Pati Jinich has always had to move between worlds — as a Jew growing up in Mexico, and as a Mexican immigrant to the US, where she first worked as a policy analyst. “It wasn’t until I switched to cooking,” she tells us this week, “that I was finally able to make sense of all the pieces of myself.” Since that transition she’s spent a decade documenting Mexico’s vast and varied food cultures in her cookbooks, and on her PBS show Pati’s Mexican Table, which is watched by more than 65 million people around the world. Her new docu-series, La Frontera, is more political, examining the US-Mexico border, and the people who navigate the two worlds between it. It’s also her most personal work yet. She talks with Dan about why this show is so important to her. Plus she peers into his fridge over Zoom, and tells us about a deep fried quesadilla in Jalisco that she’ll never forget.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Sun So Sunny" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Tutu" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "When You're Away" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Rooftop" by Erick Anderson
- "Sugar and Spice" by Hayley Briasco
- "Happy Jackson" by Ken Brahmstedt
Photo courtesy of Dan Pashman.
Pati Jinich: I do not like to cook for guests because the expectations are so high.
Dan Pashman: People expect to basically be invited into an episode of your TV show when they come over on a Tuesday night.
Pati Jinich: Exactly! And I just want to make quesadillas, or I just want to make pasta, or I just want to order pizza, you know?
Dan Pashman: Right? Right!
Pati Jinich: I used to love having people over! But now, you know I’ll invite a friend, a dear friend that I’ve known for 20 years, and she’ll say, " Oh, I’m so excited for the best meal of my life.", and I’m like“no no no!”
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. The television show that's raised the expectations of Pati Jinich’s dinner guests is Pati’s Mexican Table. It’s seen by more than 65 million people around the world in the U.S. on PBS, but also as far abroad as Australia and Japan.
Dan Pashman: Each season, Pati travels to a different area of Mexico and delves into the specific food culture of that region. She snags invites to restaurants, food trucks, and home kitchens and charms everyone she meets into sharing secret ingredients, heirloom recipes, and family stories. When she gets excited about an ingredient or technique that someone shows her, she turns to the camera, talking directly to you, the viewer.
CLIP (PATI JINICH): La Colonial has so many good burritos to choose from. The first: chili con queso. And that queso is…
CLIP (PAPA): It's one part Philadelphia, one part of Velveeta.
CLIP (PATI JINICH): You guys, he’s sharing the recipe, like how generous is that?
CLIP (PAPA): You know what? If they try to do it at home, it won’t work...
Dan Pashman: Pati shares what she learns on her show, and in her cookbooks. As she told me, it’s the role she was born to play.
Pati Jinich: Cause I love knowing how other people cook, what they eat, I’m super nosy, I like to look in the fridge and the drawers and the pantry. Like, I live for that Dan. Like, I love to see that.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Pati Jinich: And then people don’t want to have me over that much because they think I’m a very picky eater that I’m not gonna like home-style food.
Dan Pashman: Or they think that you have very high standards.
Pati Jinich: And that is zero the case! I love messy, family, you know, easy, accessible food but … anyway [SIGHS].
Dan Pashman: Do you wanna peek in my fridge? Do you want me to take the computer upstairs and you can look in in my fridge?
Pati Jinich: Oh my gosh! I would love that!
Dan Pashman: All right, let’s go. Come on, let’s go.
Pati Jinich: Ohh, let’s do it. Oh this is so much fun!
Dan Pashman: This was not planned, but three minutes into my conversation with Pati, I’m carrying my laptop and recorder up from the basement, where I record, to my kitchen.
Dan Pashman: Um, OK. Sorry, so here we go, here we go, here we go. So this is the pantry, we got a lot of cereals.
Pati Jinich: Oh you know what we have the same glass tupperwares, which I love.
Dan Pashman: And then, so I’ve got spicy chili crisp, pesto, fish sauce…
Pati Jinich: Oh, fish sauce is the best. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Soy sauce..
Pati Jinich: Oh, I have the same one!
Dan Pashman: Really?
Pati Jinich: My oldest son, he went to a special store to find it.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, yeah. I got this one at H Mart. This is my mixed pickle, my Indian achar that I get...
