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The Folklorist Next-door: Food, Family, Stories



Food, Family, and the Stories We Share was released Jan 20, 2023, as Episode 7 of Texas Folklife's Podcast Series The Folklorist Next-door.

Read Yvette's Blog Post


Food, Family, and the Stories We Share

by Yvette Blair


Yvette: Food. It is an expression of who we are. 

Christian: For black folks. We're earthbound people. Our, our our being comes from our connectedness to the earth and no matter where we are. So that, that, that connection to the ground, that working. The working of the food from the field to the table. 

Yvette: It evokes memories. 

Susanna: So our grandmother, Carmen, would test the masa.

They would get a glass of water, maybe half full and put it in the water, and if the masa floated, it was done. 

Yvette: Food is about love.

Paula: I would like to say the most important ingredient at any family table is love. 

Yvette: Much of who we are, our family history, the zany stories and the yummy recipes are shared over food.

I'm your table host and folklorist next door, Yvette Blair-Lavallais, and in this episode I catch up with two generations of two families in North Texas as they share recipes, memories, and family history over hand-patted cultural foods. Foods like tamales, salmon croquettes, and made from scratch biscuits. So, pull up a seat and join us for "Food, family, and the stories we share." 

We are just getting started.

Paula: One of my favorite foods to make is salmon croquettes. They are gooey and gooey. You have to get your hands into it and uh, when you're mixing it all up together, it's just kinda like soul releiving work, when you make the salmon croquettes. And if you make it right with love, they come out explicitly. You know, you, you, you put the eggs and the onions and one thing my mother used to do that I still do is I don't use just straight salmon croquette.

I mix it with jack mackerel. And, um, you, you can't tell the difference. Of course, we had to do that when I was growing up because my mother couldn't always afford to have two or three- there were four of us and, that she had to feed, and she couldn't always afford to have straight salmon all the time. So she would supplement it with the mackerel, and you are talking about somethin good. You cannot tell the difference. It is a wonderful, wonderful hand patted, handmade substance that I still crave. 

Yvette: As Paula Watkins reminiscences from her home in Denton County with her son Christian. Joining her from Washington DC She mimics the hand-patted motions of shaping and forming these delicious salmon jack mackerel croquettes. And Christian, well he lets us in on what happened the first time he saw his mom making them.

Christian: I remember the first time I saw my mom making them and I saw her pull the salmon and the jack mackerel out of the can, and I was like, oh, that looks nasty. Cause it still had the bones in it and it still, it was all gooey and had the congealed uh uh, fish fat and whatnot.

But then after I saw the process and whatnot, and after I started smelling it, uh, smelling being cooked, I was like, okay, this is good. This is, this is gonna be good. 

Yvette: In the midst of talking about making salmon croquettes, Christian recalls another hand-patted food that he remembers his grandmother making.

Christian: I remember, um, back in Louisiana when my grandmother and her sister, Aunt Jimmy, and, and, and, and, and them would, you know, make the biscuits in the morning. How they would gently pack the biscuits in order to make sure that they were the perfect size and whatnot, placed them, and just the carefulness and the intentionality of everything that they did was like a ritual.

And all, all the elders would yell at 'em and tell 'em to get outta the kitchen, get out of the house, go back outside, blah, blah, blah. I'd be in the house, , um, you know, just taking in all the wealth, all the information, all the love that they would share around the table. And I, I sort missed those days, but those memories, they still live with me today.

Yvette: While the salmon croquettes are getting browned in grandma Watkins cast iron skillet, let's head over to another part of North Texas, this time in Tarrant County. Susanna, her oldest daughter, Hannah Grace and Susanna's, big sister Judy, in from San Antonio, are all gathered for a special traditional Mexican meal: handmade tamales.

Susanna: Judy and I have memories of our father making, um, making masa without it being pre-made from scratch. We bought a pound for $1.89 and we, [uninteligible] 

Judy: yes, we did when we found it already pre-made. 

Susanna: Yeah. Two big chunks of lard.

Hannah Grace: As opposed to what? Did we grow up with it pre-made? 

Susanna: What? 

Hannah Grace: Did we grow up with it pre-made?

Judy: Yeah. You've never had this. 

Susanna: Yeah, I've never made the 

Judy: You gotta be strong. 

Hannah Grace: You have to have like corn meal or what? 

Susanna: Yes. Yes. It's corn meal, dried and you have to add lard to it. 

Hannah Grace: Well, cause I always knew we added lard. I didn't know. 

Susanna: Well, and you had to work it, work it, work. And that's why our dad did it cuz he was the strong one.

He could do it. You. While mom cooked the meat. 

Hannah Grace: I was gonna say Grandma Grace could've done it.

Judy: Yeah. She could have done that. 

Susanna: Yeah. I dunno. 

Yvette: The thing about making authentic handmade tamales is that it's not a fast process. In fact, it takes a very long time. 

