Seated at the Mexican Table with Pati Jinich

Pati Jinich
Pati Jinich. Photo by Jennifer Chase

Pati Jinich has been many things: a chef, a political analyst, a mom, an expat. Throughout it all, her cultural heritage and love for family has remained steadfast.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Jinich described her Jewish identity as an “evolving journey.” Growing up in Mexico “was really fascinating. I was treading between worlds in a happy way.”

Foodies may know Jinich, 50, from her program “Pati’s Mexican Table,” beginning its 11th season on PBS this month. Members of Adas Israel Congregation in the District may recognize the Chevy Chase resident as a member.

Between 40,000 and 50,000 Jews live in Mexico, according to the World Jewish Congress. The country’s population is predominantly Roman Catholic. Jinich said when she was growing up she celebrated the popular holidays publicly. Jewish holidays, with their distinctive foods, she celebrated with her family.

Jinich said that as she grew older, people started to notice her non-Spanish-sounding last name. They asked questions and pried into her Jewish-Mexican culture.

“I felt like I was in limbo,” Jinich said. “Most people don’t know that much, how rich and diverse Mexico is. There are Asians, Syrians, Lebanese and French.

Even among Mexican Jews there are divisions, particularly between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. “It is a very complex universe,” Jinich said.

She described Mexico as a country where food is the center of life. At every celebration, at every funeral, food is at the epicenter. “Everybody I know in Mexico is really passionate about food and its ingredients,” Jinich said. “It’s not just about what’s behind the food and what’s been passed down [from family]. The way I was able to connect was with the foods that had nurtured me growing up.”

Every culture that lives and thrives within Mexico’s borders has played a part in creating the culinary identity of the nation, Jinich said. Each region offers recipes unique to its radius or executed differently from other regions.

It might be a surprise now to know that Jinich’s first career was as a political analyst focused on Latin American relations and policies. Jinich’s said her dream was to bridge the cultural gap between Americans and Latinos. She described her position at the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue political research center as her dream job. But she felt her heart pulling her to the kitchen.

Jinich ended up pulling a complete career switch. She enrolled at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg for night courses. Then she became the resident chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in the District where she conducted cooking classes and created dinners that highlighted the best of Mexican culture.

“Pati’s Mexican Table” premiered in 2011. The series follows Jinich traveling from region to region in Mexico, learning about the dishes that define the locale along the way.

“We started going to places I knew and wanted to share,” Jinich said. Now, in later seasons, the show travels to regions of Mexico Jinich had never visited before, and the show’s audience is learning about the culture of each region as Jinich does. “We’re in it together,” she said.

Food is the one element that connects everyone,” she said. “We all need to eat and nurture to survive.”

She said everyone lives in their own cultural kaleidoscope. Each person’s ethnic background, the place they grew up, their family traditions and religious customs play a role in the construction of a person’s identity puzzle. Jinich said the kitchen is the place where she’s able to put all the pieces together.

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