Do you remember how your taste for pizza was born?
Well, I do and it was not love at first sight or taste for that matter.
When, my father walked into our Tod Ave. apartment with a pizza wrapped in a white bag from Ralph’s Pizzeria – the joint from across the street – we didn’t know what to expect. He set it on the small kitchen table, tore open the bag, and steam magically rose into the air. When it cleared, and revealed the flat round meal, we were intrigued. It was new to my brother and me, as we had recently arrived from México.
“Es una pizza.” he said joyfully. “Son ricas.”
He was treating us to food he had come to know as a single man when he first ventured north some fifteen years before. He would introduce us to fried breaded shrimp in due time. I’m sure it was a treat he had enjoyed on occasion, and he wanted to surprise us. We looked at each other, picked up a piece and took a bite. And we spit it out.
“It’s elephant meat!” we yelled.
Those gray, round meatballs with large fennel seeds – monkey boogers we called ‘em – tasted like elephant to us. God only knows why two boys from the steel mill town of East Chicago, Ind., connected their first taste of pizza to bushmeat and mucus. The only wild animals we had ever seen up to that point of our lives were birds and squirrels, and I don’t think we had made a trip to the zoo just yet. That comparison is still a mystery to me, but that first impression lasted some time. Children are fickle eaters.
A couple of years later we moved about six blocks south and to a new street. In our new house and with a set of new neighbors we would become familiar with Polish and eventually Puerto Rican food. I don’t remember when we tasted pizza again, until our neighbor and babysitter Tony started to make them. He also introduced us to Saturday Night Live, but that’s another matter. I guess he learned how to make pizza at Roosevelt High School and he had a gift for preparing them because after that, we were hooked.
As I stated before, my mom is a great cook and prides herself on composing every piece of a baroque Mexican meal with pride and precision. No details would escape her eye or taste buds. So, she decided to give pizza a try. After all, how difficult could it be? But, she failed. Miserably. She didn’t know or I guess she didn’t analyze the process well enough. We ended up with spaghetti sauce and ground beef on toasted flat bread. She never tried that again.
From then on – it was Tony’s pizza or the frozen stuff, which never tasted quite so good. We grew older and started discovering other good pizzas on our own. And now, I like the elephant meat, but pepperoni has slowly replaced it over the years.
All rights reserved © Juan Carlos Hernández Chicago, Ill. 2013
Forty pesos. That’s all a meal cost. About $4. The catch? No menu. Ever. A neatly cut piece of butcher paper taped to the outside wall listed what was served that afternoon and early evening. Whatever the owners of the cocina económica decided to cook for the day is what you got. That might be a problem for most eateries and their customers, but in time that lone sheet became a standard of hope for me.
You see, I earned about $400 a month from my first writing job as a reporter at a small English language weekly in Guadalajara. That had to cover food, rent, bus fares and trips to Michoacán or Mexico City to see family. Once in a while I went to the movies. When I had to get a cell phone, I set aside some money for a couple of months.
When the heat rolled in that first spring, buying a fan became another major purchase. I shopped around, and decided on a little, white, four-speed machine that I proudly carried to the room I rented from a family. I couldn’t afford an apartment of my own. In part these limitations defined what was perhaps the most challenging, but most invigorating time of my life. It made me a writer, and it helped me savor every moment and every meal for what it was – sacred.
The cocina económica was not far from my first stop at the end of the day, which was just south of the downtown core of the city. There, the bus would belch, hiss and squeal to a standstill, and all the passengers would step off. It was the limit of the route. From there, some went directly to the plain, small restaurant that often had a few people waiting for a seat. Most walked away or ran to the next bus that would carry them home as the sun set over the metropolis. That’s what I did at first.
But, hunger fed my curiosity, so one evening I walked by the small storefront where I observed a team of women quickly seating customers and serving up huge portions of home-style food – steaming plates of meat, rice and potatoes with tortillas or some other combination of starch and protein. They also served large glasses of agua fresca – melón, mango, guayaba or pitaya. That depended on what fruit was in season. Entire families occupied some tables. Construction workers and store clerks sat at others. The aroma was so intoxicating I sat without thinking and was promptly served. The meat, the beans, and the small salad disappeared in a flash.
I left the plate so clean, it looked unused. A shred of tortilla became a napkin to wipe away the greasy streaks made by the food. I handed the waitress 40 pesos for a meal that was worth five times the price, then I boarded a second bus that would take me home just behind La Normal. As it roared up 16 de Septiembre, past the Plaza de Armas and the proud gold and blue spires of the cathedral, I burped and blessed those women – the fatty scent of steak and corn still on my fingertips.
