Nogales’ own award-winning author Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford, whose multiple surnames tell a whole story in their own right, recently posted her recipe for verdolagas, or purslane, on Facebook. Verdolagas to me are part of the essence of Ambos Nogales’ old-timey cuisine and culture.
As for Roni, she is a product of a pioneer Jewish family and was once described as a “Jewish children’s author with a Mexican heart.” Her husband of 48 years, Danny Ashford, grew up on Short Street just a few feet from the border.
Verdolagas are uncommon fare. Other leafy greens like spinach, Swiss chard and lettuce have displaced purslane at the dinner table. But according to Worldcrops.org, verdolagas are known as the highest plant source of Omega-3. The plant packs vitamins A, C and B-complex, and is an excellent source of fiber and minerals. Yet many gardeners consider them pesky weeds.
I am thankful that my grandmother Arcelia introduced us to this flavorful delight as youngsters. She had a killer recipe and would combine them with pinto beans. I’ve had them with pork, and coincidentally, the day after Roni posted her recipe, I had them with dry beef, or carne seca.
I was served a flour-tortilla burro with the stuff by my 91-year-old suegra, or mother-in-law, who harvested the verdolagas from her front yard and dried the beef herself. Roni expressed it in her post and Doña Maria echoed her gratitude for the chubascos, or monsoon rains, that have resulted in an abundance of greenery, including a healthy crop of verdolagas.
Maria is four feet, six inches and can barely reach the pans and pots on the stovetop. Nonetheless, she manages to cook up a storm for her family almost every Sunday at her home in Sahuarita. She actually apologized to me for not having homemade tortillas on hand for the meal. A drawback of the rains is that her firewood got wet and she was unable to make the weekly batch of tortillas that has become a Thursday ritual. She makes them outdoors on a slump block grill that her late husband, Leonardo built for her years ago. It’s fitted with a harvest tractor disc for a comal and the tortillas taste out of this world. I’ll let it slide this time, Maria.
In all seriousness though, the next morning in the shower, the thought hit me that I should not take these things for granted. I realized this once before earlier on in my life when my own grandmother and tias, a.k.a. viejitas, began departing for the great kitchen in the sky, taking rich recipes and customs with them. Many did not survive as my family evolved to embrace a more American diet and way of life that is faster paced. It takes time and patience to make menudo, pozole, tamales, birria, gallina pinta, etc. at home, but I have been fortunate to have people around me that still do.
Roni’s post was serendipitous and ultimately helped reawaken me to the importance of my roots in every sense. In her books, which Irene and I have gifted to our grandchildren, Roni reminds us to treasure our past and culture.
Doña Maria, meanwhile, has reinforced an appreciation for not only traditional Mexican cooking, but for the wisdom she has acquired over nine decades that she openly shares with anyone receptive enough to listen to her.
We are blessed to have both women in our midst.
(Coppola is publisher of the Nogales International. Contact him at email@example.com.)