — it’s not Mexican. “
Now, Martínez is on a mission to expand our understanding of what Mexican food is “beyond your typical margaritas and tacos.”
In March 2020, Martínez traveled through northern Mexico as part of a “very personal” research project to rediscover his heritage through food. Then the pandemic struck and changed his circumstances instantly. He spoke fondly of an Airbnb host who left him fresh fruit every morning even though they were “too scared” of COVID-19 to come into contact with him. He would repay her kindness by preparing extra food for her and leaving it out at night. “Being able to correspond about food… that got me through lockdown. We never really saw each other. Our food exchange was our only contact.”
When pandemic restrictions were lifted, Martínez spent 586 days traveling around Mexico’s different regions, eventually buying a house in Mazatlán so he could truly call the country home. A loyal following on social media followed his every move — a responsibility Martínez does not take lightly.
“I want people to fall in love with this country like I did. When I first started traveling around Mexico, a gentleman contacted me on Instagram and told me he only understands Mexico from the media. ‘ said Martinez. “Trump was president at the time, so you heard about border crossings and kids in cages, and he was scared. He had many very negative perceptions of the people and the country. I don’t know why he was following me, to be honest, but he said, “I want you to know that my wife and I are now planning a trip to Mexico. We’re not going to a tourist area, we want to go to one of the Places you go that you introduced in your stories and I want to thank you for opening me up to this whole new world that I thought I knew but didn’t.”
“It is unfair that such wonderfully talented, diverse, educated, and hardworking people receive such negative publicity in the United States.”
Martínez’s hope for Mi Cocina rests more on that understanding than on the recipes. “I want you to cook my food, but if you didn’t cook the food, if that’s what you took away from it, that’s all I could ever hope for,” he said. “Just changing a person’s opinion of people. Because it’s unfair that such wonderfully talented, diverse, educated, and hard-working people are getting such negative publicity in the United States.
“I want people to change how the country is perceived, and I want you to cook food you’ve never heard of before… I was trying to make these recipes really easy for a home cook in the United States. Ingredients available at your local grocery store, no special equipment, and that’s all you need.”
Martínez still encounters misconceptions about Mexican culture and cuisine.
“The biggest (misconception) is this belief that cooking is heavy or unhealthy, greasy… and to be fair, I love lard, I love pork.” But I guess people don’t know what I wanted to do with this book is show, the diversity of the cuisine. There are so many regions, the country is huge. Like America has pizza, hot dogs, and hamburgers, but that’s not the scope, is it? All the things that Americans think are very Mexican were probably brought by the Spaniards: dairy, bread, cows, wheat… these didn’t exist in Mexican culture, which was very plant-based before the arrival of Europeans. As in every cuisine, there is There are things that are very rich and delicious, but there are also things that are wholesome and beautiful and very different from what most Americans think.”
Within the pages of “Mi Cocina,” readers will find a labor of love that Martínez said “sat there for a good 25 years” and seeped into him. As a boy, he said, he wanted to be the “voice of authority,” like the white Food Network stars he’d seen on TV. “Now I think I don’t need this, I don’t want this. I wanted to understand Mexico for myself.”