I became a regular.
The day my father made us breakfast for the first time came about unexpectedly, and only because my mother couldn’t do it. She had to work. Not that my dad didn’t have to, but…well, allow me to explain.
My mother’s first job was babysitting two white kids. The first one was a boy we called Sweet Pea because that’s what his mom called him. His name was Joshua, but no one called him that even after he left our house and ended up with some friends. The second was a girl who was afraid of the dark, so my mom would leave the closet light on until morning when she stayed over. I don’t remember much more about her, but she was nice.
So began my mother’s official work in the United States. Eventually, she left babysitting, and sadly, future jobs pulled her out of the house. She never liked it much because she had been a professional in México, a teacher. But, I know she missed us almost as much as we missed her especially in the kitchen. It was and remains her place of artistic passion and flair. She would spend hours trying new recipes and perfecting some passed down by family.
My mom worked at a Pepe’s Tacos on Calumet Avenue. She hated that job in large part because they didn’t care about food as much as she did.
“Se les cae la comida al suelo y así la sirven,” she would say. “Hacen unas porquerías.”
If she ever brought food home from there, it was tacos she made herself. She didn’t work there very long and she eventually got a job at a meatpacking plant somewhere else in Hammond, Indiana. It was the graveyard shift and it was another job she hated, but she wanted to help make ends meet. She endured.
That’s when the trouble started in the kitchen. She would come home to sleep and because my father worked in the evenings, he would get up to cook or at least try. It was simple the first couple of weeks because my mom would prepare something before she left to work – oatmeal or bread and Mexican hot chocolate or beans and eggs – and leave that in the fridge. All my dad had to do is warm it up in the morning. Eventually, something happened, and there was no food ready to go, so she told my father, “Prepara un French tos,” which he did in his no nonsense style. My mom had left most of the ingredients ready anyhow.
He knew that toast was, well, toasted bread. He had it all figured out, “Está fácil,” he said. He lumbered down the stairs to our basement kitchen and past my brother, my sister and me, the grumbling, empty stomachs of three growing children. The tall, cool glasses of milk were waiting too – lined up next to plates, forks, knives, butter and maple syrup. We were ready for my father’s first performance on the cooking stage.
He flopped. Badly.
He tore open the bag of bread, placed six slices in the toaster (set on high), threw the dark, brown pucks into beaten eggs and then served them.
“Hay está el french tos.”
“¿Qué?” we said horrified.
“That’s not how you make it,” I said.
My brother agreed.
“Oh, I know,” he said. “You put them in the egg first.”
“¡No!” we said hoping to prevent a disaster.
My brother grabbed a pan, and put cinnamon and vanilla into the eggs, added milk and proceeded to cook the bread as my father sat and watched, mystified by our skill and knowhow. My brother was only nine, I was seven and my sister was five. After breakfast he laughed at his mistake and the episode would become part of family lore. I also think it’s why he never became a trusted cook, not like my sister or me, though he would eventually earn a spot in the kitchen as an assistant or the charge of making licuados, juices and some simple salsas. Those, thankfully are really hard to mess up.
Thanksgiving is over and so is all the fever of overeating and food comas at least until we get to Christmas parties or Christmas itself. And though I relish the long process of preparing and sharing a meal with my family – it seems that the most sacred meals are the those that we struggle to get to the table and share during the busyness of the rest of the year or just after all the holidays have ended when we are all heading back home, back to school or back to work.
I recall one such meal, a torta, if it could even be called a torta. It was really just a bolillo with queso cotija and nothing else.
When my Abuelita Juanita handed my mom a bagful of these simple sandwiches, we could have scarcely imagined that it would be the last meal she would make for us. Maybe she knew because she delayed giving it to us for as long as possible.
It was January 2 if I correctly recall and the blue steel gates of the house were swung open and ready for our departure. The street was cold, black ink that streamed into the house on the breeze of the mountain air that made that me shiver and run to the bathroom to pee. Two lonely light bulbs cast a pale haze over the entryway where we all prepared, well all of us except my sister who lay in the backseat of our white station wagon in an old blanket while my brother finished packing suitcases and boxes full of dried chiles, Mexican chocolate, coffee, carne seca, canela, pilonzillo, cheese and chorizo. The pungent ingredients for future meals made in snowy East Chicago, Indiana that awaited our return some 2,000 miles to the north.