Dan Pashman: I can see why Pati is able to pry so many family recipes out of folks she meets. She’s intensely curious about food and people.
Dan Pashman: So what have you learned about me from my refrigerator Pati, what can you tell?
Pati Jinich: I’m going to be like a tarot reader here.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
Pati Jinich: It looks like food is really a big part of your life. I mean, you have a lot of take out stuff, you have a lot of leftovers from things you make, you have lots of condiments, which is a sign that you like to play and experiment with other cuisines. It looks like you have a thriving culinary life in your home, Dan!
Dan Pashman: Wow! Well, thanks. I’ll take it!
Pati Jinich: Good.
Dan Pashman: If I were to go and inspect your fridge...
Pati Jinich: Yeah?
Dan Pashman: What conclusions would I draw about you?
Pati Jinich: You know what, I think we have a pretty similar landscape. I have lots of Tupperwares, with things that I make at home. When the week starts, I typically make batches of things that I can repurpose. Like right now I have Tupperwares with pinto beans that I turned into charro beans yesterday. I have white rice. I have some of that leftover Mexican chicken and shrimp fried rice. I have lots of condiments that I play with just like you.
Dan Pashman: Pati has always been like this. She was born and raised in Mexico City. When she was 10, she was with her father at a gas station. While he was getting gas, she saw a nearby street food vendor selling gelatinas, or jello.
Pati Jinich: And I had left the car and I was talking with this guy about the jellos. And he was explaining to me about the jellos, and my dad brought me to the car and he said, "Pati, you have to stop talking to anybody at any time. I turn around and you can be gone. Like just stop talking to people, you know?", and I’m just fascinated with people!
Dan Pashman: Pati grew up eating all the many foods of Mexico City, including some less well known ones. Her grandparents were Jewish refugees, who fled persecution in Europe.
Pati Jinich: I grew up eating the Ashkenazi or Eastern European food on Shabbat.
Dan Pashman: Friday night dinner, Shabbat dinner.
Pati Jinich: Either with my Polish grandmother or my Austrian grandmother, and they would make the matzo ball soup with a lot of schmaltz. And then she would make the gribenes, you know, the chicken skin with so much white onion because that's what we use in Mexico. And then she would use that as a topping of guacamole, and we'd put that on a piece of challah.
Dan Pashman: So crispy bits of fried chicken skin on top of guacamole on Jewish challah bread.
Pati Jinich: Yes, which is crazy delicious.
Dan Pashman: Gribenes should be on more things.
Pati Jinich: I agree. And then if the challah finished, then we would continue with the corn tortillas. And then she would make the gefilte fish. And she would make the traditional, you know, the white, cold...
Dan Pashman: Right.
Pati Jinich: But she would also make the very traditional Veracruz style gefilte fish, which is traditional of the Jewish community in Mexico. Because people don't know that Jews have been in Mexico since the 1500s because they were fleeing the Inquisition and they were trying to survive.
Dan Pashman: As you say, there's been a long-standing Jewish community in Mexico City, and Mexico is a very diverse country that has immigrants from Asia and from the Middle East, from various waves that have come for all different reasons over the centuries. That being said, I wonder if you did feel somehow different growing up than others.
Pati Jinich: Absolutely.
Dan Pashman: Pati says when she was growing up, there was a national myth that was taught in Mexico’s schools. It said that present day Mexicans are descended specifically from Spanish colonisers and Indigenous Mexicans.
Pati Jinich: But they forgot to include the Afro Mexico, the Asians, the Lebanese-Syrian, the Jews, the Italians, the French... So yes, when I was growing up in Mexico, I did feel like I was a little bit treading between worlds because I went to a school that was not a Jewish school. In fact, I was the only one along with a friend in that class of like a hundred and fifty that were Jews. And you do stand out, you know, because it's Gomer Ramirez Lopez, and Drijanski like, who is that?
Dan Pashman: You know most Mexican names didn't end in “ski.”
Pati Jinich: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: That wasn’t the only way that Pati struggled to fit in. While her family did Shabbat dinner, they weren’t all that religious. So when she went to events in the Jewish community, she kinda stuck out there, too.
