Dedicated to the memory of friends, past and present, who are no longer living.
"In my life, I've loved them all."
Once upon a time in old Mexico, there lived a young country maiden who left her ranchito in the hills to work as a cook for two rich cotorras*—old maids--who lived in a pueblo close by. There in the blue talavera tile kitchen with a wood burning stove she cooked the most enchanting dishes. No red sunset could compare with the brilliant red of her molés, nor the Aztec sun with her golden corn tortillas. And, what could be said of her pinto beans, except to say that they were the reddish brown of the soil of Mexico. How sad that no one spoke to her, never bothering to take notice of her if she chanced to walk past, because she was small and dark, because she came from the rancho, because she was poor.
On one spring night, there was a dance in the pueblo. A Sonoran tortilla moon hung in the sky, so large and luminous, that there was hardly any need to light up the plaza. The people came eager to dance to the Norteño band with its drums and accordions, and the Mariachis with their trumpets, violins and harp . The young women, some hot and spicy, others cool and creamy, all deliciously beautiful, quickly found someone to dance with. The little cook stood there gazing at them from the street where she sold bean tacos. How fetching they looked with their silk ruffled red and green tomatillo salsa colored dresses and laced up suede boots—while she wore a faded cotton dress and a pair of huaraches. A red ribbon tied to her braid was her only adornment.
From a short distance, she saw a man ride into town mounted on a black horse. He was a tall man with a large moustache, elegantly dressed in a white charro suit with a sterling silver horse-head buckle on his jacket with matching botonaduras running down the sides of his trousers. As he slid off his mount, the town’s beauties surrounded him eager to get him to dance with them, but he paid them little mind because he was very hungry. Imagine his disappointment when he saw that all of the street vendors had gone home, except for the little cook.
--What do you have to eat?
--Only a bit of beans and tortillas with a little chile.
--Serve me, then, for I am hungry.
When he took a bite of her bean taco, he was astounded—ay, Chihuahua, never in his life had he tasted such delicious beans. He downed the taco and for some reason he felt like dancing. He looked around and saw the little cook watching the dancers and singing to the music in a sweet little voice. So he came up to her stall and asked,
--Señorita, may I have this dance?
She timidly looked up at him, but turned away and almost buried her face in her shawl. For an instant the charro thought that she would refuse him, but without saying a word, she put her little brown hand in his.
During the dance, the charro felt something he had never felt before. This little young woman smelled of roses and cinnamon, chilies and spices, and something else, though he knew not what, but it reminded him of his mother and father and of happy times with his brothers and sisters all together. He had known other women, but he was bored with their stale charms and false flattery. But this girl, with her black eyes and dark skin was delicately exquisite in all her simplicity. It was as if a little fairy had hopped on his shoulder and took him by the hand flying off to a rare fantastic world that existed only in the imagination. As for the little cook, she was no longer afraid of the tall charro. Somehow, she knew that he understood her, without words, without having to offer any explanations. They did not know how long they danced to the sounds of the mariachi, but by the time their reverie came to an end, most of the pueblo had gone home.
Under the light of that Sonoran moon, the charro escorted the little cook back home. She sat on his great black horse, while he held the reins and walked by her side. When they finally reached her door, he took off his sombrero, and after kissing her hand he bid her goodnight. She did not respond to his gallantry, nor did she even look at his face, but I can promise you that someone in that house did not sleep that night.
The next morning she found a bouquet of calla lilies with a note that bore the inscription, “Ay, chiquita de mi corazón. I know not what you did to me last night, but I dreamed of you and of your bean tacos. Marry me, por favor.”
He only loves me because of the tacos, thought she, and digging in her little heels, she resolved to have nothing to do with him. Her disdain, however, did not impede him one bit, for he pursued, and begged and pleaded with her even more. Never was seen a man walking about tan muerto de amor—so dead from love. The people of the pueblo shook their heads in bewilderment. Carajos—how could a man so tall and formidable allow himself to be bewitched by a short little cook who hardly ever spoke? What poison, they asked, did she put in his food the night they met? Because the little cook did put poison in all of her food, the deadliest of them all—el amor.
When the jasmine offers up its sweet thick fragrance to the still and soft air, and the constellations hang like grape clusters across the starry firmament, so was the night when the charro came with la serenata proclaiming his heart’s passion, his lost hope, his desperate love. Listening to those plaintive melodies from her little upstairs chamber, the little cook could no longer contain what she had locked away in her heart. Lighting a candle and opening the window, she removed the red ribbon from her long black hair and let it drop to the ground below.
And so the little cook and the tall charro were wed. It is said they left Mexico for El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles where they opened a restaurant close to the plaza were the mariachis still play. There she prepared the most enchanting dishes, molés the color of sunsets, golden Aztec tortillas, and what could be said of her beans, except that they were the color of the soil of Mexico. They named it “Mi Rancherita” and they loved each other and cooked together for the rest of their days.
You can stop your sighing (or rolling your eyes), because now that I have your attention, I regret to inform you that there are certain Señoritas who do not know a hill of beans . . . about cooking beans. Ay, ay, ay, that will not do. You might be an expert in high finance or in sending crooks to prison, but do you think that your abuelita will care? She will care if you arrive with some nasty beans the gray-brown color of field mice to the next family fiesta. You do not want to ruin the fiesta, no? And, what is a Mexican fiesta without beans?
I hope that you will be inspired to make beans just like our little cook, and like her, put a little of that special poison in all of your food—because you never know when you will meet your own tall, handsome and hungry charro.
*Spinsters, slang (literally, parrots)
La Rancherita’s Perfect Pot of Beans
What you need:
Fresh dried pinto beans
Lots of water
Garlic and onion
A pot, large, medium or small, depending on how much you want.
As I said in my last post, measurements need not be precise, especially when it comes to cooking beans. You can cook as little or as many beans as you like, so just follow these guidelines:
1. Beans must be fresh and rinsed clean. No old, wrinkly beans or dirt!
2. Use plenty of fresh water, at least 2 inches (about 6 cm) above the top of the beans—more if you are using a slow cooker and will be gone for most of the day. You don’t want to come home to dried out or burned beans—they’ll smell like, you know, peditos.
3. Put in about 2 or more flattened cloves of garlic, and ½ a white onion and salt to taste (More if you are cooking beans for a crowd).
4. Bring beans to a fast boil. Then reduce heat to a slow simmer, covered. To prevent the beans from spilling over, make sure that the lid is slightly ajar so that a little steam will escape.
5. Check the beans every once in a while. If the water is running low, pour boiling water on the beans. Pouring cold water will slow down cooking time and will turn your beans that nasty gray-brown color.
6. Do not allow your beans to cool off for the same reason as above.
7. Keep cooking the beans until they are soft and a beautiful red-brown color. (The longer you cook the beans the richer the color and flavor.) Keep simmering them until you are ready to eat them straight or prepare them in a different way (refried, etc.)
8. Fish out the onion and garlic.
A favorite of mine is pinto bean soup. Add diced green onion, chopped cilantro, salsa or minced jalapeño or serrano chiles and, if you want, chunks of avocado. Serve with corn tortillas. It is simple and delicious.