By Elsie Mendez
Whenever we talk about the origin of Flavors of Mexico and the World, the question inevitably arises, “And where did this idea come from?” We begin by explaining our experience with the first photography exhibit World Heritage Sites in Mexico, that we presented in 27 cities around the world, and that allowed us to learn more about the huge interest of Mexico that exists, especially regarding the places that are rarely mentioned or promoted. In each and every one of the places that we exhibited, people always told us that one of the things that they like most about Mexico is the food. They always said that they wouldn’t miss a chance to go to places or events that they knew were offering Mexican dishes. When the project finished, we had no doubt about what we had to do, because we knew that people weren’t well informed about this great interest in learning and experiencing more of the gastronomy of our country.
I can assure you, without a doubt, that the origin of this great passion for Mexican Cuisine comes from my family– and I must say that this project comes from my Mother and all of our ancestors that had the taste, dedication, and care for the art of cooking, and especially the traditional family recipes tied to our roots. My mother always says that, in her memories from when she was a child, there is the one with her first toy metate that taught her how to expertly use the one she would eventually keep in the kitchen. To this day, she is the only one that can use that one. As it was said in Mexico during ancient pre-hispanic times: the metate is an extension of the body and soul of its owner, and no other person ought to touch or wash it.
I refer exclusively to women because that is how it was in my family. The men valued this gift that my grandmothers, great grandmothers, aunts, and cousins had. The men were the motivation to create these dishes that kept them enchanted with love (or enamored in the stomach) for their mothers and wives. It was a part of basic education to know how to cook– I don’t remember any one of them without pride for their wonderful ability to cook. Those without the education or gift were charged with finding the best cook in town so that the family could always enjoy the dishes during special events.
They were so talented and proud of their ability to cook that parties, weddings, baptisms, first communions, and of course, Christmas and New Years holidays were of such importance that they themselves prepared the feasts that everyone enjoyed. It was not an easy feat to achieve this ritual, considering that they would begin preparing one month before the event. All of the women collaborated on a dish that only they knew how to prepare. They all shared the secret that they would bring to their graves, and only when they realized that the date was nearing they revealed to the daughters or closest heir the special ingredient or process that made the difference in the recipe.
In addition to my mother, my maternal grandmother, Carmen, my Great Aunt Gloria, and my father’s sister, Aunt Consuelo were the women who truly gave dedication and heart to the art of cooking. Aunt Consuelo always said that the most important component of her relationship with her husband, son, and brothers was spoiling them and showing her love by making dishes that she knew they adored. She said that’s what the women in the family were for. It gave her great satisfaction to watch them devour the plates that she served. I don’t even think that she was so pleased when her daughters presented their professional titles to her, as she was when my father arrived at her house and ate absolutely everything that my Aunt Consuelo, his sister, put on the table. As soon as the first dish was placed, dinner followed, because there was no stopping.
My grandmother was a gifted baker like none other in my family. From the most complicated European cakes to simple cookies. Since she passed on, I have not been able to have the incomparably delicious donut fritters that she made for Christmas. Because of the difficulty of making them, her arthritis came on before the average age. Only my Grandma Efro and my Aunt Gloria continued the tradition, but now neither of them are here to make them.
My Aunt Gloria could make anything delicious– savory or sweet, everything she made was truly worthy of the Gods. Along with Grandma Efro (short for Efrosina), she spent days and days preparing the seepweed, turkey, and cod that we ate for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Of course my mother, with those two talented and experienced women, along with my great grandmother, as her teachers, carries the secret touch required to make all of our beloved family recipes that she prepares even in her old age.
I don’t remember any event when we were young, a birthday party or anything else, in which they gave us sandwiches cut into triangles, with a little mayonnaise, cream, and a thin slice of ham, accompanied with your typical potato salad or a scoop of Russian Salad, a plastic cup of jello, and cake. No way! At home, and even with my children, we carried on the tradition of good food for children until they grew and stopped throwing parties with clowns and piñatas. It was very important for us to prepare special food for our family no matter the age of everyone. We always found something in the recipes that the kids loved, and that had nothing to do with those little sandwiches. And of course, it was the same for the adults. The prize always went out to the birthday cake, that often garnered more applause and celebration than the one celebrating the birthday.
Even though my favorite season for gastronomy was and continues to be Christmas and New Year, Lent is right there with them. During Lent, the tradition to respect Fridays and only eat fish on those special days represented the ability to enjoy those cherished dishes that were only prepared on those days– green salsa charales sandwiches, and an infinite amount of recipes with seafood that included delicious garlic mojarras with salad, and always came with a banana as a warning that a spine might pop up.
My mother from Chiapas and my father from Zacatecas created a combination of recipes with ingredients and flavors so diverse that I was able to enjoy different dishes day to day that eventually formed part of the menu that I prepared for my children as they grew up. Pacholas is an amazing example of it. This particular and traditional beef patties that I never learned to make -fortunately one of my sons learned because he inherited the family gift of the art of cooking, and assures all of us of the preservation of many family recipes that have brought us so much pride and joy-, were so valued that they remain in the memories of many of my friends from when their grandmothers, nannies, and mothers would make them. After a while passes, I still ask my mom to make them, and we pack some up to send to their houses. It is such an enjoyment that I think some of them have stayed friends with me, after 30 years, to have the pleasure of enjoying this special dish again at least once a year. And here I put to the test, calling out even the most experienced chef, to see if even they can make the patties so perfectly, so delicately like my mother (and surely the other women from her generation or before).
There are thousands of anecdotes, and it would never end if I tried to share all of them. Including the one that some family members have shared with me about when my great grandmother died and all of Chiapas came to visit and they had to make food for three days straight because people never stopped arriving, and for the mass that went on and on: the feasts that were served were a talking point for years.
I can say with pride that my greatest inheritance that my children have fortunately acquired, and I hope their children too, is the taste, admiration, respect, and passion for Mexican Gastronomy. Understanding the art of the kitchen has a secret that one cannot learn in any school, or even from the best teacher, because it comes straight form the heart. What this talent does is it develops and becomes even greater, and in particular, it comes with the satisfaction of sharing the gift with someone who you want to feel happy, because when a recipe is prepared with those elements, it doesn’t just nourish the stomach, it fills the soul.
¡Thank you Mama!
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