Generations of Fresh and Local Cooking

One of my favorite rules to live by comes from Michael Pollan: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Pollan’s advice is especially apt for me when I think about my own great-grandmother. Hilda Liljequist was born to immigrant Swedish parents in Boston in 1889. She attended the Boston Cooking School as a teenager, and took her first job as chef at a hotel in New Orleans. A few years later she made her way, by ship through the Panama Canal and by train, to a new job in Oakland, California, where she met and married my great-grandfather, a Scotch-Irish blacksmith from a Michigan farm who had actually run away and joined the circus as a youth. Later they moved to Los Angeles, when it was still possible to drive around the back roads of Hollywood, stopping to gather wild elderberries and pick oranges from a roadside grove.

My grandmother tells of their road trips up to the San Fernando Valley to buy huge boxes of just-picked berries from farms, sitting in the back seat wedged between mountains of berries, bees still crawling on the fruit. There would be fresh berries for the next several days, and jam for the rest of the year. A lot of that jam would end up on the fresh bread Hilda baked for her family—and the little pan of rolls she’d make for the neighbor kids who would appear at the door when they smelled the loaves baking. She kept a flock of chickens at home in LA, until the zoning laws changed.

We don’t have many of Hilda’s recipes anymore, mostly just her stories. I never met Hilda, but we share an attraction to cross-cultural cooking (and beer-making, but that’s another story). I often wonder what she might have picked up from New Orleans cooking. I know she adopted local cooking wherever she went. In Los Angeles she bought fresh tortillas from Mexican immigrants, and my grandma’s friends came to love her Swedish mother’s enchiladas.

Hilda’s cooking knowledge has been passed down through our family and altered over time as first my grandma, then my mother, and now I adjust favorite dishes to our tastes and times. I don’t have the recipe for enchiladas that grandma’s friends loved so much, but I like to think she’d appreciate mine. I like to think that Hilda and I could sit down together to a big plate of chicken enchiladas, refritos, and red rice, and have a great conversation.

CA-to-MN-to-ND Enchiladas
(makes approximately one dozen)


  • 1 cup cooked, shredded chicken* (a great way to use leftover roast chicken)
  • 1-2 poblano chile peppers, seeded and sliced or chopped
  • 1 small white onion, thinly sliced or chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp dried or fresh oregano
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 Tbsp. canola or vegetable oil
  •  8 oz. queso fresco, or I cup shredded jack cheese for topping the enchiladas


  • 8 tomatillos, chopped (paper skins removed, of course)
  • ¼ cup white onions, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

Tortillas (flour or corn)

*Of course, you can substitute another meat for chicken, or substitute a shredded sweet potato and a can of black beans for a hearty and colorful winter enchilada. Or, after sautéing the onions and poblanos, let them cool, then mix in about 1 cup each of jack and cheddar cheeses for cheese enchiladas.

To make filling, heat oil, sauté the onions and poblanos until softened. Add chicken and seasonings to taste. (If you are using sweet potato, sauté until it just shy of fully cooked). Tuck the filling into the tortillas with half the cheese, roll and line up in a pan.

To make sauce, heat oil, sauté onions and garlic until softened. Add tomatillos and cook until they start to fall apart. For smoother sauce, puree the mixture in a blender.

Pour sauce over the enchiladas, top with remaining cheese. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes.

New Mexico variation: On individual, oven-safe plates stack the tortillas flat, with layers of filling and cheese, about three tortillas high. Cover with sauce. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes, top with a fried egg. While good at any meal, my family likes this style at brunch.

Merie Kirby grew up in California, moved to Minneapolis for grad school, and after getting her MFA stayed for fifteen more years. She now lives in Grand Forks, ND with her husband and daughter. Merie writes poetry and essays, as well as texts in collaboration with composers. She also writes about cooking, reading, parenting, and creating on her own blog, All Cheese Dinner. Her most recurrent dream is of making cookies with her mother. This is an excellent dream. Merie's last piece for Simple, Good, and Tasty was Paneer and Other Magic Tricks You Can Do in North Dakota.