Tita Carmen didn’t have reading books to recommend, didn’t know anything about theories or science, and didn’t always have an intellectual understanding about global issues, but what she did have was an immense amount of love for us. Tita Carmen loved food. She loved to eat, but most of all she loved to make it for us. It was her way of showing us how special we were to her and how much she loved us. Whenever anyone came to visit her, the first thing she would do was offer food as if he or she had a choice to not eat. There were times when food was very scarce, but she always made something out of nothing. One of her favorite sayings when there wasn’t enough food was – No te preocupes, le hechamos más agua a los frijoles. “Don’t worry, we’ll just add more water to the beans.” She cooked to nurture our heart and give us hope that our life, like the food she created, was a gift to enjoy.
As a farm worker harvesting 10-12 hours a day and later as a grandmother helping raise 5 grandchildren, she could never afford the luxury of cooking meals that took too long or required too many ingredients. The love she had was the magic she used to create nourishment for her family. One of the meals I remember the most was one she made with hotdog franks. First she would sauté chopped onions, tomatoes, garlic, and chile serrano. Then she would chop the franks into small pieces and add them to the sauté. Finally she would add tomato sauce with a hint of hot chipotle and let everything come to a simmer. Of course she would always add the magical pinch of Knorr Suiza (chicken bouillon). She would serve that over delicious white rice. These were ordinary ingredients with an extraordinary flavor. I never knew how my Tita could make hot dog franks taste so good. A few weeks ago my sister-in-law cooked grandma’s hot dog dish, and made burritos for my nephew Alex to take to school. Alex shared one of his burritos with a friend, who later wrote the following note:
“Tell your mom thanks for the salchicha burritos. And your grandma must have been an angel of a cook.”
She knew what it was to go hunger, and she never wanted her family to feel that emptiness she had felt at the pit of her stomach. When I’d finish eating she’d serve me more. And if I rejected more, she’d say I wasn’t eating well. Food was her way of ensuring her family was provided for and healthy.
As she became older, and her hipbone debilitated it was more difficult for her to stand for long periods of time, making it more strenuous for her to cook. But she would still surprise me with some of my favorite dishes, especially when she saw that I had a lot of work and little time to cook. She never stopped making us breakfast early in the morning. Everyday she was in the kitchen by 5:00 am making coffee for us and preparing our first nourishment of the day. She knew my husband loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so there was always at least one wrapped in aluminum foil on the table. Those PB&J sandwiches were so delicious, that students would always ask my husband for a piece. After my Tita died, we never really made them again. A few months ago one of my husband’s students told him he really missed those PB&J sandwiches and my husband simply responded, “Me too.”
She always made Carmen burritos de frijolitos negros. Mashed black beans with shredded cheese rolled tightly in a warm flower tortilla with a little bit of salsa verde wrapped in aluminum foil so that they would stay warm. Or sometimes she’d make simple quesadillas with a little chipotle sauce to give them a kick. Sometimes the clinking and clacking of the pots and utensils would wake me at 4:30 am, and I’d have to come out and tell her it was a little bit too early. She’d feel a little embarrassed, and then I’d kiss her and tell her it was okay, I just wanted to sleep half an hour more. She was always afraid she’d oversleep, and the few times she did, she always felt so regretful. As she aged, I think that sometimes, unintentionally, I made her feel that she wasn’t needed anymore. Most of the time I wanted her to rest because she had never stopped working, and I wanted to serve her for a change. Getting up early in the morning made her feel that she was still needed; that she was an essential part of our family. No matter how sick she was, or how much we told her we would do it, she never conceded. I miss waking up to the table being set early in the morning, the utensils rolled tightly in a white paper towel placed on the right side of each place mat, and our food warmly wrapped in aluminum foil.
