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Julian Castro's speech puts menudo in the spotlight

Jennifer McInnis

The last time the rest of the country heard a prime-time mention of menudo, it was probably about the '80s Puerto Rican boy band that gave Ricky Martin his start. That is, until last week when San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro talked about his grandmother's prize-winning menudo recipe during his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.

"As my grandmother got older, she begged my mother to give her grandchildren. She prayed to God for just one grandbaby before she died. You can imagine her excitement when she found out her prayers would be answered — twice over," Castro said. "She was so excited that the day before Joaquin and I were born, she entered a menudo cook-off, and she won $300! That's how she paid our hospital bill."

Menudo immediately became a topic on Twitter. Melissa Block, host of NPR's "All Things Considered," tweeted, "First mention of menudo at a convention? #DNC2012." Lizzie Skurnick touted the accomplishment — "That's no joke, to win a menudo cook-off in San Antonio" — while author and former reporter at the Los Angeles Times Steve Weinstein jokingly tweeted, "GOP rebuttal: Julian Castro's grandmother didn't build her menudo."

The traditional Mexican soup is made with tripe, or beef stomach lining, as well as hominy, onions, peppers, spices and cilantro. "Menudo, first of all, is a poor man's food. It was really the leftovers of the whole beef process," San Antonio chef and restaurateur Johnny Hernandez said. "It's a huge tradition for Hispanics. We've grown up eating it."

For his family, it has traditionally been something they enjoy on the weekends, usually with barbacoa. Many restaurants only serve the dish on weekends. It's also a staple at celebrations, such as New Year's Day.

Still, it's not a dish with which most Americans are familiar. "There are cuts of meat that chefs have glorified over the years that have made their ways to fancy menus," such as fajitas a generation ago, or beef cheeks and hearts, Hernandez said. "But menudo has never made that leap."

That may change after Castro's speech.

As for what exactly was in that famous Castro family recipe? That may remain a secret.

"I just never learned to cook any of the things I should have learned how to cook," Rosie Castro said of her mother's recipe. "I remember that it had the traditional ingredients, which is the hominy, pigs feet and the tripe, and of course, the chili powder. But I don't know what combination or other spices."