When Rick Martínez was growing up in Texas, he and his mom would drive across the Mexican border to go to mercados and buy dried chiles. One winter break, they spent two weeks recreating Rick’s grandma’s recipe for tamales, using a whole hog’s head. Even with this deep connection to food at a young age, it took Rick until he was 40 to quit his corporate job in favor of cooking professionally. Rick’s first cookbook, Mi Cocina, follows his 18-month road trip across Mexico in search of regional dishes and a connection to his roots. But, as Rick tells Dan, it’s not the book he set out to write.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Johanna Mayer, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Gust of Wind" by Max Greenhalgh
- "Simply Ukelele" by Black Label Productions
- "Galilei Counterpoint" by Paul Fonfara
- "Can You Dig It?" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Get Your Shoes On" by Angelenah
- "My Little Friend" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Incidentally" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Secret Handshake" by Hayley Briasco
- "Coffee and Sunshine" by Erick Anderson
Photo courtesy of Ren Fuller.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about the tamales, Rick.
Rick Martinez: You know, like [LAUGHS] … My mother was an amazing cook. She knew that her mother had used a hog’s head, a whole hog's head. You basically cooked it until it was literally falling off the skull. And then she made a guiso or a sauce with dried chilies, ancho, pasilla, guajillo, lots of garlic, lots of cumin, and then chopped up all of the meat and then stewed that, and that became the filling. And that I remember being just phenomenal.
Dan Pashman: I'm picturing a big metal pot, like an orange-ish brown, oily surface to the liquid.
Rick Martinez: Yes. Yes! Oh my God. Our neighbor, who was one of my mom's best friends, had this gigantic pressure cooker. We had an electric stove and it would basically sit on all four burners. It was that big. I have no idea what this woman used it for.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Rick Martinez: But that was the only thing we had big enough to fit a hog's head and it cooked for hours and hours and the windows steamed up. My mother had such beautiful hands. And you know, I loved watching her make tamales. Like from that moment until the last time that I ever saw her make them years later. Just watching her hands open up the chilies, pull out the veins and the seeds, and the morning light would pour into the kitchen and bounce off the counters and reflect on her hands. And it was just ... It was just so beautiful.
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. Now, before we get to the show, we’re coming to the end of a year in which I resolved to eat more yogurt. Remember that? The end of last year? That was my big new year’s food resolution for 2022. So how did I do? And what will I resolve to eat more of in the new year? Well, all will be revealed next week, in our year end episode, but for that show I still want to hear from you. I want you to record a voice memo with your name, location, and tell me what food you resolve to eat more of in the new year and why. Send it to me by Wednesday, December 14th at firstname.lastname@example.org and you could hear yourself next week in our big year end show!
Dan Pashman: Ok, let’s get into it. Throughout this fall as the holidays approach, we’ve been featuring some of our favorite new cookbooks, and the people behind them. Last week, we spoke with Illyanna Maisonet, and heard about her travels in writing her Puerto Rican cookbook. Today we’re talking with Rick Martinez. He’s a chef, a former Bon Appetit senior food editor, and most recently, the author of Mi Cocina. It’s a cookbook full of incredible recipes, but it also chronicles Rick’s year and a half long road trip across Mexico — his attempt to connect more deeply with the place where his grandparents and great-grandparents were born, and in the process, to learn more about himself.
Dan Pashman: Rick grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s outside Austin, Texas. He and his family were the first Mexican-Americans to live and go to school in their small town. At home, his family’s food reflected the cultures around them.
Rick Martinez: My mother was an amazing cook and she was a nurse. And she came home from work every afternoon and prepared a full hot from scratch meal. And, you know, sometimes they were very traditionally American, you know, meatloaf, burgers. Sometimes they were very Texan, chicken fried steak. And sometimes they were very, what I thought was Mexican because that's how we were labeled – enchiladas, tacos, chalupas. And as it turns out, that was actually really Tex-Mex food, which I love and I grew up with. I just assumed that that's the way Mexicans ate in Mexico. One of the first times I went into interior Mexico, I was so confused. I didn’t understand. I even called my mom like, "What is it that we're eating? Like why is it that we have been calling this food Mexican?" And I literally cannot find anything that resembles what we ate.