Pati Jinich: Oh, there goes the Jews who are not actually Jews.
Dan Pashman: Pati went to college in Mexico, then moved to Texas in 1997. Once again, she didn’t fit in. People in the grocery stores would see a blue-eyed woman with an accent and ask if she was French or Scandinavian. She says when she would tell them she was Mexican, they’d seem disappointed. And then when they found out she was Jewish, they were just confused. After a couple years in Texas, Pati and her family moved to Washington, D.C. She got a masters in Latin American studies at Georgetown.
Pati Jinich: I had a job in a policy research center and I was doing academic research and I was miserable.
Dan Pashman: Pati’s job was to write about fostering democracy and civic culture in Latin America. One day, her boss asked her to put together a report comparing Peru and Mexico’s post-dictatorship democracies.
Pati Jinich: And I started researching about their ceviches, and who got to ceviche first. And why did the Peruvians spell cebiche with B, as in boy? And we spelled that with a V? Why do they marinate it for 10 seconds and we marinate it for 10 hours, you know? And so I said, you know, you asked me to write this, but I'm writing this article about Peruvian and Mexican ceviches. And I think that's not what you want. So I think I have to quit. So...
Dan Pashman: So that’s what she did. Instead of wonky political analysis, Pati would direct her passion for research towards food. She went back to school, to L'Academie de Cuisine, in suburban D.C. She started using her research skills to study Mexican food, and did translations on the side. Ten years after leaving policy for pastor, Pati became the resident chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute, in D.C.
Pati Jinich: And like 120 people at a time, would come in, I would devise this theme. It would be like Afro Mexico or Mexican Vanilla or Cinco de Mayo. So through the menu, you will learn about a region of Mexico, its ingredients, it’s techniques. It was like a journey in a meal, and I will do the demo and then people will eat that as a dinner. And I remember doing all sorts of Mexican things. I do remember then really resisting when people would ask me to share Mexican Jewish menus or dishes. I would get a little defensive, you know, like, why do you want me to do Jewish things? I'm Mexican, you know?
Dan Pashman: Pati says she felt this way because, growing up, her Jewish identity and her Mexican identity seemed separate to her. She did some Jewish things at home with her family, but outside the home, she never saw Jewish culture as part of anything Mexican.
Pati Jinich: Like 95, 96 percent of the population identified as Catholic. Most of our holidays calendars celebration have to do in one way or another with the calendar of the Catholic Church. So when I started teaching at the Mexican Cultural Institute, I was really focused on taking a deep dive into everything that was Mexico. And it seemed to me that the Jewish part of Mexico's history was not a main element, and I still hadn't made sense of all the pieces of my identities as a Mexican woman, as a Jewish woman, as now an immigrant in the U.S.
Dan Pashman: But as Pati did more research for her classes and traveled across Mexico, she gained a deeper understanding of all the many parts of Mexican culture, including the Jewish parts.
Pati Jinich: And then there was going to be an exhibit and there were two Jewish artists, one American and one Mexican, who had come from the same place in Poland. And they did similar art and they were doing this exhibit.
Pati Jinich: And the director at the Institute said, "Isn't this like a theme that interests you? Aren't you Jewish? You know?". In the beginning, I was like, No, no, no, we do Mexican. And then I was like, well, yes, and Mexican Jews are a big part of Mexico, and they have been... So I researched for that class for months. And I did interviews and I did a menu that not only included the Ashkenazi Jewish dishes, but also Lebanese-Syrian Turkish.
Pati Jinich: And I remember at the end it was a Friday and it was a Shabbat in some people that came were Jews, and they had brought their candles and they asked me to do the blessings for Shabbat dinner. And I don't even speak Hebrew, Dan. I don't know what any prayers is, you know? But I know the Shabbat prayers by heart.
Pati Jinich: And I remember doing the Shabbat prayer at the Mexican Cultural Institute, which to me represents Mexico. And I remember like having to hold back my tears, you know? And it did feel like an important moment.
Pati Jinich: It wasn’t until I switched into cooking that I was finally able to make sense of all of the pieces of myself.
Dan Pashman: Did you know when you made that transition to food that that was part of what you were after.
