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Frisco STYLE Magazine

Mexico in her Heart and Kitchen

Feb 01, 2021 ● By Frisco STYLE

How did you know to do that?” asked Mely Martínez’s husband, David Castañeda, early one morning. The couple was camping in Pennsylvania and Mely had just restarted the campfire from the night before to heat some coffee. To Mely, removing the ashes she had carefully placed over the fire the night before and gently stoking new flames to life without matches or a lighter was second nature to her. But it was at that moment that Mely realized her upbringing and experiences in rural Mexico had gifted her with unique knowledge and a skill set that most people don’t have.

Mely Martínez, Frisco resident and author of The Mexican Home Kitchen: Traditional Home-Style Recipes That Capture the Flavors and Memories of Mexico, grew up in the city of Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico, close to the southern Texas border. As the oldest girl of eight children, Mely was often counted on to help around the house, including caring for younger siblings, doing laundry, cleaning the house and, of course, cooking for the family. In the summers Mely would travel south to stay at her grandmother’s farm in Veracruz. On the farm, Mely enjoyed the time she and her grandmother would spend tending a small vegetable garden, which provided most of the meals for the family. Together they would pick fresh tomatoes, squash and other garden vegetables, which they would then prepare into simple, traditional and filling meals for the family and farm workers. Mely states that most of their diet on the farm was vegetarian and plant-based, unless a neighboring farm had plans to butcher a pig or cow, or unless the men went fishing or hunting for rabbits. In rural Veracruz in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this was a “normal life,” and was where Mely fell in love with traditional Mexican cooking.

After graduating early from college at the age of 19, Mely took a job as an elementary school teacher in a small town in the Mexican state of Tabasco, close to the Guatemalan border. This town was even more remote and rural than her grandmother’s farm in Veracruz, though the skills she learned on the farm would also serve her well in Tabasco. Mely recounts the exhausting travel time and methods it took to travel from her hometown of Tampico to her new home of Tabasco in the Yucatán Peninsula: 18 hours on a large bus, four hours on a smaller bus, then three hours on a train. From the train station, she was driven one hour by pickup truck, followed by a final hour on horseback. Mely states that the teacher’s house she was provided with was nothing more than a hut with a dirt floor, and she spent her days teaching 40 students, grades kindergarten through sixth, in a one-room schoolhouse. While a co-teacher left the job after only a month, Mely relied on her previous experiences on her grandmother’s farm, stating that it was really “no big change” for her. She discovered that her upbringing and time on the family farm made her uniquely suited to this new position and lifestyle. Living in the Yucatán also provided Mely with new opportunities to experience different regional ingredients and meals, which she added to her vast repertoire of Mexican dishes. Mely spent a year teaching at this rural school before moving to a slightly larger town and teaching there for several more years.

In 1985, Mely and David, from Mexico City, married and began a series of moves that would allow them to see much of Mexico, absorbing regional differences in culture and food. Mely was not working during this time due to their frequent work-related moves and travels, including eventually moving to the United States. Mely and David’s son, also named David, was born in Ohio in 1995. David was homeschooled by Mely throughout his school career, both because the family moved so often (over 30 times at this point) and also because Mely desired a fully-bilingual educational experience for her son. With her teaching background, Mely was again uniquely suited for her role to homeschool David, both in Spanish and English. The family was even able to move back to Mexico for a few years during this time, allowing David unique access to his cultural background and heritage.  

All this time, through all the moves and homeschooling, Mely was cooking for her family and adding recipes to her extensive repertoire. The only problem was none of her recipes were written down. Mely was a very instinctual chef, adding a little of this and a little of that here and there, relying on her instincts and taste buds to guide the way. Then in the early 2000s, Mely started venturing onto online cooking forums to exchange recipes with like-minded home chefs. She quickly found mentors who encouraged her to write her recipes down, complete with accurate measurements and instructions, so they could be more easily shared through a blog they encouraged her to create. 

After the online blogosphere exploded in 2008, when the family was living in Washington, D.C., Mely created a blog and began publishing simple posts of what her family was eating for lunch or dinner on any particular day. In the beginning, Mely’s main reason for transcribing and posting her recipes was to preserve them for her son and his future family. As a Mexican family living on the East Coast of the United States, Mely knew it was a big possibility that her son would eventually settle down with a woman from another culture, and Mely hoped they would both be interested in recreating the Mexican meals that reminded her so much of home and her childhood.

While her blog posts were very popular, Mely sometimes wouldn’t post for weeks or months at a time, depending on how busy she was with home and teacher life. However, the requests for more frequent recipe posts grew too loud to ignore. Many Mexican families living abroad were clamoring for more of Mely’s Mexican home-cooking recipes, stating that her cooking reminded them of their own mothers’ and grandmothers’ cooking and created a sense of comfort and nostalgia in their own homes. At first, Mely wasn’t looking to expand her “hobby” of food blogging beyond her own family’s use quite yet, but her business-minded husband saw the opportunity for worldwide connection through Mely’s food. Ever the businessman, David reserved a meeting room at the local library and scheduled a meeting, where he asked Mely if she intended to keep blogging her recipes as a hobby or if she was ready to take it to the next level by treating it as a full-time job. They filled up the library meeting room whiteboard with ideas and goals and in 2014, Mely committed to her cooking and blogging career. 

Over the next five years of full-time blogging, which included a final move to Frisco in 2015, Mely was contacted twice by publishers interested in her creating a cookbook. But Mely felt these first two offers wouldn’t give her enough creative control over the content and photographs of her book, so she turned them down. But she didn’t stop cooking or blogging. Then last year, another publishing house contacted her with an offer for a book. After much research, Mely felt comfortable with the company and its model and accepted the offer. The Mexican Home Kitchen: Traditional Home-Style Recipes That Capture the Flavors and Memories of Mexico was born!

Mely said The Mexican Home Kitchen took about six months to write and was edited by her son, David, who is now 25 years old. The Mexican Home Kitchen is full of traditional recipes of everyday food found throughout Mexico. Due to its close ties to Mexican heritage and culture, Mely dedicated her cookbook to Mexicans living outside of Mexico who miss the food from home, saying she wants to help preserve the powerful culture of true Mexican food for generations to come. However, Mely believes that everyone will enjoy her recipes. She states, “Even though second-generation Mexicans and expats were the ones that I had most in mind when I prepared this book, The Mexican Home Kitchen is also intended for all food lovers, including people that are not Mexican but have a great interest in our culture.”

After years of moving and exploring, Mely and her husband now live in Frisco and plan to stay here permanently. Frisco wasn’t their first place to live in Texas, but Mely said as soon as they moved here, they knew it was home. In addition to enjoying their family time in Frisco, and when she’s not tending her home garden, Mely spends her time working on new recipes to include in her second book. She also still actively blogs on her website, MexicoInMyKitchen.com, where readers will find many traditional Mexican food recipes and even a tool to create weekly meal plans from Mely’s extensive recipe repertoire. The hardback copy of The Mexican Home Kitchen cookbook can be purchased on Amazon, where it has hundreds of five-star reviews. 

While Mely Martínez’s life in Frisco is drastically different from the daily experiences of life in rural Mexico, she still loves bringing her homemade recipes to her family table. It is through Mely’s deep connection to her cultural heritage that she is determined to keep Mexico in her heart and her kitchen.

Amy Kryzak is a wife, mom and blogger who loves connecting fellow moms, food in all shapes and forms and loves all things Frisco.