Hannah Grace: Yeah. Growing up it used to take, I was, it always felt like you took weeks.

Susanna: Oh, I did. But this, for this purpose. Um, we cooked pork. Uh, some kind of beef. I don't know. I dunno, And chorizo, that we found yesterday at the market. At El Mercado. 


Judy: It's my second food processor. 

Hannah Grace: What?

Judy: It's my mom's.

Hannah Grace: I know it's your mom's. So what's the other one? 

I had the same thing. It broke down. The motor burned.

Yvette: As Susanna, her daughter and sister continue in this family activity of making traditional Mexican handmade tamales. I learned that the masa has to be perfected to a very particular consistency. 

Susanna: Okay? Yeah. The consistency of peanut butter. I was gonna say making tamales is easy, but I've always made it with every - everything already assembled.

I've assembled tamales. I don't think I've ever made tamales.. Okay. 

So yeah, the, the meat itself, uh, was beef broth. Uh, olives. Yeah. Chorizo and the [uninteligible]. 

Yvette: So can you say something about the two day process? 

Susanna: The house smells fabulous for two days while it's cooking, while the meat is cooking. Right. And she cooks it in the slow cooker.

Hannah Grace: I always thought you cooked it for that long, now it, now that I cook, I guess it's to let the flavor seep in. But I always thought it was just to get the fat off of it cuz you would cook it all day and then you would cool it in the refrigerator and then you would scoop the fat off the top and then do it again. I just thought you were trying to make them diet tamales. 

Susanna: Thank you for paying attention. I never knew . Um, but yeah, it really is to blend everything and, and the seasoning can really get in the meat. This is from my mom, you know, and Yeah. And then I, to me the smartest thing, which we didn't do with these is, um, put it in the fridge and let it, for lack of time, let it congeal and really take off bricks of fat.

Mm-hmm. from the, um, 

Hannah Grace: so that you could put that right back into the moss 

Judy: orange fat. 

Yvette: Food is tied to memory. Nearly every good family story that gets passed down to the next generation involves food. All these years later, Judy, candidly retells, the first time she made tamales after she got married and calling her mom to find out exactly what she needed to do.

Judy: My first time making tamales after I was married, I would call mom the week before and she'd tell me what meat to buy. I'd get that and I'd on day one, okay, this is what I did with this type of meat. And then she would, uh, say, okay. So every day I'd call her and I'd say, okay, what's next? 

Susanna: Would she answer you? 

Judy: Yes, she would. And I'm thinking, it was a lot of work. Was she doing this on purpose? So our grandmother, Carmen, would test the masa. They would get a glass of water, maybe half full and put it in the water, and if the masa floated, it was done. 

Susanna: It was, there was enough fat in it. 

Judy: Yeah. There was enough fat. 


Hannah Grace: see, I thought that was a lard thing.

Susanna: Yeah. 

Judy: Yeah. It was enough fat and a good tamale, the- if you have it just right, the lard- I mean the tamali will fall out of the husk. Mm-hmm. . So you don't have to pick and peel. 

Susanna: Watching Susanna, Judy, and Hannah Grace hand pat and hand roll these delicious tamales. Mm. I learned something else surprising about this cultural food.

Hannah Grace: We always have these at Christmas. It's a little odd to me to have it not. I'm wondering if that's why you had so much trouble finding the prepared maso because it's, I didn't, I didn't know that everyone had it at Christmas. I'm, now that I teach Spanish, Uh, the students will say like, yeah, tamales, you make those at Christmas.

And I was like, I knew I made them at Christmas. I didn't know that everyone did. 

Yvette: See, I told you, food is an expression of who we are. Well, before you get up from the table, let's circle back to the Watkins. Paula has one more story for us. Something about leftovers. 

Paula: My mother would make food out of every little bit that was left over, especially potatoes. When, if she made whipped potatoes and we didn't eat 'em all because she always made a bunch and we didn't eat 'em all, she'd put 'em in. She, uh, put them up, put them in the refrigerator. The next day, next morning, she'd take those potatoes out and add flour and milk and egg to them, and make hand-patted potato pancakes the best you would ever lay your lips on . I haven't been able to replicate that yet. I've been trying all of my life to make a potato pancake like my mother. You know, the, uh, the Jewish people call 'em latkes, I -potato pancakes, and they're from leftover mashed potatoes.

And they are really good. 

Christian: Talk about making something outta nothing.

Yvette: Well, there you have it. Family stories passed down over hand-patted foods. 

Thank you for joining me for "Food, family, and the stories we share." 

I'm Yvette Blair-Lavallais, your folklorist next door and table host. 

I'd love to hear what family stories you have over hand-patted foods.


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This episode was hosted and produced by Yvette Blair, a 2022 Community Folklife Fellow

The Folklorist Next-door is brought to you by Texas Folklife. Our technical producer is J.A. Strub. Our executive producer is Jeannelle Ramirez

You can learn more about the fellows and their projects at This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.