The beauty of Mexican food lies in its flexibility—measurements need not be precise. It is informal, festive, and comforting. Its flavors are bold and spicy, its colors bright. Not in the least bit stuffy, it is hospitable and welcoming—much like the people. If you were a guest in my mother’s home, you had better eat what she offered you, and frankly, you would want not to refuse, because even the aroma of her pinto beans, simmering on the stove, made you want to eat them right out of the pot.
She, like so many Mexican women of her generation, was a talented cook who never took much stock in “comida pretenciosa”—“pretentious food” as she called it. She believed in simplicity. Not that she did not appreciate complexity. Mexican food can be complex at times—all you have to do is look at the long list of ingredients of classic molé poblano, Mexico’s national dish, to appreciate that. She believed in simplicity of presentation, authenticity and good flavor. Innovation was fine, but always within the confines of the dish, never altering its basic character. She believed that a great meal does not need any unnecessary embellishments to make it delicious, as much as a truly gorgeous woman does not need a shovelful of makeup to enhance her beauty.
So secure was she in her gifts that I seriously doubt that she would have been cowed by the likes of any celebrity chef, knowing that she came from a great culinary tradition. Mexican cuisine does not depend on the European one as its model, and should never be judged by its standards, even if it did incorporate some of the ingredients and dishes that the Spanish brought to The New World. When I told her once that some chef wrote that he did not consider Mexican food a true world-cuisine as such, she rankled with righteous indignation. “Ah,” she exclaimed at the end of our conversation, “¿Qué sabe ese viejo tarugo?*,” and that was that—no use arguing otherwise, not that I disagreed with her.
It was a little intimidating cooking in her presence. As was her wont, she would follow her nose and come into the kitchen. Not long before she died, I was cooking up a French style pot roast on the stove, and there she was lifting the lid off the pot. Anxious to show off my prowess, I told her how I prepared the beef, how I used herbs and spices she never heard of, the kind of wine I poured into the pot, etc. She pinched off a piece with her fingers and took a bite. Then, lifting a daring eye to my face, she declared with a smirk, “I like mine better. You didn’t even put chile in this.” With a delightedly disappointed look on her face, she put the lid back on the pot. She, who had shuffled into the kitchen, now sauntered out with the triumphant air of a prizefighter who had punched out a puny but presumptuous opponent in the first round. Of course, she was right. I realized that I was the no-talent daughter of a great cook; my use of fancy recipes and fancy ingredients could not hide who was The True Reina de la Cocina. That evening at dinnertime, she quickly polished off a plate of my pot roast. Then, in that off-handed way of hers she remarked, “Well, I suppose you might be a good cook someday. Of course, not as good as me. . . .” Ay, caramba—could there ever be any greater compliment than that? Maybe she felt she had to say it because she felt very, very, very sorry for me.
Sadly, we are losing our moms and grandmothers, the last ones of our Mexican immigrant families who cooked everything from scratch, except perhaps to open a can of tomatoes every now and then. She, who made homemade corn and flour tortillas every day. Who made the best molé and tamales in the whole world. Who forced you to eat chiles and cactus until you learned to love to eat them. Who would have rather died than to eat at Taco Bell. Whose ambition in life was to be a good mother—a noble thing, no matter what society says to the contrary. Who unselfishly loved and believed in you. Who taught you to love Mariachi music, never imagining that one day, when a song she loved to sing comes on the radio, your eyes will be awash in tears.
If you have lost a mother who was like mine, then you have lost un tesoro*, and I am truly sorry. As for me, to have her back in my arms, if for only a little while, with her telling me that I am a terrible cook, would be a delicious joy I would not miss for anything in the world.
My culinary wish for you:
To those of you who neglected your mothers in her old age because you were Too Busy Doing More Important Things: My delicate sense of propriety prevents me from elaborating, but it involves a glass of cheap, rough tequila and swallowing the worm (of regret).
To those of you who cared for your mothers, especially during their last days: May your memories of them be happy ones as you sit down with your families and enjoy the delicious food that your mothers once cooked for you. May you cherish their recipes and pass them down as an inheritance to your children who will pass them down to theirs. May your children love and care for you with the same devotion that you showed your mothers in their time of need.
Dedicated to my beautiful sisters and a certain dear friend of mine.
* “What does that old blockhead (literally, wooden peg) know, anyway?”
** A treasure