Among American holidays, César Chavez Day is a new kid on the block. Chavez was a Mexican-American farm worker, labor leader and community organizer who co-founded, along with Dolores Huerta, the National Farm Workers Association, now known as the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). President Obama first proclaimed a federal commemorative holiday in his honor in 2014, saying: “Chavez left a legacy as an educator, environmentalist, and a civil rights leader. And his cause lives on.”
A first-generation American, César Chavez was born on March 31, 1927 in Arizona to Mexican farm workers. Beginning at age eleven, he migrated throughout California, doing field labor to help support his family, experiencing first-hand the poverty and powerlessness of the migrant worker’s life. In 1962, with ten members, Chavez realized his dream of organizing a union to protect farm workers’ rights. The UFW became the first successful farm workers’ union in America, scoring unprecedented gains for workers, such as medical benefits, better wages and living conditions, and workers’ compensation. One of the country’s original grassroots organizers, Chavez forged a diverse national coalition that has influenced and inspired millions of Americans. Robert F. Kennedy called him “one of the heroic figures of our time.” And President Clinton awarded Chavez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
We only wish this holiday also commemorated the extraordinary Dolores Huerta, whom Zanthe had the honor of hearing speak in 2002. This pioneering crusader for the rights of workers and women, who began her long career in activism years before co-founding the UFW with Chavez, organized the 1960s grape-pickers’ strike that led to a nationwide boycott of California grapes and the signing of the first collective bargaining agreement with the table grape industry in 1970. Born into greater affluence than Chavez, Huerta credits her mother–a businesswoman who provided low-cost housing and food to Latino farm workers–with instilling in her an understanding of sacrifice and duty to a greater community. Huerta also had eleven children, which is what Zanthe, in the middle of her first pregnancy at the time she heard Huerta speak, remembers most vividly. Eleven children! No word on what kind of cook she was, though.
Food played an important role in the work of César Chavez and his colleagues, not least because they stood up for the rights of those who literally put food on our tables. Chavez was also a deeply spiritual man, committed to the principles of non-violence, which included fasting. He undertook several long fasts in his career to draw attention to his causes. Chavez also understood the connective power of food, saying, “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him…the people who give you their food give you their heart.” We couldn’t agree more.
Chicken Enchiladas, Tacuba Style
These look like enchiladas verdes, but the sauce is more like a béchamel, made bright green by the addition of fresh spinach and cilantro. Serve right out of the oven, with rice and beans.
2 large fresh poblano chiles
1 cup chopped fresh spinach
½ cup chopped cilantro leaves
2 cups milk
2 cups chicken broth
4 tbsp unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1/3 cup all purpose flour
4 cups cooked shredded chicken (we used a rotisserie chicken, leftovers work as well)
12 corn tortillas
1 cup melting cheese, monterey jack and mild cheddar work well
Make the sauce
Roast the poblanos over a gas flame or under the broiler. Turn regularly until the skins are uniformly blackened. Toss into a bowl and cover with a towel for a few minutes. You can also put them in a paper bag and seal the top. When they are cool enough to handle, rub off the blackened skin, and remove the seeds and the stem. Rinse. Roughly chop and put in blender. Add the spinach and cilantro.
Combine the milk and broth and heat in a small saucepan. In a medium-sized saucepan melt the butter. Add the garlic and sauté for a minute or two over medium heat. Then add the flour and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Next, pour the milk and broth mixture slowly into the flour mixture. Whisk until combined. Bring the sauce to a boil then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and pour half or so of the sauce into the blender jar with the chiles and the greens, being careful not to fill up the jar more than ⅔ full. Drape a towel over the blender jar and blend until smooth, careful not to overblend. Pour the mixture back into the pot and combine with the remaining sauce. Season with salt to taste, around 1-2 tsp.
Assemble the enchiladas
Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Cover bottom of a 13” x 9” baking dish with a thin layer of sauce. Stir about 1 cup of sauce into the shredded chicken. Lightly brush a tortilla with oil and heat both sides quickly in a pan over low heat until tortilla is pliable. Put around ⅓ cup of chicken in middle of tortilla, roll up and place in baking dish. Repeat and line up remaining rolled up tortillas snugly in baking dish. Pour the remaining sauce evenly over the rolled up tortillas and sprinkle with the cheese. Bake uncovered until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbling, around 20 minutes. Garnish with some chopped fresh cilantro.
Adapted from Rick Bayless