Pati Jinich: No! I was just hungry! I was just hungry!
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Coming up, we’ll hear how Pati took the next step in her career, to a world-renowned TV host and cookbook author. Plus, she’ll tell us about a quesadilla nacho hybrid that she found while filming in Jalisco. And we’ll discuss how food can be a type of diplomacy. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Last week’s show is a really fun one, I go out foraging for pawpaws. They’re North America’s largest native fruit. They taste like a combination of tropical fruits like mango a banana, but they grow in cold climates. And they have a devoted cult following. In fact, one self described pawpaw nerd drove from Ohio to New York to take me foraging for them.
CLIP (SARA BIR): Every year, I forget what it's like to eat a pawpaw. Then I think, will they eve come back? Do pawpaws even exist? And then they do come back and I'll be like, do I even like pawpaws? And then eventually, I'll come across the first ripe one I come across and I get to experience that all over again and it's so fun and reassuring. And I'll be like, oh yeah,I do love pawpaws after all.
Dan Pashman: Why are people so drawn to pawpaws? and Will our search for the, bear fruit? Tune in to find out, that one’s up now.
Dan Pashman: OK, let’s pick up with Pati Jinich’s story. While working at the Mexican Cultural Institute, she started a food blog and wrote for some publications, including The Washington Post. She was approached by TV producers who wanted to make a cooking show with her, but they were worried about her accent and thought a focus only on Mexican food was too narrow for American viewers.
Dan Pashman: So Pati struck out on her own, linking up with a local public television station to make a pilot. In 2011, that pilot debuted as Pati's Mexican Table on PBS. Two years later her first cookbook came out. It focused on classic Mexican dishes from back home that she missed when she moved to the U.S. Her second book, Mexican Today, was more contemporary, with modern riffs on traditional fare. Next month she’ll release her third cookbook, Treasures of the Mexican Table.
Pati Jinich: The third cookbook goes back a little bit to the spirit of the first cookbook. I have to tell you, I like the first cookbook much more than the second cookbook.
Dan Pashman: Why? Why do you like the first one better?
Pati Jinich: Because all the dishes and all the stories like spoke so much closer to my heart and my story and my… they’re really go-tos, you know?. They’re batalla. We say in Spanish the batalla is when you bring something to the battle cause you know it's going to work.
Pati Jinich: And it is all that the first cookbook is and then 10 times deeper, because I go to the little towns, micro regions, larger regions and find the Mexican classics that are super beloved that are heirlooms that have been passed through generations. Some may be newer a few generations, some maybe like centuries, but in an updated way, in a way that you can make them at home in an accessible, easy way. And they tell the stories of the places that people. And I... every single recipe — you know, like the salsa macha? The salsa macha is a category of salsa. You would love that.
Dan Pashman: OK. [LAUGHS]
Pati Jinich: So, you know, salsa macha is a salsa that originally comes from Veracruz, but it's kind of spread all over Mexico. And now it's also very hot in the U.S., and it has a base of garlic, typically peanuts, and one kind or another of chili. And then you cook that gently and then at the end, you add a splash of vinegar or some kind of acid, a little bit of sugar. And you chop it a little and then you store it and you can use that oil as a flavoring oil for a thousand things. But the salsa macha, I want to show you, I mean, in my new cookbook, and it has a gorgeous photo perfect.
Dan Pashman: Perfect.
Pati Jinich: Hold on. Salsa, one thirty… look at how pretty this looks like then.
Dan Pashman: Oh, that does look really nice. A lot of big chunks. There's a lot going on. I can imagine a lot of flavors, a lot of texture. And also, what I know that I would love about that is that because you have bigger chunks of different things as the different bites will be a little bit different because you're going to get different ratios of different components in different bites, and that's going to make it continually delicious and interesting to eat.
Pati Jinich: Exactly. So here I made like a wild salsa macha, where I just add my favorite nuts. And my favorite nuts are pistachios, pine nuts, walnuts, pecans. And then I combine chile de árbol which is like smoky, rustic, spicy, and ancho, which is kind of prune like chocolate like.
Dan Pashman: Mm-hmm.
