by Esteban Marroquin
Well, here we are once again I am humbled to be back for another article. I want to thank all my family and friends who supported me with my first article “Thank You”.
I am really excited to talk about the word “authentic”. Let’s just have this word be the word of the day for the sake of the purpose of today’s article. I have had some amazing culinary experiences with great people throughout my life and one the most frequent things I hear or am told or asked of me is: “Hey I know it’s not “authentic” but would you try my enchiladas?” “Hey I know it’s not how you would make it but do you want to try my salsa and tell me what you think” And my favorite one I have heard a lot…”That’s an amazing bolognese sauce but that’s not authentic”
My opinion: cooking is beautiful “wow that plate of food LOOKS good, it looks too good to want to eat it!”; cooking is aromas “Oh my gosh I could literally smell whatever you are cooking outside!”; cooking is also the moment it goes across your palette “This food..TASTES REALLY GOOD, I CAN TASTE SO MANY DIFFERENT THINGS IN THIS DISH!” You see – it’s my opinion that you or I, do not have to be Mexican to make “authentic” enchiladas. Just like I do not need to be Italian to make an “authentic” red sauce for some pasta. To me authenticity and ethnicity are not things that really matter. Not for me. If anyone takes the time to go shop for whatever ingredients they want to use from the store, go home and prep everything and take the time and prepare a meal from scratch for lunch, breakfast, or dinner… that’s authentic.
For me the time and love that one puts forth into something made for somebody or for their family – that’s more than Authentic, it means that they gave themselves in that moment to do more than just provide a means. I remember a man that personally told me: “Esteban…food is not THAT important to me as it is to you. Like, if I didn’t have to eat to live I probably just wouldn’t!” I graciously told him: “OKAY, fair enough. Could I make something for you and your family and we could all sit at the table and break bread?” Reluctantly, he agreed. But he did not realize I had a plan. I went to the market and found the ingredients to make a marinara sauce and homemade hand rolled meatballs. Part of my plan to surprise him and his family was to build and develop my marinara sauce slow but done 100% on the grill outside! The second part of my plan was to get the family involved with making the hand rolled meatballs. Indeed I did. The family was so awkwardly shocked and surprised that they didn’t really know where to begin. So i instructed the kids (GET THEM ON MY TEAM) to help me with the meatballs and once they got the hang of making them the kids were to instruct Mom and Dad on “HOW” to make the meatballs (GETTING THEM INVOLVED).
Some of the first concerns the children said were “OH GEEZ, not fair, my meatballs don’t look as perfect as yours do.” As I got everyone circled around the kitchen making meatballs I told everyone: “However you make your meatballs they will be perfect, NO WORRIES.” So as we kept going, rolling and stacking meatballs I noticed the shift change from “I’M WORRIED ABOUT MESSING UP” and “I ONLY EAT BECAUSE I HAVE TO EAT OTHERWISE I PROBABLY WOULDN’T” to smiling kids and the sense of pride they had with what they were doing and the expressions on Mom and Dad seeing their children blossoming in front of their eyes.
We continued as a unified group with the mission to assemble this dinner, from teaching how to cook the pasta to making garlic bread and finally everyone setting the table and sitting down to eat this meal. What happened next got me emotional for many reasons. Everyone was loving the food that they all helped to make and the comments the kids made like “HEY MOM LOOK AT THIS MEATBALL, I KNOW I MADE THIS ONE BECAUSE IT LOOKS LIKE A FOOTBALL!” And like so many times before I said to my friend and his family: “This meal does not mean anything wIthout family and friends to share it with.” After Dinner the dad approached me and said “Esteban what you did tonight really changed the way I see and feel about just a simple meal.” I saw the love and smiles in my family’s faces “THANK YOU.” I said “NO, THANK YOU for giving me the opportunity to share with your family.” A week later the father called me and said “My kids want to learn how to cook from scratch and wanted to ask you if they had to go to cooking college in Italy to make marinara, meatballs and pasta? I replied “No you just have to LOVE what you’re doing and it will always be AUTHENTIC.”
As magical as that moment in my life was the biggest and most eye opening moment in my cooking experiences about being Authentic came when i was approached by a friend of my eldest brother. My brothers friend had a student attending Rogers High School in Spokane and they were planning a spaghetti feed / silent auction of sports memorabilia to raise money for the J.R.O.TC. program. I was to have access to the school’s kitchen with the help of an employee of Rogers and my eldest brother we were to prep, serve, and execute a spaghetti dinner which included a dinner salad, garlic bread, spaghetti and handmade meatballs for 300 people.
After we shopped and got all the ingredients for this large task I got back to the kitchen to start my work where interestingly enough I had some curious onlookers of how and what i was using as ingredients for this most important dinner. Then came time to start serving all these amazing men and women and their families who had been hesitantly waiting to see what i was going to serve them. As I anxiously served everyone that came through the line I started noticing people coming back for seconds and then people asking me questions about my red sauce which made me even more anxious and very nervous. Then came the shock: they went to a nearby grocery store and got plastic containers to store the “leftover” red sauce in and put them as items for their silent auction to raise money along with the sports memorabilia. I was clearly stunned and humbled by this – but it did not end there.
I remember someone calling for me from the kitchen to the lunch room where the people had been dining to thank me for the meal that they had graciously enjoyed. But what happened next will stay with me for the rest of my life and was a very humbling message. I was told that someone wanted to speak to me about the meal I had prepared and served. As I nervously returned to the dining area I was walked over to a very elderly woman who was sitting at the table with a empty plate where she had eaten. I knelt down on one knee to her level. She asked for my name, which I replied – Esteban Marroquin. She then asked me where was the location of my restaurant and if I was Italian. I nervously responded: “Maam, I currently do not have a restaurant, I merely just love to cook.”
During my conversation this wonderful elderly woman had her hands on top of each other and in her lap. She reached for my hand and looked me in the eyes, which at this point I was dying inside wondering if I had done something horribly wrong with the food she had eaten that night. Again, there we were in the dining area in front of a sea of people from this event at Rogers High School I was knelt down in front of this AMAZING elderly woman and she looked intensely in my eyes and begins to tell me “I want you to know something Esteban. I am full Italian and I wanted to tell you that I had not had red sauce since MY FATHER had passed away and I am a very old Sicilian woman.” OH MY DEAR GOD! Her words struck me in ways words cannot describe. I felt a flood of emotions running through me in that moment that seemed like forever. I put my head down and must have thanked her for her words a hundred times and as I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I turned for my only sense of security in that moment, I turned toward the kitchen where I worked all day preparing this food and I looked for my brother, now tears on my face, and all I could do was just put my thumb in the air signaling to him “GOOD NEWS.”
In reality it was soooo much more than good news. You see, it was the love that she gave me that day and the affirmation and respect that a American born Mexican made that meal that she ate and made her believe that it was truly authentic. SO PLEASE, my message I want all of you to take away is take the time to make those special moments and make memories with your friends and families and learn and discover YOUR love, YOUR AUTHENTICITY and I promise you it will be perfect because it’s yours.