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My abusive stepfather made the best salsa. Why I've reclaimed the recipe as my own

As powerful as food can be for bringing up hurtful memories, it also has power to heal.

From the ages of 13 to 22, I was stalked and harassed by an anonymous predator. This person hacked my email, sent me explicit packages and even broke into my apartment to steal my lingerie and diaries. For years, I lived in terror, not knowing who would do this to me or why. Finally, after nearly a decade of mystery, the truth came out: The perpetrator of these disturbing actions was my own stepfather. (I told my story on TODAY in 2019.)

My now-former stepfather has been in prison for these and other crimes for 14 years. (He also bankrupted my mom, stole hundreds of thousands from his financial planning clients and possessed child pornography.) In the intervening years, I've more or less succeeded in putting him out of my mind. Although I talk openly about him, he doesn’t fill my thoughts and I don’t dwell on memories of him.

But not too long ago, I stumbled across his old prized homemade salsa recipe — one our family used to beg him to make for parties and get-togethers. All the memories of this particular food came flooding back: poolside hangouts over a big bowl of chips and salsa with my cousins, New Year’s Eve appetizer spreads, Fourth of July celebrations dipping and crunching under the light of fireworks.

Being a food writer (and all-around food lover), I couldn't resist making the salsa for myself. And lo and behold, it was every bit as amazing as I remembered. The zesty flavor combo of fresh tomato, cilantro and onion and the minced pico de gallo-like texture remained as irresistible as they were in my adolescence.

My version of my former stepfather's salsa.Courtesy Sarah Garone

But despite the perfection of Gary’s Famous Salsa, making it brought up some conflicting emotions. Sure, it was restaurant-quality, but I had to wonder: If I included this recipe in my own cooking repertoire, would it always remind me of the horrors of my stepfather’s covert harassment? Could I ever look at its jewel-toned blend of veggies without flashing back to the pain of my past?

After giving it some thought, I came to a decision. Instead of thinking of this delicious dip as the sole property of my abuser, perhaps I could make it my own. I never had many family recipes passed down to me, so maybe this one could be a “family” recipe in the truest, rawest sense: one that bears the scars of my past, but reveals my resilience, too. That’s the kind of recipe I’d like to pass down to my own children.

The more I make the salsa, the less it bears my abuser’s imprint.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done. Since rediscovering the tattered scrap of paper with the handwritten recipe jotted upon it, I’ve blended up the salsa many times. Since I live in the desert Southwest, where chips and salsa are practically daily bread, there’s no shortage of opportunities for serving it. I’ve taken it to barbecues, offered it at potlucks and made it for my own family on average weeknights. It’s a surefire upgrade to any Mexican meal (and is heaven on huevos rancheros).

The more I make the salsa, the less it bears my abuser’s imprint. It’s become a gift I can share with others — a culinary blessing, if you will. As powerful as food can be for bringing up hurtful memories, it also has power to heal. After all, healing from trauma comes not from secreting it away, but from being able to look at it, sit with it, take power out of its hands and into my own. The only way out, as they say, is through — and in my case, the “through” involves tomatoes, jalapeños and a high-speed blender. These days, it pleases me immensely to watch friends hover around the bowl I’ve brought to a party and hear their requests for the recipe. I’m always happy to share it. Why should something so delicious languish unenjoyed in my recipe box?

As I heal from my past, I have every intention to continue making this salsa.

Meanwhile, I’ve found the salsa has another, even deeper lesson to share. (I know it’s just salsa but, hey, when you really love food, the meaning runs deep.) This recipe’s very deliciousness reminds me that, as awful as my abuser’s actions toward me were, there were good times in our relationship, too. I can’t deny that, when my stepdad was a figure in my life, I did love him, and I benefited from our relationship in various ways.

I would never, ever want my former stepfather back in my life, but with the help of time and maturity, I can see that relationships — and people — aren’t all good or all evil. Even the worst of abusers have some good quality or positive contribution to give the world. My stepdad, for his part, had a great salsa recipe. I’m much happier living in the gray area of seeing him as a complicated, unstable person who did offer a few good things to the world (and, more specifically, me). It doesn’t mean I’d ever want to see his face again, but it does help me move on from bitterness and unforgiveness.

Sarah's Famous Salsa

In my childhood and adolescence, the famous salsa recipe always signified a celebration, whether a party, a birthday or other special occasion. As I heal from my past, I have every intention to continue making it — because I believe I’m living a life worth celebrating.