Dan Pashman: What did she say when you said that to her?
Rick Martinez: I think she was kind of taken back, too, I don’t think she really understood what I was saying. And I think my mother went through a time period in her life where she was trying to reconnect with her Mexican side.
Dan Pashman: Much of that reconnecting came through food. When Rick was in sixth grade, his mother took two whole weeks off work during his winter break, so the two of them could learn to make tamales together.
Rick Martinez: After her mother died and many of her aunts had died, nobody knew how to make tamales in our family. And she wanted to do it. She wanted to learn how. And so this was her way of trying to pull herself back into Mexican culture, rekindle the traditions of her mother. And I think also frankly, prove to herself that she could do it solo. You know, to me, it was like a cool project that my mom and I were gonna do together. And also, it was a super cold week. It was one of the coldest on record in Austin that time. So, you know, it was a perfect time to be making large quantities of food. You know, I was her little helper and I was pretty young. But I'd seen her cook many, many times. And she had a very strong sense of confidence and self assuredness in the kitchen. She knew what she was doing. She didn't have to taste food. She could smell the air, the aroma of something cooking and know exactly what it needed and how to balance things.
Dan Pashman: Rick’s mom was never taught how to make tamales, but she knew how her mom’s tasted, and she used her cooking skills to zero in on that flavor over time. Eventually, she got the recipe for tamales down, and brought back a family tradition that had died with the older generation, annual Christmastime family tamaladas, or tamale parties.
Dan Pashman: Over the years Rick’s mom’s desire to connect more deeply with Mexican food grew stronger. When Rick was a teenager, he and his mom started making trips together, five hours south across the border into Mexico.
Rick Martinez: We would explore the mercados together. She would buy dried chilies. She would buy, you know, long, like strands of braided garlic. You know, this was also a time where people in the U.S., and certainly cooks in Texas, were using McCormick dried spices, chili powder. And, you know, here was my mom taking trips to Progreso to go buy all of these dried chilies. And my aunts, I remember, were making fun of her because it was like, why would you do this? To them, it was like the idea of churning your own butter, right? Like, why would you do that when you can just go buy it?
Dan Pashman: Why do you think it was so important to your mom to make those trips and go to that extra effort and buy those ingredients?
Rick Martinez: I really think that she was going through what I later went through, which is, you know, what does it mean to be Mexican. Right? When people call you that and you don't understand what it means, and they're assigning a label to you, they're assigning a list of characteristics to you, I think she needed to go and explore what that meant.
Dan Pashman: For Rick and his mom, beyond their trips just across the border, their other source of information about Mexican food was Diana Kennedy — a British chef who lived and worked in Mexico. She wrote cookbooks, had a TV series. What Julia Child was for French food, Diana Kennedy was for Mexican food — America’s best known expert on the cuisine. Kennedy’s TV show followed her out of her kitchen and into the mercados, where she talked with farmers and purveyors in different stalls. Then she’d return home to cook with what she’d bought.
Rick Martinez: It was food that was very unfamiliar to us. Like, I remember there was one episode in particular that, you know, she was making red and green chorizo. It was sort of like, wait, what is she doing? Like green chorizo? What the hell is that? And then it was just so beautiful, these red and green rings of chorizo hanging in her kitchen. And both my mom and I were like, "Oh my God, we have to make this." And so, on the one hand, I loved it. She was showing me a world that I didn't know existed. But this was also the world that I had been assigned, right? Like I had been called Mexican my whole life, and yet this British woman knew more about it than I did. She was continually lauded as the master of Mexican cuisine. And yet, she's a British woman. And it's like, why? So why is this woman the face of Mexican food? I think I was sort of going into this phase of my life where like I was sort of exploring who I was, possibly gay, Catholic. You know, what am I? And I was 19-years-old and I was just sick of watching that show. I mean, again, I loved it, but then I was like sick of seeing someone that did not look like me, that did not speak like me, represent what I was beginning to believe was my culture. And I remember thinking to myself, I am going to be her one day.
