Late August means one thing in Shawneen Townsend’s house: fried chile rellenos.
The El Paso native doesn’t fry only a few. Every year for nearly a decade, she and her son, Mark, have cooked up more than 30 pounds of chiles for their family’s annual chile relleno fry.
“It’s like Thanksgiving for us,” she says.
A few weeks ago, more than 30 family members gather in Townsend’s Buda home, where Townsend, 51, and 28-year-old Mark stand by the stove, patiently frying chile after chile while the house buzzes with activity. Aunts and uncles sit around the large kitchen table, catching up about what they've been up to this summer, while Townsend's daughters, Amber and Heather, help around the kitchen and their kids keep themselves busy running around the house and the backyard until lunchtime.
While the kitchen is bustling, Shawneen's husband, Jeff, holds down the fort in the dining room, where he's sitting with his sisters and their husbands and kids.
"I'm the trash guy," Jeff says, but his black Slipknot shirt and calm demeanor amid the chaos suggest another role in this sprawling family.
Jeff used to be a general manager in the grocery industry, where he worked 80 hours a week and traveled often, but he’s now working as a baker at H-E-B, his first trade. Shawneen works an early shift at Central Market on South Lamar, where she’s a quality assurance and food safety specialist. They came from different worlds in El Paso, found each other at a young age and have kept the family together through many ups and downs over the years.
“We met back in the tumultuous '80s,” he says. “I was a jock with a hot rod. She was a little more civilized.”
The black-haired football player’s nitrous-fueled Chevelle ‘68 might have been what caught her eye, but by the time they went out on their first date, both Shawneen and Jeff knew there was something more. She was 15 at the time. He was 19. “We got married six months later,” she says. “Everybody said we were crazy, and we were, but 35 years later, here we are.”
After getting married, they continued to listen to heavy metal and new-wave punk bands, but they got haircuts and grown-up jobs and started a family, traveling around the country for work. “We never conformed, and we still don’t,” he says. “I canceled my subscription to the norm a long time ago.”
After two decades of marriage, they settled in Central Texas, where their youngest finished high school. Now they have seven grandchildren, with an eighth who was born just last week.
“He’s so good to me. I’ve put gas in my car five times in my life,” she says. “I wake up to coffee and my car warmed up and backed up. I get up at 4:30 a.m. He doesn’t have to wake up with me, but he does.”
Jeff doesn't gloss over family troubles, but he's proud of their determination to work through them.
“We’ve gone through everything. You name it and we’ve dealt with it,” he says. “I tell my kids, 'We’ve fought about everything already, so there’s nothing left to fight about.'"
Earlier this year, Jeff was diagnosed with prostate cancer and has been undergoing treatments. “There are so many different components to a life, and the majority of it is out of your control. Life is 20% problem and 80% how you handle it. If you live based on all fears, you won’t get out of bed," Jeff says.
This month, he'll have more visits with doctors to find out more about his cancer prognosis. It's a time of uncertainty, but his focus is clear: “I tell my friends, ‘I’m living the dream, man.’ It might not be their dream, but it’s our dream."
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An El Paso tradition
Jeff Townsend says his mom, Celia, would buy a bushel of Hatch chiles every year, and the family would eat chiles for the next two or three weeks, including these El Paso-style chile rellenos. “We’d use them on everything,” Jeff says. “In quesadillas, with Spam. It was just a part of life. It still is.”
His older brother, Larry, ate bologna sandwiches with a roasted Hatch chile on top. “All the grocery stores would roast chiles in front of the stores,” Larry Townsend says. “Piggly Wiggly, Safeway, the mom-and-pop stores." Stuffing the chiles with cheese became a traditional — and economical — way to eat them.
Lori Orozco, one of Jeff's sisters, says that Celia was widowed in her 30s when their dad, a highway engineer, was killed along a road outside El Paso while at work. All four of the kids were under 10, and their mom never remarried. Instead, she became a school cafeteria worker so she could have the same schedule as her kids. She continued to live in the home that her husband bought her until her death in 2007. During her final years, Jeff and his siblings were living 900 miles away in Central Texas, so Shawneen's mom, Sharon, took care of Celia, an act of extended family kindness that they still talk about 12 years later.
Sharon, who is now in her 70s and still lives in El Paso, couldn’t make this year’s chile relleno fry, but at last year’s event, she took over for Mark at the stove, making four pans of rellenos at a time. “If she were here, she’d be doing most of the work,” Mark Townsend says.
