From Heartache to Hero

by Donald Wilson on February 12, 2011

Huevos Rancheros: Andrew's Comfort Food

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life,

or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

We have a great capacity for retaining the memory of physical pain and it helps us avoid many future mishaps.  Touch a hot stove and you will have a memory of pain seared into your conscience that will keep you from touching it ever again.  However, when it comes to the pain that is experienced with the heart, our memories eventually fade which opens us up to the possibility of being hurt again.

In part, it’s this “lack of memory” for emotional pain that gives us our humanity.  Without forgetting our heartaches, how could we ever love after our first broken heart?  Would we ever get a second dog if we remembered the agony of the puppy stage or the sorrow of putting a beloved one down?  Could a mother every have another baby if she only remembered the loss of a stillbirth?  However, this forgetting can only be accomplished after we allow ourselves to experience the memory at its most painful and this is what we call grief.

The moment of healing starts at the flashpoint of our pain.  What triggers that emotional nuclear catalyst is different for every person.   Months after I had lost three grandparents in a very short time, it was the sight my 14-year-old dog hobbling down the hall, tail wagging, to sit by me as I tied my shoes that started a torrent of tears that lasted throughout the day.  For others it could be a song, a holiday, even a smell that brings the wall of grief down upon them.  For Andrew, it was Star Wars.

It didn’t happen right away.  Andrew didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral or in the days that followed.  He didn’t cry when his uncles wouldn’t take him in.  He didn’t even cry when he got hurt or in trouble.  He did scream and get angry, but no tears were shed for over a year.

After I took him home and his life started to have routine and structure, I knew that I needed to help him deal with his loss.   I’m not an expert in psychology, but I know children’s literature.  And in almost all great children’s stories the parents always die.  I started to read him books and show him movies with this universal theme of orphaned children overcoming tragic beginnings and going on to accomplish great things: James And The Giant Peach, Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, The Secret Garden, Ann of Green Gables, and of course, Harry Potter, and many more.

When I wasn’t reading to Andrew, we were watching movies.  Star Wars was his favorite, so we decided to watch all six.  For days we were wrapped up in Luc and Yoda.  Models were made, Legos constructed, and many drawings of spaceships were given to me for approval.  After each movie, Andrew would sit and let the credits run as he basked in the music before it was time for bed.

On the night we watched the last in the series, we were cuddled on the couch and Andrew was riveted as the final battle ensued.  Right before the movie ended, Darth Vador revealed his true identity as Luc’s father and finding his last remaining bit of humanity saved his son and killed the dark lord.   This time as the credits rolled, Andrew jumped up, turned the TV off, and sat down on the couch.

“What’s the matter, Andrew?”  I asked, never suspecting what was about to happen.

“That was a sad movie.”

“I know, that was really sad,” I agreed.

“It reminds me of my mom,” he said as his wall of grief came crashing down around him.

The only other words he said, barely audible through the tears, were “I miss my mom.”

All I could do was hold him.

After an hour of crying in my arms, I picked him up and carried him to his bed.  Our Labrador puppy, Truman, in one of his more sensitive moments jumped on the bed next to him.  Andrew threw his arms around him and held on tight as the tears began to flow again for more than another hour.  For the next six months Andrew would burst into tears at random moments, and all I could do was hold him until it was over.  Grief eventually does fade and Andrew’s suffering was no exception.  His emotional meltdowns eventually ended.

I remember the last time he cried.  We were in the car and I was a bit surprised, as I hadn’t heard him cry for some time.   I rubbed his shoulder and asked him if he was missing his mother.  His answer broke my heart.

“I do miss her,” he said, “but that’s not why I’m crying.  I’m crying because I can’t remember what she looks like.”

I worried about my son, but a few months later I knew he was going to be all right.  He was lying on the couch, cuddled under a blanket, while I was reading to him from an abridged version of Dickens’ David Copperfield when he suddenly stopped me.


“What is it Andrew?”

“You know what? This story is just like my life,” he said in amazement.

“You’re right.  You know what else?  Many of the books and movies we have read are similar to your life.”

“Like which ones?” he asked sitting up.

I listed a quick dozen or more of the books we had read and asked him, “Do you know what all these books had in common?”

He had to think a bit, but eventually he came up with, “All the kids’ parents died and they were orphaned just like me.”

“That’s right, Andrew.  Do you know what else they all had in common?”

“Hmmm, I ‘m not sure,” came his reply.

“Well, what happened to all the boys and girls at the end of those stories?”

Again he had to think, but with the beginnings of an understanding of his own potential he cautiously asked, “they all became heroes?”

“That’s exactly right.  They all overcome tremendous tragedy, have great adventures, and eventually become heroes.”

“Does that mean I can become a hero?” he asked with all the hope and sincerity of a 10 year old.

“That’s exactly what it means,” I said, “you will have many adventures as you grow up and you may have to kill a few more dragons, but you will be a hero.”

For me, he already is.


Huevos Rancheros with Mom's Salsa

Andrew’s mother didn’t have the time nor the means to create elaborate meals for him.  In fact, the only meal provided by his mother beyond fast food that Andrew has ever mentioned is fried tortillas topped with fried eggs and salsa.  I recently asked Andrew about other food memories and he could only come up with ramen, spaghetti “o”s, and canned chicken noodle soup.  “She didn’t cook much,” he added.  It’s no wonder that this became his comfort food in the months after her death.  Andrew asked me to make this for him from the first week I had him and he meticulously directed me on how to make it until I got it just like his mom’s.

Although Andrew’s mom tore up the tortilla before frying it, I realized what she had made for him was simply Huevos Rancheros, a Mexican peasant dish of fried tortilla, topped with fried eggs, smothered in a tomato-based ranchero salsa and sprinkled with cheese.  You can find many elaborate variations at restaurants and on the Internet, but this one is the real deal.  If you have fresh eggs, fresh tortillas, and a good homemade ranchero style salsa, this is a dish where simplicity wins.  What makes one Huevos Rancheros special or different from another is the quality of the Ranhero sauce that is used. (For a killer ranchero sauce, see my Fighting Fire with Fire, Feb.10, 2011)

Mom's Salsa

Each serving will include:

A corn tortilla (extra for scooping)

olive oil or lard

1 or 2 eggs cooked sunny side up

Ranchero sauce to taste (See recipe in Fighting Fire with Fire, Feb. 10, 2011)

A hard Mexican cheese like Cotija or Queso Fresco (Jack or Cheddar are nice too, but not traditional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Mexican Creme: “crema Mexicana” is the Mexican version of creme fraiche.  Sour cream is the American distant cousin.

In a skillet, heat up the oil and fry the the tortillas until lightly browned. Keep them warm in the oven until ready to use.   Next fry the eggs in the same skillet, adding more oil if needed.  Salt and pepper the eggs as they fry.

Place one tortilla on each plate, cover with one or two eggs.

Put about a cup of the salsa(or more depending on how many your are serving)  in the same pan and quickly heat it up.  It will sputter a bit.  Pour the salsa over the eggs, sprinkle on some cheese and the sour cream if you are using it.  Serve immediately.


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