Dan Pashman: So at age 19, after watching enough Diana Kennedy ...
Rick Martinez: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: You say someday that's gonna be me. And you go to college and you graduate from college and you … get a job in advertising?
Rick Martinez: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
Dan Pashman: What happened was, after high school Rick went off to college. But he was still interested in cooking. Every summer in college, he’d apply to the Culinary Institute of America. But his parents pushed him to finish school, and from there he sort of followed the career track he was on. He did what was expected of him. After graduation, a friend got him a job offer from an ad agency in Dallas, and Rick took it.
Dan Pashman: He learned about consumer research, how to be creative as well as strategic. And he was good at it. Eventually, he moved to New York City. By age 38 he was making a six-figure salary — he had a senior VP title and a nice new apartment. But that interest in cooking never left him.
Rick Martinez: I had sort of done everything in advertising that I wanted to do, and I wasn't finding it as challenging anymore. I knew that I loved to cook. My mom taught me how to cook. And so I started thinking more about food. You don't give up the six figure job and the brand new condo on Sixth Avenue to go work as a line cook for minimum wage. So you suck it up and you say, this is a hobby, so I'm gonna take weekend classes, and I'm going to start a food blog and I'm gonna get into food photography. And so, you know, I did all of these things on the weekends and after work to try and satisfy this desire to cook.
Dan Pashman: It sounds like there's a voice in the back of your head that's sort of like, maybe it's just a phase. [LAUGHS]
Rick Martinez: Totally. Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Dan Pashman: But then at a certain point you're like, nope, not a phase. [LAUGHS]
Rick Martinez: Not a phase. And so finally, you know, as I'm approaching 40, I had this idea in my mind that at 40 your life ends. Drop ...
Dan Pashman: It’s all downhill from there.
Rick Martinez: Exactly. Yeah. And so I thought, okay, if I'm gonna do this, I need to do this before 40, because I'm obviously gonna die right after that. And it took me, almost a full year to actually submit my application for culinary school.
Dan Pashman: It took you longer to come out as a cook than it did to come out as gay.
Rick Martinez: [LAUGHS] Yes. It took me almost 40 years to come out as a cook.
Rick Martinez: Oh yeah.
Dan Pashman: But you finally did. You finally did.
Rick Martinez: But I finally did, yes.
Dan Pashman: You said, I'm going to culinary school before I hit 40 and immediately die.
Rick Martinez: Yes.
Rick Martinez: And that was like — it was such a humbling experience. Because you know, like I'm the oldest person in my class,
Dan Pashman: Right.
Rick Martinez: And I was the — certainly, the oldest person at ABC Kitchen.
Dan Pashman: ABC Kitchen is a high-end organic restaurant in New York — Rick started working there in 2011, while he was in culinary school.
Rick Martinez: My bosses there were, you know, 19, 20-year-old kids who were, you know, bad asses, right? They were complete assholes. They knew way more than I did. And they loved the idea that they were in charge of this 40-year-old. And for me, it was an amazing experience. It sucked at the time. I was like, I've never been treated this way before. You know? Like no one in my entire life has denigrated me, yelled at me in front of an entire group of people. I felt like shit every night. But I knew that I was gonna learn from them. I would watch them, the way that they chop things, the way that they organize their station, the way that they clean things. And I think that they respected that and they knew that I wasn't gonna fail. I was gonna try as hard as I could to be as good as them. And I did. I did it.
Dan Pashman: At ABC Kitchen, Rick learned a ton, including learning that he didn't want to work in restaurants for very long. So he transitioned to food media, first at Food Network, then at Bon Appetit, which is owned by Conde Nast. I asked Rick what he thought about BA's coverage of Mexican food when he started there in 2015.
Rick Martinez: [SNORTS] Oh my God.
Rick Martinez: I mean, like horrific is an understatement. Let's just be honest. Like it was really, really bad. I ended up pitching a monthly column about Latin cuisine. I was pitching a lot of Mexican food, Mexican food stories, big features. I was a digital food editor, which, you know, Conde Nast at that time didn't really give a shit about digital, only print. So no one was paying attention.
