The glue that keeps the seven-generation De Leon family together is a green dish called chile verde.
It’s been that way for more than half a century – since 1945, in fact – when Joe and Eloisa De Leon pulled up stakes in Texas and moved their growing family to Manteca. But the tradition actually goes way back when the couple got married in 1928.
It was the family matriarch Eloisa, who is fondly referred to by every member of the clan as Grandma Loi, who set the high standard for cooking the Mexican dishes that brought everyone to grandma and grandpa’s home in Manteca. She is the undisputable best cook among them all especially when it comes to Mexican cuisine and the dish that her seven-generation clan has favored the most – the chile verde.
It is that one dish which has become the edible glue that has been bringing scores of family members together every year during the summer when they hold a good-natured chile verde cook-off challenge, even after the beloved matriarch and patriarch have passed on. Grandma Loi outlived her husband by several years. She died on Sept. 12 in 2002 at the age of 92.
“When she died, it was our own Sept. 11. Grandma was the heart of the family,” said granddaughter Charlene May.
For many years, the cook-off gathering was held at the original home that the family patriarch and matriarch built next to Baccileri Park. And for the longest time, the chile feed was simply a get together where everybody enjoyed Grandma Loi’s original special treats. Later on, the siblings and cousins also brought samples of the culinary expertise they learned from Grandma Loi to share with the rest of the family.
Three years ago, Jackie De Leon who was the first of the four younger siblings born in Manteca, started holding a chile verde cook-off so that the family would have more fun at the annual gathering. It started off as a friendly challenge from one sibling to another, and with one cousin calling and teasing another cousin saying, “who’s got the best chile verde?” laughed granddaughter Charlene May recalling how the annual cook-off tradition started.
Grandson Michael Dale, who works in property management in Manteca, was proud to say he won first place at the first cook-off. This year, he won third place.
The family tradition marked a record first this year when the siblings and a host of cousins held the chile feed and cook-off on Sept. 10 at the 105-year-old historic Manteca Winery on Oak Street. It was the first time in decades that the family gathering or reunion of sorts was held outside of the grandparents’ old home. Manteca Winery owner Tim Valentine, whose Valentine Construction Company is located in the old Celpril compound which includes the old winery building, offered the use of his facility to the family. One of his employees, Mary May, happens to be a granddaughter of Joe and Eloisa De Leon.
The cook-off is strictly a private, family affair. However, families can invite close friends to attend. Two family friends, in fact – Bernie McGrath and John Day – finished first among the 10 contestants in the cook-off. They called themselves the Green Machine Verde Team which was emblazoned in the back of the uniform T-shirt they wore at the cook-off. Second place went to Dwayne Fisher. All winners received a red apron embroidered with the year of the cook-off and the prize they won.
As part of the fun, younger members of the clan take this opportunity to work alongside the cooks and learn something about how to prepare various Mexican dishes. One of the great-great-grandkids, for example, had fun learning how to make tortilla from scratch at the recent party.
As soon as they built their home near the historic Baccileri Park and the family has settled down, family matriarch Grandma Loi started whipping up her homemade, made-from-scratch and one-of-a-kind Mexican recipes for her husband and their eight children who came with them to The Family City. Four more children were born in Manteca for a perfect dozen of six boys and six girls. The oldest three and the seventh child – Lucy, Mary, Bonnie and Toby – have since passed away.
“We like entertaining. We had friends we grew up with in elementary and high school (and) they all came to the party, too. My grandmother fed everybody,” said Charlene May of her extended family, so tightly knit she can easily rattle off the names of her grandparents’ 12 children from the oldest to the youngest – Lucy, Mary, Bonnie (all deceased), Abraham, Alex (who lives in the old home), Toni (Charlene’s mom), Toby (also deceased), Amelia, Jackie, Leacha, Gonzalo and Connie.
“We love it because the family all come together,” Charlene said of the family annual cook-off.