Family recipes are a labor of love passed down through generations

A variety of Mexican dishes served at the Mitote Food Park in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Monday, July 25, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

The mole negro Octavio Díaz’s family makes goes with almost anything.

Eat it for dinner poured over grilled chicken and veggies. Eat it for lunch with rice and beans. Eat it for breakfast with eggs and tortillas. You could even eat their mole negro for dessert — just add a little extra Oaxacan chocolate to it.

“Mole is the glue that brings people together. Mole always kept our family together. Mole is an everyday celebration,” said Díaz, 46, owner of Mitote Food Park in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood.

Díaz’s family mole negro recipe — a unique blend of his paternal and maternal grandmothers’ recipes — has over 20 ingredients and takes nearly a week to make.

While some family recipes — like mole or tamales — are arduous and time-consuming, many Latino families said it’s worth it not just for the flavors of the food but also for the way food traditions bring multiple generations together to share culture and memories.

“In our culture food is front and center, and why is that? It’s the time that you put into it, and the stories that are passed down. It’s not just food,” said Angelica Núñez, 42, a third-generation resident of Windsor.

Mole brings ‘sense of belonging’

Díaz’s early memories from growing up with a large family in the Oaxaca Valley in Mexico are of cooking. His mother, Juana Ramirez De Díaz, made tortillas in an adobe kitchen. The scent of mesquite wood wafted through the air. Diaz and his siblings milked cows, made cheese and looked after the goats. And everyone helped make mole.

“At some point, whether you’re a man or woman in our family, you have to know how to cook,” said Díaz, who immigrated with his family to the United States when he was 13.

The mole recipes in his family were passed down through many generations, and Díaz said continuing the tradition helped him connect with his roots.

“It’s given me a sense of belonging and understanding of my culture in knowing that it is really authentic from the pre-Columbian days to nowadays in the 21st century that we still preserve these methods and techniques,” he said.

Díaz’s 69-year-old mother, Juana, begins the mole negro by making the paste out of Oaxacan chocolate, chilis, Mexican spices, plantains, and Gravenstein apples and raisins to sweeten. The paste is later added to broth and tomatoes, among other ingredients.

Of the seven main kinds of mole in Oaxaca, Díaz said “mole negro is the king of moles” and the the most complicated one.

“Mole is a complex thing to make, but it’s not if you know how to make it,” he said. “You’re not going to ruin a mole. The interpretation of a mole is going to be your personality.”

Diaz himself is outgoing and hospitable. At Mitote, Díaz also runs the cocktail bar and the Maria Machete food truck, which serves his family’s mole negro. His extended family also operates several restaurants around Sonoma County, including Agave Healdsburg and Tu Mole Madre in Windsor.

Food traditions connect parents, children

Damián Zúñiga spent 17 years working for the Díaz family before he began his own Oaxacan street food truck, Lucha Sabina, also located at Mitote.

Zúñiga is from Guanajuato, but his wife is from Oaxaca and her family’s recipes inspire him. The iconic tlayuda and mushroom tacos are among his favorites.

For the mushroom tacos, he uses whatever gourmet mushrooms are currently on the market. Recently he had local cremini, porcini, shiitake and maitake mushrooms from a Sebastopol farm. His spices are from Mexico, including avocado leaves, chilis and cumin.

A father of three with a fourth on the way, Zúñiga, 32, said cooking family recipes makes him feel connected with his kids, particularly his 11-year-old son.

“It’s important when you eat because all our family comes together,” Zúñiga said. “I have a good connection with my son when we cook.”

Another son who learned to cook from his parents and relatives is Neil Pacheco, 42, of Windsor. His food memories consist of making dinner from a young age, and the aroma of chocolate and spices from mole negro around the holidays. His family made tamales only on special celebrations like birthdays, graduations and Día de los Muertos.

For three years before the pandemic, Pacheco hosted “What’s Cookin’ Sonoma County?” a radio show on La Morenita FM about food traditions. He taught kitchen basics to his kids from an early age, and to set the table, have conversation and listen to music while preparing food.

“I always say to my kids, it’s not about just sitting at the table. It’s having a moment with the familia and the cooking process.”



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