Pati Jinich: And then you know what I added? Pumpkin seeds, which you can see here. And I added a lot of amaranth seeds, which you can also now find in the stories. And so it ends up being like a cross between a wet granola, a chunky salsa, nut garnish. So I make avocado toast and I spoon like a cup of this on top.
Dan Pashman: Oh.
Pati Jinich: Or if you're eating yogurt or even ice cream or pound cake, but also if you grill shrimp or if you boil a potato, like it's just— it's just— I think this salsa really embodies the spirit of Mexican cooking. It's so adaptable.
Dan Pashman: And also, I think this points to a lot of so much of your work. It's also like not the salsa that most Americans are accustomed to seeing in the supermarket. I mean, it's got— there's so much more going on it and it's specific to a region also.
Pati Jinich: And that's exactly what I love. I love unveiling things, like not only for the benefit of my reader or my viewer, but also for my benefit because I'm insanely curious and I love humbling myself. You know, like you thought you knew something, but then you realized it was these other things.
Dan Pashman: Right. One of things that I was thinking about and looking at sort of the journey of your cookbooks is that like with any cuisine, you have the traditional dishes, you know, that are sort of like your home cooking. And then of course, like there's a vibrant restaurant scene, especially in Mexico City, but all over Mexico, where you have chefs who are always innovating and evolving and trying new things. Culture is always changing everywhere.
Dan Pashman: A while back, I interviewed Maeve Higgins, who's a comedian and a writer who's Irish, has been living in the U.S. for a while now but she grew up in Ireland. And she talked about meeting Irish Americans whose families came from Ireland 150 years ago and how they're still very proud of their Irish heritage, even though they've been in the U.S. for generations.
Dan Pashman: But their perception of Ireland was kind of frozen in time...
Pati Jinich: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: From when their families left. And Maeve just arrived from Ireland and was like, yes, I love Ireland too, but it's pretty different like your great grandparents remember. And I think that's kind of an interesting tension sometimes for any immigrant to any new place. Your memories kind of get frozen in time from where you left and the place keeps changing, even though you're not there anymore.
Pati Jinich: Yes. Something that has helped me stay super updated and not get frozen in time is that every year I go back to new region for Pati's Mexican Table to explore. So for example, now we went to Jalisco for season 10. My last time in Jalisco, was 25 years ago, OK? So I remember that torta ahogada. I remember how it dripped down my hands, how I crushed that sandwich. It was a crunchiest, spiciest, wettest thing ever. So the torta ahogada is like a crusty Mexican sandwich, you know, like a torta. But it's made with a special bread called, the briote. You know, all the tortas, all the Mexican bread comes from the French, from when European monarchy in the 1860s and they brought French bakers. And so bread started being made in Mexico. In Jalisco they make this kind of bread that's much harder, much saltier.
Pati Jinich: And this bread really withholds and can withstand a lot of sauce. So this bread is opened. It's topped with carnitas, which, you know, like lucious pieces of caramelized pork butt. And then it's covered with two different sauces, like a red salsa that's like a tomato sauce. As in … you know, like the French dip that you dip into the...
Dan Pashman: It's like a roast beef sandwich and you dip it into the au jus.
Pati Jinich: Exactly. But then you have the option of adding a super spicy vinegary chile de árbol salsa. And then it's a mess. It's insane.
Dan Pashman: Oh my gosh. Yes.
Pati Jinich: And I’m eating the torta ahogada and I'm like, oh my God, this is crazy delicious. And then these these person next to me, who's from El Paso, Texas, is asking for the other special. And I'm like, what's the other special? And they're like, oh, it's the destrozado. You know, Mexicans, we come up with these crazy, funky names.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Pati Jinich: The Destrozado translates to the destroyed, OK? So the destroyed is a crunchy, crispy quesadilla that's filled with mashed potatoes or cheese or beans. And they take these crunchy, crispy quesadillas, deep fried. They break it into your plate, and then they put carnitas on top.
Dan Pashman: Oh no.
Pati Jinich: And then, they juice it with the torta ahogada tomato sauce.
Dan Pashman: OK.
Pati Jinich: And then the chile de árbol sauce. And then they dress that with some, like pickled cabbage and pico de gallo.
