Learning To Cook With Your Mexican Mama, Or With Your Mexican-American Mama
Since Christmas time is a wonderful time of different holiday dishes and traditions, I thought it would be a good time to tell you about my learning to cook “journey”. (Anyone outside of the Mexican-American circle would call it a roller coaster!)
I’ve been cooking since I was barely a teenager. (As a young roommate I never shared the ‘wealth’ of my knowledge with my roomies, since I believed knowing how to cook meant following recipes) I cannot say I love cooking, especially the way I was inducted into the kitchen, but my ego is strutting; bien culeca when someone says “Oooh are those Rosies enchi’s?”.
It all started when I was almost fourteen years old, the summer before high school, when my whole life would turn upside down. My older siblings were all going off to work with mom in the grapevines of Coachella Valley, but I was not old enough to get a work permit. However, I was old enough to cook all by myself in the hot kitchen and so began my culinary journey.
Cooking class in my Mexican mother’s home was very informal. (I just felt my daughter roll her eyes at the obvious truth) Chores done and laundry continual, Mom would pull out some meat and say,
“When this defrosts, go ahead and cook it and serve it with frijoles de la olla today. No need to refry the beans today and don’t forget to make the tortillas first, they’ll stay warm”
“What?! Ok, Wait, what do I do with the meat?”
Without even looking back at me, she’d say,
“Con cebollita picada y pimienta. Ah, y un poco de sal. No se te pase!”
“That’s it? Some diced onion, pepper and salt? How do I know if I have enough salt or too much in it?”
She’d put down the laundry basket, look at me and say,
“You have to taste it Rosalba. If you need to add a little something, check the fridge, maybe some diced jalapeno, or garlic. There’s comino in the cupboard.”
She’d go right back to the endless laundry.
“Dad’s gonna be here just after noon, so be ready to serve”
That was the lesson. After staring at the meat, which was seeping blood, I wondered how I was going to create something delicious like Mom always did. I had no choice but to go for it and cook.
I cut the meat into small bites, I could not get all the fat out and that worried me. Still, I seasoned it with a dash of pepper, salt, and a sprinkle of cumin. Then, I just tossed it all into the pan with diced onions. That fat that I struggled to cut off, simmered and blended with the onion. As it continued to cook down it blended with the meat juices and created a gravy. It looked tasty, hmmm. I added a dash more salt, and let it simmer.
Mom came by and stirred the simmering pan, tasted, and added a dash more pepper and cumin. She lifted the towel my warm flour tortillas rested in, (I forgot to mention that making dough for tortillas had perhaps been my first lesson in the kitchen, a constant practice, since in our home we had fresh flour tortillas everyday) she covered them again and keeping a straight face she walked toward the door where the laundry waited.
“You’ll definitely have to practice rolling out your tortillas, round is the shape we’re aiming for.”
Dad came in, washed his hands and sat down to be served. I held my breath as I brought his plate to him. He uncovered the tortillas, lifted it up high and smirked.
“This looks like the seat of your bicycle” (rolling tortillas was not my constant practice a whole different struggle)
He rolled it and bit into it and took a fork full of meat and beans to his mouth. He ate everything on his plate, then took the last bicycle shaped tortilla and cleanup the gravy, and spoke.
“That was good. Thank you”
After that, I felt like I was a culinary graduate! (after all my apa had just approved me, every daughter’s dream) Now, I could conquer any belly, taste bud or picky person. Of course, I quickly realized that for basic training in my amas kitchen, the first lesson was that it was not as scary or difficult as it seemed, and it was nowhere near impossible. I would have to watch very carefully as she taught me to make the other Mexican essentials of her kitchen, the refried beans, the Mexican rice, the salsas, the sauces for the meats and on and on.
(My daughter in-law also says that she has to keep a really keen eye on my hands as I work in the kitchen because all of a sudden, “Le voy a echar un poquito de este” But I neglect to tell her what the “este” is beforehand or how much of it I added, making her learning experience much like mine)
Although cooking is not my favorite thing to do, I truly enjoy when others enjoy my cooking, then I see its value and love it.