My father finished tying the heaviest items to the roof, and slid the cooler into the back compartment. My mom placed a thermos full of fresh coffee in the middle of the front seat along with her purse and our papers. My Abuelito Santiago tried to hide several tequila bottles along with sugar cane alcohol under the seat.
“Lo tenemos que sacar en la frontera apá,” my father said.
“Pues, las puse ahí para que no les pase nada.” my Abuelito replied.
It was just past 4:00 a.m. and my Abuelita was still preparing the tortas in the small kitchen, the only place in the entire house with some warmth. She was wrapped in her old green sweater, thick socks and blue striped rebozo. On the stove, a small, steaming pot of water with sour orange leaves for tea. She handed us the cups. My dad started up the station wagon to warm it up. I ate a braided circle of bread, and drank most of the tea, then placed the cup in the sink. It was time to go.
And it was time for tears. My Abuelita always cried when we arrived and when we left. A tenderhearted woman with a soul big enough for the whole family; she made us all cry as she held us and kissed us, and blessed us and held us again tightly. Her soft sighs are what always got me. If I had known it would be the last time I would hold her maybe I would never have let go.
“Se van con cuidado,” she said handing my mom a wrinkled, black plastic bag. “Para el camino mija.”
My father was still wiping away his tears when we drove out and up the hill to the highway with my Abuelita’s last meal – bread and cheese. Simple. Unforgettable.
My Tia Sofia’s apartment house at 9028 South Escanaba Ave. is boarded up, and abandoned. The windows on the second floor are broken, allowing wind, water and snow to damage floors and ceilings and whatever furniture or other items might remain in the tall, old building. There might even be birds and raccoons living up there. Rodents in the basement for sure. A chain link fence has been fastened onto the old iron fence to keep intruders out.
They also seem to silence the voices of the people who once lived here. Not a whisper or a word about who they were or all that they lived. I stood before the old house, returning on an impulse as I was driving down Commercial Ave. Seeing it conjured such nostalgia and images of days gone by. So much of South Chicago does when I drive through there. The large brownstones in disrepair, the closed businesses, the two or three pedestrians walking down the main drag where entire families once shopped. The old Goldblatt’s building was torn down and replaced by a strip mall.
I don’t know exactly when Sofía Celis moved here from Michoacán with her mother back in the early 1900s. I don’t think anyone does. Not my great uncle, Tío Roberto, or any of his children. He’s past his 90th year and those dates and events are a little foggy. And yet, not one of us can forget her. “My aunt,” he says with heartfelt affection. My siblings and I say “Tía,” with the tenderness one has for a grandmother because she was like our grandmother.
On Saturday nights we would go pick her up to take her to the White Castle just across the state line in Whiting, Ind., go to downtown Chicago or somewhere along the lakefront, to some mall or the Chelten Theatre on South Exchange Ave. where we would watch Mexican movies. She even loved having pizza with us in the car when we picked one up at a local joint. Often, my brother and I would walk into Saints Peter and Paul Church, and take her out during the middle of Mass. She usually asked to wait until just after communion, then we would pop into the car and off we would go almost every weekend until she fell ill and passed away. She died on a Sunday.
This is where my Chicago roots are. This is where Chicago’s Mexican roots are, and yet so much of it seems lost and forgotten – fenced off by poverty and neglect. My family and I will not forget her. Instead of flowers, I lay words at the foot of the many memories of Sofía Celis that live on in me. Que en paz descanses.
My Kickstarter campaign has been going for more than a week and half now, and I’m still amped up. Let’s make it happen! Check it out at http://kck.st/UV1nAk. A friend reminded me that no matter how it progresses, or what comes of it, I must remember who I am, and why I love to write.
I love to write simply because I feel it connects me to God, nature, people, and myself in a way that few things do. It’s autumn now, and we are in what we call Indian summer, the last warm weather before the cold comes with wind, water and gray skies. It reminds me of one of my early successes with writing. My 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Steele, asked us to write an essay with a title that ended with the words, “…brings out the best in me.” I didn’t ponder very much, and decided to write about autumn because of its melancholic beauty. It’s as if this season tells us how to live by giving away such beauty in the death of leaves, which just weeks had before had been such a glorious green.
Anyhow, I wrote the essay, not a very long one, but I liked, typed it up and turned it in. A few days later Mrs. Steel called me to her desk.
