Pati Jinich, member of the Jewish Food Experience® Advisory Council and host of the PBS cooking show Pati’s Mexican Table, donated her grandmother’s pewter salsa bowl (top photo) to our collection this summer. Although salsa is far from a traditional Jewish food, its mixture of tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices is appropriate for the blend of cultures that characterize so many members of the Washington area’s Jewish community.
Jinich’s grandparents purchased a pair of these bowls in the Mexican town of Taxco, a center of Mexican silversmithing (Jinich still owns the second bowl). The hammered pewter bowl is covered with Mexican folk-art designs and images, such as Quetzacoatl, the Aztec god. “They really admired the Mexican arts; this bowl shows the bridge of what it meant to be European silversmiths in Mexico,” Jinich commented during an oral history interview with JHSGW Executive Director Laura Apelbaum.
Jinich (pronounced HEE-nich) is the granddaughter of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, was born and raised in Mexico and came to Washington 15 years ago after a stint in Dallas. She now lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“Food has always been a gigantic part of our family,” Jinich said. “My zeide [grandfather] had what was like a bed and breakfast in their tiny shtetl. All they ever had to eat were potatoes and herring. They were very creative with those foods.”
Jinich’s paternal grandfather left Poland as a teenager during the early 1920s, and with the United States having severely restricted immigration, he made his way to Mexico City, where he started a textile business. Her paternal grandmother arrived as a young girl a few years later with her extended family.
“They didn’t have much money, but what they had they spent on a Shabbat feast on Friday nights,” Jinich said. “They made Ashkenazi food with Mexican flavors, which quite honestly improves it. Normally, Ashkenazi foods are mild. She would make gefilte fish [red snapper instead of the European pike] in a tomato sauce, which is delicious.”
Her maternal grandfather, who established a silver business in Mexico, came from Bratislava (now in Slovakia) during World War II. Her grandmother, a seamstress, left her home near Vienna for New York before moving to Mexico. The two had originally met in Europe and then reconnected in Mexico. Most of their families died during the Holocaust.
“My parents’ families were so different,” Jinich said. “You could tell their personalities by their food. My father grew up in a hard-working, lower, middle-class family,” Jinich explained. “They cooked Ashkenazi foods like potato latkes and gribenes [chicken-skin cracklings] along with Mexican foods like corn tortillas and guacamole. She [my grandmother] made her own challah and delicious chocolate babka, which is a different sort when you make it with Mexican vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate. They enriched the food they brought [from Europe] with Mexican ingredients.”
“On my mother’s side, they were very refined,” Jinich continued. “They didn’t come from Eastern European peasant [towns]. They came from big cities. They were successful [in Mexico]. My grandmother was a phenomenal cook. She made all of the Austrian cakes, the cookies, the strudels, very elaborate dumplings and goulash. She just made [a few] Jewish dishes like matzah ball soup. It was clear with small matzah balls with parsley and nutmeg. My bubbe’s matzah ball soup, the broth wasn’t clear. It had noodles and kreplach and gigantic matzah balls. They were both delicious, but very different styles.”
The offspring of those varied backgrounds met on vacation in Acapulco and were soon married. Jinich is the youngest of their four daughters.
“My mom grew up with a tutor for this and a tutor for that,” Jinich said. “She spoke German and French in addition to Spanish and English. They sent her to finishing school. Then she met my dad and fell in love and [her parents] were like, ‘He doesn’t even know what an artichoke is! He’s never had a glass of wine. He doesn’t know much about classical music.’”
Jinich and her husband Danny, who grew up in Mexico City in a family that was more religiously observant than hers, met on a blind date. Her mother and his father had dated briefly.
After they were married, they agreed they would move to the US for a couple of years. They cut their honeymoon short so that he could start a banking job in Dallas. While they lived in Texas, Jinich wrote her thesis on Mexican democratic institutions and consulted on a Mexican cooking show for the local PBS station while he traveled frequently. When her husband received a job offer in DC, they visited Washington on cherry blossom weekend.
“Washington was so international—there were so many things to do, the food was phenomenal and the cherry blossoms were out,” recalled Jinich. “We thought maybe we would be here a year, but instead of moving back to Mexico, we ended up staying.”
Jinich enrolled in a graduate program at Georgetown while she was about to give birth to the second of her three sons. After obtaining her master’s in Latin American Studies, she went to work at a think tank.
“I had taken courses for cooking at home and a lot of friends asked me to teach them Mexican cooking, which I had done in Dallas,” Jinich said. “I loved cooking so much I decided to start write food articles and pitched them to magazines. I wanted to incorporate the politics and culture of my background—more than just the recipes.”
Prodded by the Mexican Cultural Institute, Jinich secured the funding to underwrite a curriculum in Mexican cooking. Her classes were soon sold out and were written about in The Washington Post and The New York Times, which led to appearances on local television and then to her own PBS show and cookbook.
“I’m doing what I was meant to be doing,” said Jinich, who has also taught Mexican-Jewish cooking classes at the Lubavitch Center. “I get a lot of emails from people looking for long-gone recipes of food that their grandmothers used to make. I feel like I’m helping build bridges and breaking myths about what Mexicans are and what Mexican food is.”