Dan Pashman: So you were able to get away with some things.
Rick Martinez: Yeah, they didn't ...
Dan Pashman: There was less scrutiny.
Rick Martinez: Exactly, yeah.
Dan Pashman: Rick began to sneak more Mexican recipes into Bon Appetit’s online coverage. And then, he decided to pitch a recipe that he knew well, and that meant a lot to him — his mom’s tamales. The same ones they had worked on together that cold winter break in 6th grade. He tweaked the recipe — it didn’t call for a whole hog’s head, for example. But Rick still felt like they were his mom’s tamales. The recipe went up online and got great reviews. It was a big success. In fact it did so well that one of BA’s top editors, Christine Muhlke, suggested to editor in chief Adam Rapoport that they run the recipe in the print edition of the magazine.
Rick Martinez: Christine Muhlke had basically said to Adam, we have this recipe. Like it already exists, it's been tested, people love it, it works. The photos were there. Everything was there. Like literally all that he had to do was say yes. Right? Just like you — instantly here is six pages in your magazine that you don't have to worry about. And he didn't wanna do it.
Dan Pashman: After several meetings and some higher-ups going to bat for Rick, Rapoport finally agreed to run Rick’s tamal recipe under one condition.
Rick Martinez: His stipulation was, he thought it was too complicated and there were too many ingredients, namely the chiles, which I think I had put either four or five dried chilies in that recipe.
Dan Pashman: So there were four different types of chilis in the recipe and he’s sort of saying this is too complicated, we don’t need four different chilis.
Rick Martinez: He just thought that it was unnecessary. Just pick one and use that and then be done. He was like, they're gonna be too hard to source. So me and one of the assistant editors called literally the top 25 grocery store chains in the U.S. to find out what dried chilies they carried to make sure that these were easily accessible all over the country. And they were. So that blew that argument. And I also remember thinking to myself that like, there are other recipes that exist in Bon Appetit that are far more complicated, that have far longer ingredient list — cassoulet, [LAUGHS] that takes three days, that has, you know, like literally two pages of ingredients, and far more expensive — you know, duck fat, duck legs. And so why is it that you're telling me that these, $1.99 chilies that you can find at any grocery store are too complicated, too difficult ...
Dan Pashman: Too obscure?
Rick Martinez: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: To settle the chili argument, Rick and his boss decided to do a blind taste test — one version of with the 4 different kinds of chilis, one with only 1. Rick’s original recipe came out on top. Adam Rapoport conceded.
Rick Martinez: He was just like, fuck it. Whatever. You guys just do it. And so we did.
Dan Pashman: How did it feel to see a variation on your mom's tamales in print in Bon Appetit?
Rick Martinez: Oh, huge. Once it finally happened, it was like, I can't believe that essentially the same recipe that my mom made when I was in sixth grade is now in print in this famous magazine. And you know, then the reaction of like, my family, you know, who participated in the tamaladas. It was a very significant triumph for me. And one that I didn't think was actually gonna happen.
Dan Pashman: Shortly after, Conde Nast did a big round of job cuts — and Rick was one of the people laid off. But a few months later, Bon Appetit asked Rick to come back as a freelancer.
Rick Martinez: And I knew. I mean, I wasn't stupid. I knew that they wanted, you know, diversity in their videos. Everybody on camera was white and they needed to correct that. But, you know, I wanted to do video and I agreed. And I was — you know, in my mind I'm thinking, okay, I know you're using me because I'm Brown and I am going to use you to build my brand. I knew that I was getting less than other people and I certainly was getting fewer appearances. And I was fighting for airtime, I was fighting for money. You know, like, it was ridiculous how hard I had to fight to get a video made.
