First, the seeds were needed. Then the pungent herb had to be protected from the unlikeliest attackers.
My grandmother was a smuggler … of sorts.
Wherever she traveled in the world, she would go prepared with a bag of chiles verdes, carefully hidden among the bras and panties in her suitcase. At each meal, she would pull out a chile verde (Serrano) from her purse to accompany the sushi she ate in Tokyo or the tapas in Madrid or the bouillabaisse in Paris.
But when she came to visit us in suburban Orange County, she took her smuggling to a new level.
It was all due to my parents’ inability to find or grow a popular Mexican herb called epazote. Suburban Orange County in the early 1980s was a culinary wasteland. In those days, you could find Serrano peppers or cilantro only in Mexican markets in Santa Ana. It is still quite hard to find—even in LA.
Epazote is an herb used by the Aztecs for medicinal purposes, for tea and also for cooking. It is said to rid one of intestinal parasites and to help reduce gas. Mexicans love its pungent, acrid flavor in many dishes including quesadillas and black beans.
Epazote grows wild and is often mistaken for a garden weed or marijuana by those unfamiliar with it.
One day, my parents commented to my grandmother how they missed the unique taste and texture epazote gave their quesadillas. So, when my grandmother arrived for a visit, fresh off the plane, she handed my dad a pouch with seeds.
“All you need to do is plant it and you will have your epazote, m’hijo,” she said with a smile.
She had snuck the seeds into the country in her large, corpulent bosom.
“Nobody was going to search in there, m’hijito,” she said.
After the shock wore off, my parents happily planted the seeds. They watered them, bathed them in sunlight, cared for them as if they were fragile little babies. Finally, after a few weeks, familiar long, green leaves sprouted out of the dirt. The plant grew and grew until it was large enough to pick. That little bite of epazote did much to soothe the pain of homesickness.
“I recovered my identity,” said my dad, recalling that first bite of quesadilla with his homegrown epazote.
“It was, ¡qué delicia! We were able to eat what we love again,” said my mother.
But one day, the Japanese gardener, Moshi, knocked on the door.
“Mrs. Muñoz, you have marijuana growing here.”
My mother had never even smoked marijuana so she was confused. Moshi walked her over to the plant and pointed at it.
My mother laughed, “Oh, no, Moshi, this is epazote.” She pulled a leaf and gave it to Moshi to taste. “It’s a Mexican herb.”
He shook his head.
My mother could not convince Moshi that it was not, in fact, marijuana. She even dared him to smoke it, but he left in a huff—probably thinking that this seemingly nice Mexican family was actually a front for a larger smuggling operation for Pablo Escobar.
And then one day, my mother walked to the backyard to pick some epazote.
It was gone.
She searched all over the garden. She frantically called my dad.
“The epazote is gone!”
“What do you mean it’s gone?”
“I mean it’s gone!”
When Moshi came back to tend to the garden, my mother confronted him (very gently because, according to my mother, he was a very, very good gardener).
He stared at my mother and pointed his finger at her as if she was a naughty schoolgirl.
“Mrs. Muñoz, I cannot let you get in trouble. Marijuana is illegal, you know. You cannot have it in your yard.”
And so years passed without their beloved epazote.
One day, as I walked to school through a neighbor’s yard, I noticed a large fluff of weeds in the corner that looked suspiciously like epazote. I picked a few leaves and brought them to my mother. ¡Lotería! Our neighbor could not believe we actually wanted something that grew like a weed and, to her, smelled like dirty socks.
My mother nurtured that plant and for the rest of our time in Orange County, they had a bounty of epazote. When they moved to Los Angeles, they tried to plant more seeds and for years, nothing sprouted. Finally, one took hold, beneath the front steps of their house—until another gardener whacked it. (This was really offensive because the gardener was Mexican.)
Miraculously, last year, a little epazote sprout came out of the earth.
My parents have taken all the precautions necessary. The gardener knows not to touch it. Lest he forget, a sign reminds everyone not to mess with the epazote.
Want to know where to buy epazote, check out Zester Daily’s A Quest for Epazote.
Photo credit: Lorenza Munoz