Dan Pashman: Oh no.
Pati Jinich: And then they give you a spoon because there is no possible way that you can eat it any other way.
Dan Pashman: The way I'm picturing it is kind of like the greatest plate of nachos in the history of the world, but the nachos are crumbled, chopped up pieces of deep fried quesadilla.
Pati Jinich: Exactly, exactly. It's brilliant.
Dan Pashman: I can't even. I can't even. I want to eat that so badly. Do you need a grip or best boy on your next shoot Pati? Because... [LAUGHS] I will volunteer.
Pati Jinich: I was like, forget the torta ahogada. I came for the torta ahogada but I'm sticking for the Destrozado.
Pati Jinich: And I think that is one of the most fabulous things that, you know, you go back for the classics and you learn that there's all these new things. But I do think that it is very hard for immigrant communities that aren't able to go back to their home country to stay updated. And you do end up in a little bubble, you know?
Dan Pashman: Right. And to be clear, I'm not saying you have to keep up or you have to replicate the past forever. I just think it's an interesting tension.
Pati Jinich: It's fascinating.
Dan Pashman: So how do you navigate that tension when you are deciding what to present to your viewers and your readers?
Pati Jinich: Yeah. I'm just not picky. I'll eat it all. I'll try it all.
Dan Pashman: So when faced with a choice between the past and the present, Pati chooses both. That approach of being in different worlds at the same time is also a big part of Pati’s new docu series, La Frontera, Spanish for the border. Each episode focuses on a different area along the Texas-Mexico border.
Dan Pashman: As Pati shows in the series, the border itself is not the hard barrier or wall, that many may imagine. Workers and various goods go back and forth every day. Families with relatives on the other side go back and forth every day. There's constant intermingling. So people who live along the border have to be able to navigate both sides. They live between cultures, or in two cultures at once. Which is where Pati has spent most of her life.
Pati Jinich: We always say that Mexican-Americans in Mexico, you're seen as the ones who left and in the U.S., you're the immigrants, you're the ones who came. You're caught in between all the time, you know? And you realize when you get to the border in La Frontera in those communities that those feelings and that way of living is the most intense ever. And it is such a beautiful thing, Dan, when you lose the fear of having to explain yourself all the time of being many things at the same time and that people don't have to feel less because they're part of two things and not of one.
Pati Jinich: You know, that doesn't make them less or less whole. You realize that the people at the border and their food, they live in this universe where there is these other possibilities that don't apply to the categories and labels that we have created to understand the world. They're people who are enriching not one country, but two at the same time. They know how to survive and thrive in not one language, but two. Not one culture, but two. Not to one system of laws and rules, but two. It’s like they have these switches. You know? It's fascinating, Dan.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Pati Jinich: I mean, you can be sitting down at a table with the Border Patrol officer and his sister is a muralist from the other side of the of the wall, who is illegal. And the mother, you know, is a nun who helps refugees, and the other one is the republican politician. And they're all the family and they're eating carnitas together.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Pati Jinich: The other thing that you realize there is that the history is that much deeper and that we are that much closer as countries. I mean, a huge chunk of the U.S. used to be Mexico and the border moved. You know, the people that were there were Mexicans until, you know, one hundred and fifty years ago. You know, the politics, of course, divide but these are communities that thrive together.
Dan Pashman: As I told Pati, I watched the first episode of La Frontera, and it seems to me to be her most personal TV work ever, which I really appreciate. It’s also her most political. She interviews a female mariachi, a rarity in the male-dominated craft, about how the unique pain that women experience, in childbirth, in romance, is fuel for her music. And Pati shares raw perspectives on the border, itself.
CLIP (PATI JINICH): [MUSIC] As connected as these two cities are, the wall here stands at over 20 feet high and stretches on for hundreds of miles over open desert landscape. And cuts right through the heart of Juarez and El Paso.
CLIP (PATI JINICH): You know being here and knowing how the wall and the border is such an important presence, tell me a little bit about that and what this means to you, like is that a...
CLIP (ALFREDO CORCHADO): I mean, Carlos Fuentes called it a scar.
CLIP (PATI JINICH): Yeah.
