After my dad died, my mom moved back to her hometown to stay with her aging parents. When I went to visit, we walked through the small village, past a bar that could fit only about 10 people comfortably. I peered in as we walked by and a man looked up, swiveled on his stool and ran out to greet us.
It turns out he was a cousin of my mom, who suddenly wanted to buy us a beer. Yes, please.
As a military kid, having a town that you're from is a quaint notion — something that belongs in fairy tales. It's a novelty I saw in my mom's hometown, cobblestone roads leading to shopkeepers and bakers who might know your name. My mom would tell me that it's not all it's cracked up to be, as people can be all up in your business. But it didn't dissuade me from the idea.
As a kid, when I visited my grandparents, I was known as the American grandchild of the family who lived on the corner of This Street and This Street and had That Recognizable Last Name. I was a mysterious outsider and yet still had somewhat of a place. In a village of a few thousand, a quiet and gangly kid they didn't know stood out quickly. They likely didn't realize that all I wanted was to stand with them and peer out.
After I had graduated from college, stayed in the town and started jobs and a family, it dawned on me that this was it — I could slowly become a regular somewhere. I was mostly past the days of drinking at the bar on the regular, but maybe a coffee shop?
It was covid-19 that helped with this.
While I dabbled with yeast hoarding last year to sustain a gifted sourdough starter, I quickly recognized my limits and ramped up my attempts to persuade the local baker to like me. It has gone poorly.
Buying bread is a part of my family's routine that we kept up during the pandemic. We need bread on Saturday mornings to accompany our weekly purchase of fresh menudo for breakfast. Yes, the tripe-filled dish with hominy. And, yes, the kids eat it, too. When we got the large servings of takeout menudo, and they came with only two sad slices of bread, I thought I could supplement by stopping by a bakery instead of supporting corporate America or putting my family through my sad baking skills.
Yes, I'd stick it to the man, shop local and become a regular!
The owner of the bakery with fantastic bolillos wanted none of it. I came for weeks on end. I replied to his Spanish in Spanish, which was always met with somewhat exasperated replies in English. I had better luck with his daughter, who chatted easily with me. But I wanted to win him over.
I'm still trying, but I realized that I might have become a regular somewhere else without trying nearly as hard.
We shopped for the menudo at various places throughout the city and settled on one that had a consistently good batch. They've gone from inside pickup, to curbside, back to inside ... back to curbside. Right now it depends on the week, it seems, and I'm happy to follow the directions. It appears that this has paid off.
The young waiter knows my truck. The hostess has spun around to greet me saying, "Oh, it's you! That's right! One menudo."
In the moments when we feel helpless in the face of the overwhelming lack of community, it comes back to the simple fact that showing up is key. Last weekend, the young woman who carried out the plastic bag with the hot menudo in a Styrofoam cup called out behind me as I walked out the door, "See you next weekend!"
Cassie McClure is a writer, wife/mama/daughter, fan of the Oxford comma (sorry, Cassie) and drinker of tequila. Some of those things relate. She can be contacted at