Dan Pashman: Rick kept making videos for a couple years. Then, in 2020, things began to change at Bon Appetit. As we’ve covered here on The Sporkful, BA editor in chief Adam Rapoport resigned under pressure, amid allegations of unequal pay among video staffers and mistreatment of people of color working there. After all that, many of the folks at Bon Appetit began negotiations for new contracts with Conde Nast. But Rick says that when he saw his new contract …
Rick Martinez: I was actually going to be making less under their new contract. And I was like, [LAUGHS] fuck you. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: We asked Conde Nast about Rick’s story, but they didn’t respond to our questions. Coming up: Rick walks away from Bon Appetit, and sets out to write his first cookbook. But the book he ends up writing isn’t what he’d planned. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. And thanks for all the notes about last week’s show with Illyanna Maisonet. People really loved hearing from her. She was fantastic. And as you hear in the episode, when Illyanna first graduated culinary school, she cooked alongside her grandmother, taking notes so she could write down all of her recipes. Her grandma was skeptical of the process.
CLIP (ILLYANNA MAISONET): Of course. She's like, "You don't need that. You just do it until it looks like this."
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Right. [LAUGHS]
CLIP (ILLYANNA MAISONET): How much garlic do we use? Mucho, mucho ... Okay! That's not descriptive. Like, are we talking like, you know, some people think that two clothes of garlic is a lot.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Right.
CLIP (ILLYANNA MAISONET): You know, and then she's like two cloves of garlic? Who the fuck are these people?
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): [LAUGHS]
CLIP (ILLYANNA MAISONET): You know, she's like talking like, you know, maybe like two heads of garlic.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Right.
CLIP (ILLYANNA MAISONET): You know what I mean? And to me, that I'm like, "Okay, you were right. Mucho, mucho."
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): That’s mucho all right.
CLIP (ILLYANNA MAISONET): Yeah. Like, all right.
Dan Pashman: Illyanna’s new cookbook Diasporican explores the regional food of Puerto Rico, and how Spanish, African, and indigenous traditions come together in Puerto Rican cuisine. It's a great conversation. Illyanna explains why she’s always pissed off. That one's up now. Check it out.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to Rick Martinez. Rick said when he was at Bon Appetit, he felt they were using him because he’s a person of color, so he decided he would use them to build his brand. And he did. In 2019, towards the end of his time there, he sold a cookbook, thanks in part to the following he had built at BA — and in part to some of the skills he picked up in his ad agency days.
Rick Martinez: My belief going into it was the world didn't need another Mexican cookbook.
Dan Pashman: That was your belief, or that was the industry's belief?
Rick Martinez: That was my belief. Just looking at the competitive landscape, which is, you know, that again, this is what we did in advertising. Right? There are a lot of Mexican cookbooks. They all claim to be the most genuine, the most authentic. And there are a few variations. You know, there's like the, the week night, the Instapot, the vegetarian. But for the most part they're like, this is the most real, traditional, authentic cookbook in the universe. So I knew that I wanted to explore the country. So I thought, I'm gonna break this up into regions. And I feel like in the U.S. 40 years ago, Italian food was very similar. It was red sauce America, very, sort of two-dimensional. And then people started talking about Tuscan cuisine and Sicilian cuisine and Northern Italian and Roman. And now we have a language. We have vocabulary to talk about Italian food and its regional specialties. And that's what I wanted to create for Mexican food.
Dan Pashman: But Rick knew that would be a tough sell. So he pitched a different kind of book, one tailor made for the publishing industry.
Dan Pashman: You started off marketing this book as simple, modern Mexican food that you can cook right now.
Rick Martinez: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Which sounds like a very catchy slogan, Rick. That sounds like something right out of your advertising days. I'll click on that. People will click on that.
Rick Martinez: Oh, yeah. My agent loved it. The publisher loved it. Everybody loved it. And at that moment, that was what you did to get a contract as a person of color. That was not what I wanted to do. It was like, it — everything else in my career, it was like, you get your foot in the door. You do what it takes to get that thing, and then you wiggle your way around. Right? So it was just what I had done, like my whole professional life. So I did it.
Dan Pashman: Rick figured his simple, modern Mexican cookbook would be his entry into cookbook writing. Once that did well, he could write the regional Mexican cookbook he was truly passionate about. Just like when he took the video job at Bon Appetit, he was being strategic, keeping his eye on long term goals.
