This text was taken from several parts in Food from my Heart that I had reprinted by amazon and a kindle edition will soon be ready.
Before I knew better I used to open this presentation by saying: There is no descrimination: I’m Mexican, I’m a woman and I’m short but look at me now.
Now, some of you may not agree with this statement and I don’t blame you. You almost certainly didn’t grow up on a ranch in Chihuahua with a grandfather who told his three daughters: “Prefiero tener una hija puta, que una huevona.” (I’d rather have a daughter who’s a whore than one who’s lazy.”).
Your mother probably didn’t force you to get back on the horse that’d just thrown you by telling you “amárrate un huevo” (have some balls), and woe to you if you cried. Mother could be like the John Deere tractors we used at the ranch to construct and repair the waterholes— nothing and no one dared to say no to her or stand in her way. She could not abide weakness or fear in anyone, much less herself, and she wanted her four daughters to be strong, brave and unafraid. For her it was always “don’t tell me you can’t do it. Just do it.”
Mother was a gifted and adventuresome cook, with a palate so extraordinary that she could duplicate any flavor she tasted, and she loved to eat. She’d get sudden cravings that demanded instant gratification (a trait that I’ve inherited) and would just as easily whip up some crepes Suzette as an enchilada, spaghetti with meatballs or albóndigas, lamb curry or homey calabacitas con queso. Our whole life revolved around food.
Northern Mexican dishes were served at lunch and usually consisted of either sopa seca or sopa aguada, with freshly made asadero and corn tortillas. T=Though continental food as usually served at dinner it was usually served with freshly made flour tortillas
My father, forever the courtly gentleman, did not approve of my mother’s sometimes affectedly crude language and unorthodox ways. He wanted his daughters to be proper young ladies. Yet he was extremely proud that I could kill a rattlesnake with a 10-inch whip and let me break the wildest colts, knowing that taming them required tremendous discipline, dedication, consistency, gentleness, and patience, lessons that I would carry into every part of my life.
He was a man who took joy in all civilized pleasures and expected the finest as if it was the most natural thing in the world. It was characteristic of Father and his love of quality that he would eat only from china and with cloth napkins. Once at the dinner table Father’s sister and her husband, Tia Mela and Tio Pepe Janeiro, were marveling (in English) over my mother’s cooking. “Aida, you could cook for a king,” gushed Tia Mela.
“She does,” Father replied.
Father was clever in both English and Spanish. He read a lot in both languages and excelled at puns and word games in either tongue. (I recall another dinner with our parents’ dear friends, Tio Mike and Tia Suqui Padilla — they were tios de carino, or “uncle” and “aunt” by affection — where Mother had prepared one of our favorite meals, leg of lamb with a curry sauce of her own invention, served with white rice and homemade chutney. My Tia Suqui, a lovely, very dramatic woman whose gestures and voice at all times were high theater, outdid herself in constantly telling Mother how absolutely delicious every bite was. Father finally looked up and said “Suqui, don’t get curried away!”)
We were all expected to have opinions and encouraged to express and defend our viewpoints (I went a step further with my kids and would tell them: “Don’t say what you think I want hear; tell me what you really think.”) But we also had to listen, no interruptions allowed. If we wanted to interject something we’d raise our hand and say “pido la palabra.” (May I say a word?)
Conversation, like many of life’s lessons are learned at the dining table and, with two working parents, family dinners have gone they way of record players so it’s sad that many young people— though not my children of course—never had the chance to learn this art. It is incredibly useful in business and essential in love. Years later, I realized how wise my parents had been when famed graphic designer Milton Glaser, said to me: “At our age we should marry for conversation.”
Mexicans love to “platicar” (to converse juicily but not gossipy)My parents wanted us to learn the art of conversation—how to engage in word play, tell a good story, and deliver a joke. Once we were deemed amusing and relaxed enough we would be invited to join them at the sobremesa when the adults sat at the table after a meal telling stories, sometimes for hours. If the conversation got raunchy a simple glance from my father told us we were dismissed.
The training went beyond “please, thank you, yes sir, no sir and excuse me.” Boys stood up when introduced, never offered their hand to shake unless invited to, opened doors, helped take off and put on coats, pulled chairs out for women and girls whom they were not supposed to otherwise touch even ”with the petal of a rose.” Girls were expected to be ladylike and help in any way needed. If we were sitting with our legs splayed, even if wearing jeans, my grandmother would say. “Mija, look at the way you are sitting. Just imagine what you would look like if you were nude.” We’d close our legs and sit up straight immediately.
THE GUADALAJARA YEARS:
Until I was eighteen
my culinary and other horizons were closely centered on northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Perhaps I would never have set out to explore the food of regions beyond my own if it had not been for parental veto of my original plans. When I graduated from my mother’s old school, Loretto Academy, in El Paso, I announced that I wanted to go to college in the United States — Stanford University and Webster College in Missouri were my first choices. My parents refused to permit this, saying that they wanted me to go to a Mexican school so as not to lose touch with my roots. The real reason, I am sure, is that it was the l960s and they were afraid I would turn into a hippie. So I found myself, like many daughters of “good” Mexican families, at a sort of finishing school whose mission was to prepare me to be the perfect housewife — the Instituto Familiar y Social in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state. It was the first time I had lived away from home in Mexico. Part of the reason for selecting a school in Guadalajara was that we had good family friends there — the Aragons, who had lived in Agua Prieta while I was in high school — who my parents knew would keep an eye on me.
I disdained the Instituto at the time, and lasted there only a year. The curriculum was things like shadow-embroidery, papier-mache, crocheting, sewing (including making your own patterns), ways of cleaning and removing stains, etiquette, conversational arts — and cooking! The thinking was not that we would actually be doing any sort of housework ourselves but that we needed to know how so that we could supervise and instruct our servants. I thought much of this was superficial, unimportant, silly, and profoundly unintellectual. After a year I persuaded my parents that I needed something more stimulating, and Father transferred me to another school in Guadalajara, the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente — Mexicans love long titles — where I studied mass communications. In all I spent five years in Guadalajara.
Life is funny — the skills I learned while looking down my nose at the Instituto Familiar y Social have stuck with me. I wish I had the time to embroider. Ditto making tiny flowers with migajon de pan, a pliable dough made by mixing glue and bread crumbs, or oil-painting waxed flowers. Working with my hands is relaxing. My twin sons frequently give me occasion to revive those handy stain-removal skills. My housekeepers stay with me for years, too, and that may be a tribute to what I was taught about unobtrusive guidance. I never became the perfect housewife, however!
My exposure to Jaliscan (and other) food was even more of an influence. It would shock the Instituto Familiar y Social to know that it turned out to be a vocational school for me, something no one could have foreseen. But it was there that I first learned to cook food totally different from what I was used to at home — surprising and delicious. I learned recipes from the most basic to the most unusual: quick cakes and candies, wonderful combinations of fruit and meats, pork in every guise, delicate ice creams. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but the Instituto and its conscientious faculty of maiden ladies excited my curiosity about food and started my quest for new and better recipes. It helped that at the same time I was encountering some of these new dishes at friends’ homes.
Forty years later, many of the recipes I learned at the Instituto were served at Zarela until the end.