Carmen Reflects on our Tita’s relationship with food:
My Tita Carmen was many things. She was a mother, a daughter, a lover, a fighter, a hopeful and any other adjective that lives up to the word MAGICAL. But for me one of the most important things she was is an EATER. Yes, I do mean EATER. La Guera Comelona the family used to call her. If this doesn’t describe her, than I don’t know what does. She loved, and I mean, she loved food. If you had food left over, she would gladly eat it. And if you offered her food she would gladly take it in a heartbeat. I guess food was important to her because in Mexican culture and families, food is who you are. It brings family together and dignity to their way of life. I remember when I cam over for Thanksgiving break. Tita Carmen was so fragile from her battle with lung cancer and she was basically gone. She could no longer move and her speaking ability was almost non-existent. But to me one of the most important things she lost was her ganas to eat. Feeling hungry signifies life. It means that your body wants to keep fighting and living. The Hospice told my mom that Tita wasn’t dying because she wasn’t eating; she wasn’t eating because she was dying. My Tita Carmen had practically lost all hunger. There were only two things she would eat, if that: sopita and banana. I remember when I fed her. She wasn’t very hungry, so we decided on giving her a little bit of banana. My Tita had always been the one to feed us and take care of us, and now we were taking care of her. With the banana, I had to be careful not to scrape too much onto the spoon, because she couldn’t have too much at once. I still remember what I felt like . . . feeding my grandma like a baby; I felt like I was saying bye to her. It was me coming to terms with the fact that she was going to leave us soon. She died one day before Thanksgiving, Wednesday, November 24, 2010.
Tita never missed the senior lunches that were served at the Salvation Army Senior Center. Don Juan the driver came to pick her up every day in a white van. That was grandma’s time to hang out with her friends and share stories of unrequited love, memories of a distant homeland, and adventures of untamed women who dreamed they could conquer the world . At her memorial service, Don Juan stood up to share his love for grandma with all of us. I anticipated that he would speak of how vibrant and happy she was, and about her firey personality, and her compassion and kindness for all who encountered her. And he did speak of these things, but he also spoke about my grandmother’s persuasive personality.
You see, when my grandmother was diagnosed with diabetes, I became diligent with the meals I cooked for her: Brown rice, brown rice pasta, olive oil, grilled fish and chicken, green vegetables, and almond milk. There were often times that she’d ask me to serve her much less than the portions she typically ate. I’d find it odd, but she would insist that she was still full from lunch. Most of the time I didn’t give it much thought, because I knew if grandma was hungry there would be nothing that would stop her from eating. So on the day of her memorial service my jaw absolutely collapsed when Don Juan began to talk about how grandma would convince him to drop all the elder ladies off, and then he and her would take off to eat fish tacos, or menudo, or tamalitos. At that point, I understood why grandma would insist she wasn’t hungry. Laugh. She never stopped being mischievous, never stopped questioning the social norms, and never stopped living on her own terms.
Food is how I continue the amazing connection I had with my grandmother. When I cook I feel the presence of her spirit in me. When she first died, I felt a vast emptiness in my heart center. Like when you are really hungry, but I wasn’t hungry. A few months after, however, I started to fill her inside of me where she had always been, in my pure consciousness. What I discovered was that she existed in me as much as I existed in her. I am because she was. I exist in her light; a vulnerable yet powerful connection between past, present, and future. We were a mutual gift of hope – two spirits that came together beyond relationship of time or space. Like her, I have learned to share my love through what I cook. I am a part of her legacy.
Before cooking the beans, Tita would lay them out and examine them one-by-one. She’d take out those that were chipped, withered, or bruised. Then she’d place the rest of the beans in a bowl and rinse them. I’m more compassionate with the chipped and bruised ones, and only remove those that are withered.
Tita would then sauté garlic and onions until they carmelized. Sometimes she’d chop chilé serrano and sauté it as well to add a spicy kick.
She’d then fill the pot with water, and the sautéed garlic and onions, and once it came to a boil, she’d add the beans. She’d let it come to a boil again, and then she’d let the beans simmer for 3-4 hours. The last half hour, she would add su ramita de epasote (a herb used in many traditional Mexican dishes) for a more earthy flavor.
For the Tinga, she would boil 1-2 pounds of chicken, always using her infamous Knorr Suiza. She then would shred the chicken and set it aside. I usually take two forks and comb through the chicken until it is completely shredded. Tita Carmen used to shred it with her hands, although she said she could never do it as meticulously as her mother, Tita Chocolate could. Tita Carmen later adopted my fork technique. Tita would then cut 1/2 to 1 onion into half rings and sauté for 3-4 minutes. She would then add the shredded chicken and continue to sauté for another 5 minutes.
Tita would then toss 2-3 chipotle peppers, 1 can of tomato sauce, 3 cloves of garlic and half cup of chicken broth (left after boiling the chicken) into the blender. She would then pour the sauce over the chicken and add pepper and cumin to taste.
She would serve it with warm corn tortillas, slices of aguacate and queso fresco. She would always put extra chipotles on the table in case any one wanted the Tinga extra spicy.