“Hernández,” she said. “Come up here.”
She handed me the essay, which had some small smears of her lipstick and a scribbled letter A in blue ink across the top of the first page.
“You listen,” she directed the class.
And, so I read. It was the first time that someone recognized my writing, and it was it was the moment when I began to recognize that writing would be one of my gifts. I never imagined that it would take me so far, make me sacrifice so much or make believe so deeply in myself and what I dream.
I have this season and Mrs. Steele to thank for that.
Enjoy this beautiful day.
Hello friends, on Saturday, October 13, I will be launching a Kickstarter campaign as part of my dream of publishing my first novel. Many of you are aware that I’ve been working on a novel for some time now. I’m glad to share that it’s nearly done.
I’m just a few steps away from putting the manuscript into book form and Kickstarter will help me accomplish this. When I raise enough money, I will be able to hire an editor, a book designer and pay for the associated costs of putting a book into readers’ hands.
Two year ago, I took a huge step in this process when I won one of two spots at Ana Castillo’s ranch in New Mexico for a writing retreat. She is one of Chicago’s most prominent Mexican American writers. That moment helped me continue with the project and brought me to this decision.
If you don’t know what Kickstarter is, here’s a brief rundown. It’s a website that hosts creative projects that vary from cooking to design to writing and photography. It is a great way for creative people to raise money for their projects.
To learn more about it, visit the website: www.kickstarter.com. Most people who back a project in an amount greater than $1 get a reward. I will be giving my backers an e-book or softcover edition, as well as a writing workshop for big supporters.
My campaign will run for 33 days, until Wednesday, November 14. My goal will be $12,000.
That’s where you come in. I’m writing to ask for you support, and also to help me spread the word. I know that this can be successful if you, your friends and family back my work. I promise that your support will be worthwhile.
I will send you updates on the kickoff time in a future email. Follow my blog through through Facebook under my pen name: Xuan Carlos Hernandez. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.
All the best,
Juan Carlos Hernández
Yes, the elections are just weeks away and it seems that Latinos are important once again. Romney talked to us. Obama talked to us. Both on Univision. Even Facebook was in on the act. Unfortunately, it seems that no alternative news sources in Spanish exist within the United States beyond Univision and NBC Telemundo. Yes, the Internet, cable and digital channels allow others to crawl in, though their impact is but a breeze. But, that’s to be discussed at another time.
Romney said, “I wish I were Latino.” I don’t think he meant it.
Obama said, “Thank you,” but never said I’m sorry for the big mistakes he’s made on immigration.
And you know that the election was approaching because just months ago, Obama granted all those children of “lawbreakers” the opportunity to give back to the country that has given so much to them. That’s how they play it. They say that these children were innocent victims who through no fault of their own participated in the “crime” of illegal immigration. That’s how we’re played, and the game continues. “Look see what we do for you,” they say. They bring out Julián Castro and Benita Veliz and all is supposed to be fine. We are to keep quiet and vote. Thank you for putting our people on a pedestal. Not enough.
I remember four years ago when many of my friends said they were going to Grant Park for Obama’s victory celebration. They had secured passes weeks in advance. We were all confident he would win. And he did. People even went to the inauguration as they were swept up in the fever of Change. If only what followed had been as exciting as those few weeks. Not much has changed.
Guantanamo is still there.
Afghanistan is a mess.
Iraq has been set up for oil companies.
Drones have made war more impersonal, but no less brutal.
Bradley Manning is still in prison and awaiting trial.
Millions of immigrants continue to live in fear. Families were divided, needlessly so.
There is no change in drug policy or even talk of it.
There is no discussion on what to do about poverty.
Etc…etc…….etc. Sorry Oprah, something big did happen, but it fell short, far short of what so many of us dreamt during that cool autumn night in Grant Park, and on that cold winter morning in Washington D.C.
In fairness, I’ve slowly come to the realization that there are interests and forces that were set in motion long before Mr. Obama became president that he is incapable of changing. Black. White. Brown. Whatever your color might be, when you step into those positions, you can’t counter those forces without revolutionary courage or a revolution. And I don’t mean armed conflict, but a drastic change of direction.
So, I ask you not to be bamboozled by all the glitz and pandering or to be taken in by the possibility of a Latino president someday, just immigration reform or the possibility of anti-war and anti-poverty policies. They will not happen and will not matter if our votes simply continue to validate the power of a few. The president just becomes a figurehead.