When we first discussed our drinking issue, everyone looked toward me with the word “menudo.” I agreed to extol its hangover-curing virtues—and immediately hated myself for it. That’s the only reason Americans take interest in this spicy tripe soup. Outside of this, it’s nothing more than an edible donkey show: a horrific, disgusting artifact of a horrific, disgusting people.
But menudo is so much more than boiled cow guts or something to soak up the booze that fueled your previous night. Menudo is a socio-historical lesson in a bowl: the fat, pale kernels of pozole have nourished Mesoamericans since time immemorial; the use of tripe and not the better parts of a cow a testament to its status as a poor person’s meal. Menudo is delicious, the trinity of firm pozole, chewy tripe and fiery, blood-red broth producing a comforting, fatty flavor.
More important, menudo is amor. It’s the soup Mexican women slave over for their hungry families on weekend mornings, the dish over which families unite and teens fall in love as they pitch woo along with the wicker of tortillas. Menudo nowadays exists in can form, but that’s heresy. True menudo is a difficult feat, taking hours to create, but it comes with a payoff that transcends taste buds and strives for the sublime.
Consider the menudo of my madre. Her menudo morning begins at Northgate González Supermarket in Anaheim, where Mom takes a number and waits patiently until the butcher calls it out from a tinny microphone. She tells the carnicero which slices of tripe she wants. Some people make menudo with only one of the four cow-stomach tripe; my mom uses three—firm honeycomb; smooth, flat tripe; and the feathery flaps of book tripe. Each has its own rubbery charm, and combining the three adds a fuller, more robust texture to the menudo.
Mami buys the tripe in pieces as large as letterhead, then takes it home and chops it into chewable slices. She washes the pieces in the sink, remembering to mix in lemon juice to absorb the tripe’s ripe stench. She tosses the prepared bits into a steel pot angry with boiling water along with a piece of cow leg, tendons and all, to lend a beefier flavor.
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Menudo is like a child; you must monitor it at all times. It takes at least two hours for the tripe to soften into a chewy, delectable meal. But mami has other menudo chores even as it cooks. She fills up small bowls with the onions and cilantro my sisters are supposed to chop up but Mom inevitably does. She arranges the table, warms the tortillas and calls her comadres to come over in about half an hour. She enters the garage and finds our massive bag of dried, hand-sized chiles from Caleras, Zacatecas, a region renowned for its smoky chiles. Tossing them into a blender along with garlic cloves (no molcajete for her: “Takes too long, and a blender is easier”), mami creates the salsa for the menudo and throws it in the boiling pot along with the pozole. The salsa and pozole spread with the heat. She then lowers the flame to a flicker. At this point, the menudo’s warmth radiates throughout the house, provoking a Pavlovian reaction from everyone: we awake from our slumber. Time to comer.
Mom used to make fresh menudo every Sunday, but that’s no longer a certainty as the years have chipped away at her stamina. And even when we do feast on menudo, it usually comes from El Camino Real, a Fullerton restaurant that draws in gabachos and Mexicans alike with its safe Mexican menu of chile rellenos, enchiladas and chicken. There, mami meets other moms who take the shortcut. Like in the butcher shop, they wait patiently in line, pot handles wrapped in foil to guard against the heat. El Camino Real fills the pots to the brim, yet the women lug it back home as if it were as light as pan dulce.
Will menudo cure a hangover? No doubt. But if that’s all you eat it for, then you truly don’t know love.
YOU’RE NOT GOING TO EAT MY MOTHER’S MENUDO UNLESS YOU’RE MY AMIGO, SO GET THE NEXT-BEST THING AT EL CAMINO REAL, 303 N. EUCLID ST., FULLERTON, (714) 447-3962. OPEN DAILY, 7 A.M.-9:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$20, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER.