Updated: Mar 13
I had three women who shaped my love for food: Nohemi, Esperanza, and Manuela – my mother, her mother, and her mothers mother (my great-grandmother). Manuela.
A sweet woman, the mother of eighteen born children, three still-births, and four miscarriages. Manuela was kidnapped from her family's home in Nayarit when she was only eleven and taken to Mazatlán, a coastal town along the Pacific in the state of Sinaloa. She had her first child there when she was twelve, and this is where she spent most of her life. From the age of seven until I was eleven, I had the good fortune of spending part of my summers with her.
She lived in a long, narrow four-room home, or what some may call a shotgun-style house. There were no interior doors, just one long corridor. The bathroom was outside and that, too, only had a curtain, but no doors. Everyone kept a well-fed cat in their home, mostly to scare off rodents. There were lizards everywhere, which made strange clicking noises throughout the night. I hated those things.
In the mornings, Manuela often made eggs with chorizo, or eggs in salsa roja, those were usually the two choices. Her beans were refried and watery, almost like a soup. They were delicious. In the afternoons she would take us kids out to the beach. She’d make sandwiches of a mix of tuna, mayonnaise, peas, carrots, and peppers on cheap white or wheat bread (bimbo, obviously), and pack them in the same bag the bread came in. We would bring a small ice chest with sodas, some fruit for snacks, and that was it. When it wasn't that, it was tortas de jamón – bolillo, mayonnaise, cheap ham, sliced tomato, sliced avocado, rajas, iceberg lettuce.
For lunch and dinner she always made seafood: caldo de pescado, caldo de camarones, or ceviche. Ceviche in Mexico is very different from that of South America. There is a lot more acidity and spice plus a brunoise of tomato, onion, cilantro, and serrano peppers. Her caldo de pescado was easily one of the most magical things that I’d ever seen… and I hated fish as a child. It was a beautiful fish broth with tomatoes, vegetables, and lots of spice, a little lime, tostadas, and, if you were brave enough, even more spice. My job in that kitchen was making agua de limon, which was made from key limes, water, and tons of sugar.
The last summer we spent with her, we arrived on Tuesday and did all of these things I loved. We went to the beach on Sunday, ran around for hours, ate tuna sandwiches for lunch, and ceviche for dinner. In retrospect, this was probably the happiest I have ever been. Later that night she told us she wasn’t feeling well. A few hours later she had a seizure and was hospitalized for a week before eventually passing. Oddly enough, even after losing her, it felt right that my last memories of her revolved around the food. From what I was told, she only made this stuff because she knew how much we liked it. Turns out she hated canned tuna.
My Grandmother raised me for over four years. Esperanza was a very strict, hard-working woman, who took me in at the age of eight, the same way she had taken in others, including my older half-brother and half-sister. I have many wonderful memories of Esperanza – the majority of them revolved around food.
She was the first born child of Manuela’s eighteen kids. She helped her mother raise eleven of the eighteen. As the oldest, she went to work at a very young age and supported the family until she was in her early twenties. Eventually she left Mazatlan, and when she did her siblings resented her for it. However, for the rest of her life, Esperanza would continue to be a mother to her siblings from near and far.
When she left, she made her way north to Tijuana to get away from the abusive father of her children. She found a job at a restaurant, working for a woman who truly taught her how to cook. By this point, she was a single mother with two little girls, both who quickly became a hit with the patrons of the restaurant, the same restaurant where she would meet the man who would become her husband. At the age of thirty three, she and her new husband opened a small mercado named Dos Hermanas (two sisters). She always told me how much she hated that place. Two years after opening it, they sold it and opened a tiny Fondita instead, which they named Comedor Lili, the name of her newborn granddaughter, my older half sister. The place was a hit in the neighborhood from day one; known for its daily three-course lunch special, as well as the Caldo de Res. It is here, at this little eatery, where my mother met my Father, a washed-up twenty-something former soccer player, already with three kids and an ex-wife.
When she got pregnant with me in ‘79 they decided to move to the US in hopes of giving me a better life.
Fast forward to 1988 and I am sent to live with my grandmother back in Tijuana. In those years Esperanza raised me, the weekday mornings were about fruit or yogurt, toast or pan dulce, and of course black coffee. Rather than having her pack me a lunch I simply asked her for money to buy a cup-a-noodle soup at school. Let me tell you something, I am not sure why, but Mexicans are still obsessed with this cheap ramen in styrofoam!
By the time I came home after school, she would send me off to buy two kilos of tortillas and two or three one-liter glass bottles of soda. My cousins lived around the corner. My sister and brother were both in high school by now. She cooked for all of us daily – fried chicken, pork chops, milanesa, fried potatoes, tacos dorados, flautas, fried quesadillas. There was an endless supply of cooking oil in her house. Of course, there was always rice and beans on the side. On the weekends we got the classics, like pancakes, omelettes, chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, torrijas españolas, eggs and bacon, eggs and toast, eggs with tortillas. All of it was delicious, but none of it made any fucking sense.