Dan Pashman: He got a book deal from the publisher Clarkson Potter. He decided to travel across Mexico, visiting cities and regions he’d never been to before. The trip was research for the book, but that wasn’t his only motivation …
Rick Martinez: I wanted to portray both the people and the country as being really beautiful and welcoming. And I wanted people to see it the way that I see it. But I also wanted to figure out where I come from.
Dan Pashman: In late 2019, Rick flew to Mexico City, bought a car, and set off on a road trip that would end up lasting a year and a half. He visited 156 cities and all of Mexico’s 32 states, covering 20,000 miles in the process.
Dan Pashman: As Rick traveled, he was eating very well, discovering regional dishes he had never seen before, meeting people, hearing their stories. But even after seven months on the road he still didn’t feel like he had found that deeper connection to his roots that he was seeking. Until he wound his way to a small town outside Monterrey, a few hours south of the U.S. border.
Rick Martinez: Whenever I would arrive in a new town, like I would always go to the mercado. That to me is like the epicenter of food in any Mexican community. And, you know, most really good mercados will also have prepared food stalls. So this town was just outside of Monterrey. It wasn't necessarily a stop on my research, it was just a stop that I was making because I was hungry. And so I went, walk around the mercado. I like look and see where all the locals are eating, see what looks good, order, the food comes. And it was literally as if my grandmother had put this plate in front of me.
Dan Pashman: Rick was thinking of his dad’s side of the family now, his dad’s mother.
Rick Martinez: The way that the rice looked, you know, the way that it was — it had big pieces of tomato in it. The color of it, like that it was a little bit toasty. The beans, the refried beans looked like and smelled like hers. My grandmother used a lot of pork in her beans, and I could smell that pork. And then the guiso that — you know, my mom's, tamale filling, you know, it's got that like signature brick red layer of pork fat floating at the top, and then you stir it and it's like that shreddy meat and that deep crimson brick red colored sauce. And that's what was on this plate.
Rick Martinez: And everything about it, the sight, the smell, and then as I tasted it, the flavor — and the tortillas. My grandmother used to make flour tortillas that were really thick.They were almost kind of meaty, right? And I think the idea was, was that you use them to sop up all of the sauces and the salsa and the beans and, and scoop things up, and so they were sturdy. And there they were, those thicker tortillas.
Rick Martinez: And I called my dad. I was like, I asked him about his mother, cause I knew, I knew a lot about my mom's side of the family. I didn't know much about my dad's side. Turns out that my great-grandmother was a migrant cotton picker in Waco when she got pregnant. And then she went back to Monterrey had the baby, my grandmother, in Monterrey, and then went back to Texas. And so my grandmother her food, it turns out, is very, very, very similar to the style and food of Monterrey and Nuevo Leon. And so I just started to tear up. I'm here. Like this is it. This is that moment that I had been waiting for.
Dan Pashman: About year into his research, soon after leaving Bon Appetit, Rick got an email from his book editor. It basically said, "Hey, just wanted to make sure we’re on track and that the book will still be marketed as “simple modern Mexican food that you can cook right now. Right?".
Rick Martinez: And I was like, well, interesting that you brought this up. Uh, so no. It's not.
Rick Martinez: And I knew that they were like sort of circling about like how we can work in words like authentic and genuine and traditional and all of those things that I hate. And I was like, look, you are not going to use those words on me. And here's why. Because A, I don't believe that they exist. Right? Like, I don't — I think that these are all American constructs. I was like, I have traveled this country and I looked for those — that one perfect quintessential version of each dish, just like I'd been taught to look for and I couldn't find it. And in fact, people here celebrate the diversity and the sazón of each individual cook. And it's also not fair, right? So Claire Saffitz had just published Dessert Person and I said, Claire — who is a friend of mine just to be clear, Her book, all of those recipes exist pretty much. Right? Cherry pie, banana bread, you know, chocolate chip cookies, brownies? They all exist in American canon. What Claire did is she gave you her version of those dishes, right? So you didn't call her recipes authentic, genuine, or traditional desserts. These are Claire's take on existing desserts and that sold very well. So I need you to explain to me why you feel the need to put authentic, real, and genuine in front of my cookbook with my name on it. Why can't I sell this food as my version of these iconic Mexican dishes?