CLIP (ALFREDO CORCHADO): And I think to us these days it’s an open wound and it’s gushing.
Dan Pashman: It turns out, Pati’s old job as a policy analyst may not have been such a bad fit.
Dan Pashman: I've heard you describe yourself as very passionate and opinionated.
Pati Jinich: [LAUGHS] Yes.
Dan Pashman: But you've also said that you avoided politics in your food work for a long time. So in that sense, were you like withholding your opinions? Was that a struggle earlier in your career?
Pati Jinich: I am not drawn to politics as we would understand politics, like candidates and parties. And all of that makes a lot of noise in my head. I do believe that I have a mission in trying to connect people and share stories and bring the microphone to places. And just as I’ve struggled to make sense of my identity, I want to share the identity of others.
Pati Jinich: And I find that I've come full circle, Dan. Slowly but surely, I've been jumping into much more substantial and deeper topics and themes that are much more meaningful to me and that I care much more about and I want to go in that direction. I don't want to run for anything. I'm not a politician in that sense, but I just find that if I'm going to spend my time meeting people and connecting people, I don't want to just eat a taco and go.
Dan Pashman: This is something we’ve been seeing lately in my conversations with a range of folks, and in the culture at large. Like Padma Lakshmi in her show, Taste the Nation, using food to show the lives of immigrants to make it harder to dehumanize them. Or Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon producing Little America, using portraits of people to show that the immigrant experience isn’t a monolith. People in the world of culture and entertainment seem to be jumping off the fence, trying to tell stories that open minds.
Dan Pashman: You've talked about the idea of food as soft power.
Pati Jinich: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Which is a political science type term. For folks who aren't familiar, if hard power is guns and bombs, soft power is more like the power of culture to influence people in other places.
Pati Jinich: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And you talked about the idea of food culture, perhaps as a form of soft power that might have influence over people. And so how do you hope to use your show and Mexican food as soft power?
Pati Jinich: You're very good. I love this question, too. We're animals. We're hungry. We have to eat. We have to feed our family. And in when somebody puts in front of you, you know, the plate of enchiladas that their mom made, you're likely to connect at a deeper level, even if you know that that person is a hard core republican and you're a hardcore democrat. You're going to connect over the enchiladas, you know? So I do feel that people are much more able to connect and share who they are and share their stories and remove judgment when food is presented.
Dan Pashman: I agree with you to a point and maybe it kind of depends on the week you ask me, but I do also feel— I wonder your thoughts, a while back, I did an interview with a comedian named Jenny Yang, who's Chinese-American. And I remember her saying, "Just because someone eats Chinese food doesn't necessarily mean they're going to treat me with respect."
Pati Jinich: That's so true.
Dan Pashman: Are there limits to how effective food can— how much food can be soft power?
Pati Jinich: Of course, there are limits, but I think the impact is substantial and meaningful. So to give you an example, in social media I can tell you that when Trump was in power, I would say half of my followers were Trump supporters and half weren't. Just guessing. They would tell me, Pati, your show is my favorite show. I love your taco. And I would look at the handle and it will say, build a wall, you know, Trump for 2020, whatever. And I would be like, I'm Mexican and you're eating at taco and I'm in America. But okay, love a taco, you know, love a taco.
Pati Jinich: How many people are making now taco night at home? They may have a— not so great feelings about Mexicans but I do believe that it's kinder, softer kind of influence that may be more effective. You know that slowly but surely, like the kids are learning, about tacos and about Mexicans and in a way they're learning about how Mexicans enrich this country. That's the power of food. It may be subtle, but it can be permanent and stronger than people think.
Dan Pashman: That’s Pati Jinich. Her new series, La Frontera, is airing on PBS this fall. And her latest cookbook, Treasures of the Mexican Table is out November 23, you can preorder it now wherever books are sold.
Dan Pashman: Next week, I talk with music icon and food icon, Patti Labelle. We'll talk about her viral sweet potato pie, touring the segregated South back in the 1960s, and much, much more. Patti Labelle, next week. While you wait for that one, check out last week's show, where I go foraging for pawpaws. It's North Americas largest native fruit and it has a devoted cult following. Why are people obsessed with pawpaws? We investigate. Check it out.