Quinceañeras are linked to an ancient Aztec rite of passage for young women. Quince is the word for the number 15 in Spanish, and "añera" is a derivative of "años," which means years. But while it is easy to wave off the tradition as a type of Mexican bat mitzvah, there is much more to this 500-year-old tradition: namely, the food.
More specifically, there's birria, the ultra-traditional Mexican dish of beef braised with toasty dried red chiles, which is regarded as the official dish for quinceañeras all over America.
Welcome to the world of quinceañera cuisine.
In a private banquet hall somewhere in Orange County (fun fact: no one actually calls it "the OC" around here unless you're a Famous Stars and Straps tank top-wearing bro), caterers dressed in long-sleeved red shirts and black vests quickly make their way to the kitchen. From the back, someone shouts,"Bring the food out!" This cues a wave of servers balancing flimsy plastic plates loaded with as much food as they can handle on each arm, as well as aluminum foil packets filled with warmed white corn tortillas. As the head server's voice competes with the loud music in the background—mostly afro-rhythmed Mexican cumbia and Japanese Taico-like Tamborazo—two more straggling caterers appear with more trays of food. On the other side of the room, the bartenders are busy smashing ice to keep the Bud Light and Coca-Colas cold while a woman pours hot red beef broth into the chafing dish full of beef to keep it from drying.
The food on the plates is the classic Mexican dish of braised beef in dried chiles, with a side of Mexican red rice and creamy refried beans. On this particular occasion, the beans have been fried with a little pork chorizo for extra flavor.
A quinceañera's food choice is according to the birthday girl's request, which, for a lot of Mexican-American millennials who grew up on it, happens to be birria. Birria is one of those universal dishes that all regions of Mexico have, making it a quintessential comfort food to many. Sorry, mac and cheese.
Today's quinceañera is for Lorena Matias, and it only took a few months of preparation despite the fact that she had been looking forward to it her entire life (thus far). Her face glows with excitement; she poses for photos with family and friends as the caterers brings food to the guests. When asked why she decided to have a quinceañera, her smile beams as she says, "I want a special day just for myself, and it is also tradition."
But in this case, Gunda Matias, Lorena's mom, chose the food for the event based on where she is from. "We're from Guerrero, Mexico, and this is the typical food that is made at a quinceañera there as well."
"The most popular dishes are barbacoa or birria, and beans. We normally make it, but the people who call us to cater ask for what they want," says Edgar Medina, the main organizer for the catering company.
Back in the banquet hall's kitchen, Medina tells me that the group of caterers are from the Saint Barbara Church in Santa Ana, California, and are known in the community as "El Alfarero" catering company. "We're doing this as a community service," said Medina. "We are doing it to [earn] money for retreats, bibles, and to support the church." Like many other rites of passage for Mexican-Americans—like baptisms and communions—the quinceañera is a Catholic event.
Planning for a quinceañera can take up to a year or more. It is a lot like a wedding in the sense that both events take lots of planning and by the end of the day, lives will be changed.
The caterer offers me a plate full of the pork beans, rice, and birria, with tortillas on the side. The rice is soft and orange-red, like the blazing Orange County sun. The beans turn out to also have jalapenos, bacon, and tomatoes in the mash. The birria—with its telltale oil that rises to the top—is tender enough to grab off the bone with torn bits of the locally-made corn tortillas—no fork or knife needed. I think I taste oregano, too!
I walk back into the kitchen for seconds, and everyone is smiling and telling jokes while they serve food on the plastic plates. One caterer even poses for a picture while he places beer in the ice and says, "Take a picture of me, I'm handsome."
Once dinner is done, it's time to cut the cake—which again, like in a wedding, is a pretty big deal. In today's case, there are seven individual cakes sitting under a black shrine resembling a tree. There are branches on the tree with a whole cake placed on top and flowers at the root of the tree. The cake was sourced by a nearby panaderia, and has white frosting with teal waves on the side. It's about three feet tall and is a gift to Lorena from her godfather. The flavor is tres leches, a type of sponge cake that is soaked in three different kinds of milk—evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream—yet is still refreshing and light.
The average quinceañera can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000, so it usually is a collaborative effort from the entire extended family. The expenses—in order of most expensive to least—are the venue, food and decorations, the mandatory limousine ride across town from the church to the venue, hair and makeup, and finally, the DJ.
At around 7:30 PM, the guests finish eating and it's almost time for the kitchen to close. A Mexican band starts playing and, one-by-one, guests start joining on the dance floor. Shortly after, Lorena performs the emotional father-daughter dance, which is as traditional as tacos are in Mexican culture; the dance symbolizes the father's recognition that his little girl is now a woman.
As a 19-year-old Mexican-American woman, I never had a quinceañera, nor did I ever want one. I just felt that it was a waste of time and resources. All this money going to a dress I'd only wear once and a party I can have any other time? And to be honest, you still have to ask your mom for permission to do stuff afterwards, so how does the celebration really count as signifying that you are officially a woman?
While I admit that being part of this emotional celebration made me partially regret not having a quinceañera, I remembered the reason why I was here—and every other quinceañera in the past—in the first place: I came for the food.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.