Dan Pashman: Rick’s point was essentially that when white cookbook authors put their own spin on classics, they tend to be hailed as innovative and daring. But American consumers haven’t been conditioned to want Rick to be innovative with Mexican food. He doesn’t get that creative freedom, to depict it the way he wants, to make it his own. Instead he faces pressure to create recipes that fit into a narrow archetype — to be “authentic”.
Rick Martinez: It's very unfortunate that we have taught people to shop for that word. It suggests that there is some greater truth at play when the truth is that this is really just something that I really like to eat.
Dan Pashman: Rick had decided he didn’t want to wait for his second cookbook to make his dream cookbook. He explained all this to his publisher.
Rick Martinez: And so I told them, I am not — unfortunately, for you and me, I am not going to write the book that I said that I would write. And I understand that's a breach of contract. I will happily, although painfully, give you back your advance, but I'm not gonna do it.
Dan Pashman: And they say …
Rick Martinez: Okay. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Rick Martinez: I mean, I don't think they really knew how to react. Also, think about the time that we were in, right? I had just left BA. We'd gotten a lot of press and I'm sure they were probably nervous. And it wasn't like I was out to skewer anybody. You know, because I signed that contract. I was complicit in that deal, When I signed that contract, I knew that that was my in. I knew that what I was gonna have to do to suck it up and get the book published. And again, it was like, okay, I'll get this book published and then I'll write the book that I really wanna write. But, you know, like I just — I made the choice to leave BA to be free of those kinds of constraints and to be the person that I want to be, to explore who I actually am. And that freedom was intoxicating.
Dan Pashman: Rick’s book, Mi Cocina, was published in May of this year. It features his dad’s refried beans made with bacon fat, chipotle-roast chicken, like the one he first tasted at a rotisserie in central Mexico, and fideo seco, toasted bits of pasta simmered in chicken broth. Growing up, he’d eaten it as a side dish, but when he got to Monterrey he learned to put it in a taco.
Dan Pashman: And of course, the book includes several recipes for tamales. But when Rick’s cookbook came out, his mom wasn’t around to see it. She died shortly after he graduated from culinary school. The first Christmas she was gone, Rick and his dad decided they weren’t going to do the annual tamalada, the family tradition that his mom had rekindled.
Rick Martinez: And then the closer it got to Christmas, I was like, you know, she was the one that dug this tradition back up. Like it would've died with her mother, were it not for her, you know, spending those two weeks trying to get the tamales right. I couldn't dishonor her and what she had done by not doing it again. And also, you know, I was like, I feel like the kids in our family needed to know how to do this. And so I told my dad, no, we're gonna do this. And he reluctantly agreed. And we did it. And I think there's something — there is something really healing about when someone dies and you see the next generation of family, you know, full of masa. Like these little kids were like, covered in masa.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Rick Martinez: And there was like, you know, drips of guiso and red stains everywhere. And there was — you know, the, the laughing was there again — the smiling, the giggling. We weren't focused on the loss. We were looking at her legacy, right? And she was there with us, making those tamales. And we had to do it for the family and for my mom.
Dan Pashman: That’s Rick Martinez. His cookbook is Mi Cocina. He’s also the host of two video series Mi Cocina and Sweet Heat, both on YouTube. And he co-hosts the podcast, Borderline Salty, with Carla Lalli Music.
Dan Pashman: And great news for all you people who subscribe to our newsletter: You’re entered to win a copy of Rick’s cookbook! And if you’re not already a subscriber, you can still sign up. Just go to sporkful.com/newsletter by December 31st, get on the list, and you’ll be entered to win this prize and all of our other future giveaways. Again, that’s sporkful.com/newsletter.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show: our last episode of the year! We hear your new year’s food resolutions, and I will reveal mine. Remember last call to send yours in. Record a voice memo with your name, location, and tell me what food you resolve to eat more of in the new year. Send it to me at email@example.com.