Her food was nothing like the food I grew up with in Guadalajara. It was great, but certainly not fitting into my very traditional Mexican early upbringing. I didn’t understand how this woman could switch between traditional American and traditional Mexican food without missing a beat. When I got older I realized the restaurant she had worked for when she came to Tijuana fed many American missionaries, including my white step-grandfather who was born in the US, raised in Havana as a child, in Mexico as a teenager, back to the US as a young adult. He was the son of Tomas Garrido Canabal, a former Governor of the state of Tabasco. If you’ve ever read Graham Green’s “The Power and the Glory”, then you surely remember his role in the novel. The man was a socialist & prohibitionist who did his very best to abolish religion in his state. During his reign, Tabasco was once described as “the Bethlehem of the Socialist dawn in America”.
Francisco, his son, was not quite the same revolutionary as his father, but he tried. On November 25, 1956 he captained what was a a 20 person boat, carrying 81 other men from Tuxpan, Veracruz to Havana, Cuba. Of those 81 men, there was one guy named Ernesto “Che” Guevara along with two brothers known as Fidel & Raul Castro. The boat was called “La Granma”. My grandfather lasted all of two months with those men before hiding out in the Sierra Maestra and eventually finding his way back to Mexico. He hated Che Guevara for many reasons. Mostly because he was a “fucking maniac” (his words not mine). At one point, he claims that Guevara asked him to take a group of innocent people who he described as crooked politicians, put them on one of the boats and dump them out in the shark-infested waters. Apparently not what he had signed up for. He spent the next few years working as a machinist in the Wonder Bread factory in San Diego while living in Tijuana. He never really talked about his past with me, we mostly just sat around and watched sports on TV together. I do remember his massive hands, the tattooed numbers on his wrist as well as the tattooed sailor anchor on his forearm. He smoked half a pack of Raleigh brand cigarettes and sat around on his porch for most of the day. I loved that man despite him not speaking or hearing much at that age.
My mother had a good upbringing. She had a mother who worked hard and a step-father who loved her and her sister as his own. Her childhood was filled with weekend trips and Sunday drives for ice cream, cross country trips from Tijuana to Veracruz, to see Tuxpan, Eroica, and all that her step-father almost left behind. They celebrated Thanksgiving, 4th of July, and even Christmas on the 25th (not the eve of the 24th). Her father took pictures of them as a family. There is joy in those pictures.
Her mother taught her to cook at an early age. Regardless of what she might say, she is the best cook of the three – her, her mother, and her grandmother. My mother is an encyclopedia of lost recipes. She cooked her mother’s food, her grandmother's food, and the food her children loved. She spends a lot of time watching cooking shows, old and new. When we had just arrived in the U.S. she made tamales and cheesecakes, which I would go around selling door to door. Cheesecake, not flan. Once, someone from the church gifted her a box of Philadelphia cream cheese and since then, cream cheese became a common item in our home. My favorite food of all time can be traced to that gifted box of cream cheese: rice with cream cheese, peppers, and something else (family recipe), simply “arroz verde”. This, with a side of mole is all that I need for my final meal. I don’t have many memories of her cooking as a child, after all, I grew up with my grandmother. In the ones I have from when I was much younger, I am in awe of her cooking. She would make pozole, mole, ceviche, caldo de pescado, tacos de birria. I do not remember what they tasted like, but I do remember the nostalgia of them and the joy they brought to everyone.
By the time we came back to the U.S., she adapted to the bastardized Mexican cuisine of this country. Everything became faster with whatever was widely available. She didn’t have a backyard with chickens, goats, or pigs like she did back at home. The trips to the mercado to pick up spices, vegetables, and fruits were replaced with an American supermarket, canned refried beans, pre-packaged tortillas, and cheap produce. She has not left this country in thirty years so I am not sure if she will recognize much of it if she ever goes back. When I hear her speak nostalgically about food I hear so much of myself in her. Whenever I see her now, I ask her to make me the classics. “Don’t feed me anything that you didn’t eat before you came to this country. Give me whatever your mother cooked for you, but also make that green rice.”
I am forty three now. I stopped asking my mother how old she is. I stopped tracking her age a while back, mostly because I do not want to deal with the reality of her growing any older.
But she has, and my biggest fear, other than losing her, is losing all of that knowledge. Every one of those recipes that she so easily recreates by memory, adding a little more of this and a pinch of that. No real measuring tools, just her memory and her palate.
It’s in there, in her head, an abundance of generational wealth, all in the form of lost recipes.