More than 40 years after their dad died and a decade after they lost their mom, the Townsend children are all gathered under the same roof in a suburban neighborhood hundreds of miles from where they grew up. Sticking together as a family was a promise the kids made to their mom when she was sick, which is why all of them have settled in Central Texas so they can get together for events like this one.
They still feel the ties to El Paso, though, which made the recent shootings even more heart-wrenching. One of the victims was the mom of a friend from their childhood.
“I had friends texting me after the (Walmart) shooting,” Larry Townsend says. “I started crying. It was just sad. Everybody always said, ‘I never thought it would happen here.’ El Paso is such a great city, everybody loves everybody. When I wear my UTEP hat, people comment on it.”
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From picky kid to relleno king
This is the ninth year that Mark Townsend had been spearheading the family chile relleno fry with his mom. Although she grew up eating them in El Paso, he did not.
“He was so picky as a kid. When we could go to someone’s house for dinner, we’d have to take a frozen burrito for him,” Shawneen says.
Townsend didn’t start to get into food until he was a culinary student at Bowie High School, which is also where he met his wife, Jenny, who was nine months pregnant at this year’s party. (At the chile relleno party three years ago, they announced they were pregnant with their first son, Ellison, who is now 2.)
Thanks to the instruction of Bowie culinary arts teacher Richard Winemiller, who continues to teach at the school, Mark Townsend considered culinary school but instead pursued academia. Through the University of Texas, he now teaches high school teachers how to teach college-level math.
The first year for the official family fry was at his parents’ previous house in South Austin, but the second year, he and Jenny hosted 12 family members in their 394-square-foot apartment on Lake Austin Boulevard.
“We were all on top of each other,” he says. “You couldn’t open the drawers if the oven door was open.” In the years since, they have rotated back and forth between their houses.
After all these years, Mark has the process down to a science. Two days before the fry, they thaw any of the chiles that are frozen, and the day before, they peel the skins off, fry up a few as a test run and make a bunch of bacon to create the fat for the refried beans.
“The first time we did it at my apartment, I probably threw away two dozen eggs. I felt so bad,” he says. Now, he knows not to make too much of it at once and that it’s better when the bowl and the eggs are cold. And don’t overbeat the egg whites or they’ll break when you add the yolks back in.
“They are a little finicky,” he says as he gently flips one of the battered chiles in the oil, using a set of tongs in one hand and a spatula in the other. Mark explains that eating the chiles isn’t as simple as cutting into them with a fork. “There’s a way to eat it: Get a tortilla, spread refried beans on it, fold the bottom of the tortilla and then the ends, so all the cheese stays in there,” he says.
With his sisters’ help, they’ll refresh the meringue-based batter half a dozen times over the afternoon, and it will take nearly two hours to fry all the chiles they’ve stuffed. Despite the size of the party and the intensity of the work in the kitchen, no one loses their cool. About three years ago, Shawneen and the now-grown-up kids all got the same tattoo: three arrows, bound together with a string, a symbol of their connection.
“Our family has a really colorful history,” Mark Townsend says. “It’s kinda crazy that none of us are estranged, so it’s a way to celebrate the fact that we’ve been through a lot of harried family stuff and we’ve never divorced ourselves from one another.”
Around 3 p.m., all the food is ready, including more than 100 fried chile rellenos. Before they start eating, Jeff Townsend addresses the family, thanking everyone for coming and leading them in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for his oldest nephew, who is turning 40.
For the next 40 minutes, everybody fills up their plates with as many chile relleno burritos as they can eat, as well as Shawneen’s famous Mexican rice, her daughter’s shrimp cocktail and a jalapeño ranch dip that’s even better than Chuy’s. The only person who doesn't make a burrito, oddly, is Shawneen, Jenny says. “My mom never makes her own burritos," she says. "When we take a bite and decide it’s too hot for us, we give it to her. She hasn’t made her own burrito in years.”
Although there are still dozens of more stuffed chiles to fry and a few more family members are trickling in, no one heads back to the kitchen.
Instead, one of Jeff’s sisters, who has been digitizing family videos, puts a DVD in the player, and everyone settles in to watch younger versions of themselves. They are watching the fuzzy images of Jeff and Mark playing in the street on a television so much larger than anyone could have imagined then in a house that can hold a family that continues to grow. (Jenny and Mark welcomed their second child, a daughter named Isla — Shawneen and Jeff's eighth grandchild — less than two weeks after the party.)
In the video, the oldest family members in the room are the ages of their adult children now, and those kids have pint-size children of their own, and those kids are squeezed in wherever they can fit on the couch and the floor, still sweaty from jumping on the trampoline outside. Some of them will go for seconds of those fried chile rellenos before the day is over, but for now, everyone stops what they are doing to revisit a slice of their collective past, whether or not they remember it.
“We’re in this search for a chile utopia,” Jeff Townsend said just before the start of dinner, and it seems as though they’ve found it.
Fried Chile Rellenos
The Townsend family's beloved fried chile rellenos are modeled after the El Paso-style chile rellenos that you'll find at restaurants and homes throughout the city. Shawneen Townsend and her son, Mark, make more than 30 pounds of these Hatch chile rellenos at their annual fry. This recipe is for a smaller quantity if you want to try it at home. They don't add any salt to the dredging flour or the meringue, relying instead on the salt in the refried beans to season the burritos that they ultimately make with the chiles. If you're sensitive to heat, make sure you use a mild pepper, and if you can't find any Hatch chiles, use Anaheim or poblano.
— Addie Broyles
1 pound roasted Hatch (or Anaheim or poblano) chiles, skins removed
1/2 to 3/4 pound asadero or Monterey Jack cheese, cut into long rectangles
6 cold eggs, whites and yolks separated
1 tablespoon flour
Flour, for dredging
Shortening, for frying
Refried beans, for serving
Flour tortillas, for serving
Cut a slit in the end of the chile, leaving the stem on, and stuff each one with a long, skinny rectangle of cheese. Set aside while you prepare the meringue and heat the shortening.
In a cold bowl, whip the egg whites until they are stiff enough that you could turn the bowl upside down without them falling out. (Don't actually turn the bowl over; you can tip it to the side to see if the meringue is stiff enough to hold its shape and stick to the bowl.) In a separate bowl, whisk the yolks and add a tablespoon of flour as an additional thickener. Add the yolk mixture to the meringue, stir well and set aside. Add flour to a large, deep plate and set aside.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add several large spoonfuls of shortening. Once the shortening melts, you should have between 1/2 and 1 inch of hot oil in the pan.
Dredge a chile in flour and then into the batter. Carefully place in the hot oil. Repeat with several chiles, but don't try to cook too many at once. You can usually fit between 2 and 4 chile rellenos in the pan at once, depending on the size of your skillet. Cook for about 5 minutes and then, using a spatula and tongs, carefully flip to finish cooking. Once the relleno is golden brown, remove and place on a plate covered with paper towels. Repeat with the remaining chiles, adding more shortening to the skillet as needed.
Serve with refried beans and tortillas. Serves 12.
— Shawneen Townsend
Shawneen Townsend's Mexican rice is another family favorite. It's a simple recipe that requires a pot with a lid and patience not to stir the rice after it starts to cook. Townsend says she sometimes uses basmati rice instead of jasmine but reduces the amount of liquid to equal portions. Use 2 cups of rice for every can of tomato sauce.
— Addie Broyles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cups jasmine rice
2 cups chopped white onions
3 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon adobo seasoning
Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add the rice and onions and cook until the rice starts to brown and the onions start to soften. Open the tomato sauce cans and pour into a bowl or large glass measuring cup. Add enough water to the sauce to make 8 1/2 cups liquid in all. All the tomato-water mixture to the pot, then the salt and adobo seasoning. Stir once and then cover the pot with a lid. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes and then turn off the stove. Let rest for 10 minutes, and then stir the rice before serving. Serves 10 to 12.
— Shawneen Townsend
Meat and Potatoes
This kid-friendly mix of cubed potatoes and browned ground beef is a staple at Townsend family gatherings, for both the picky eaters and the adults who love comfort food. Shawneen doesn't add any seasoning, letting the beef and salt season the potatoes. This goes well as a side dish at the chile relleno fry, and if there are any leftovers, they are great for breakfast tacos, she says.
— Addie Broyles
1 pound lean (97/3) grass-fed ground beef
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
Salt, to taste
1/2 cup water
Brown the beef in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes after the meat starts to brown but before it has finished cooking. Add a good pinch of salt and water. Cover and stir often, tasting to adjust the level of salt to your liking. Serves 6 to 8.
— Shawneen Townsend