The aroma of chile ancho, vinegar and corn oil rising up from the pan and blowing out of the small, basement window was the sign.
Mom was home!
That lovely perfume spread onto the walkway that led to the backyard and the back door, and then out to the sidewalk, imbuing the house in the aroma. That’s where we got our first whiff, and followed it – our mouths immediately watering. Mom had taken the day off or had come home early, and she had dedicated the early afternoon to preparing a fresh meal, one of her favorites and ours too – enchiladas rojas.
For the three of us, my brother, my sister and me, there was scarcely a meal that would fill our hearts with joy and expectation as would these enchiladas, stuffed with cheese and onions, topped with a vinegar, onion, oregano and tomato salsa, sour cream, diced cabbage, and accompanied with pan-fried chicken, carrots and potatoes. If the weather was warm, a pitcher full of agua fresca (strawberry was my favorite) became the centerpiece of our basement kitchen table.
I know that there is little else my mom preferred to cooking a great meal for us, and she usually tried to do it on Saturdays when she had more time, but during the week, it was all about work and homework and chores. Not that chores ever stopped, but that defined our days as we grew older. My father may have been the main breadwinner, but my mother was the engine that kept the house on the rails and moving forward. She would get up before the sunrise to cook, clean, and do some laundry. In the afternoon, she helped us with homework, gardened and then she might sit down to watch TV. It was that or English classes with my dad at Harrison Elementary School two nights a week.
That schedule didn’t allow for enchiladas, but mostly for beans with some type of meat. That was our staple. After major holidays and during Lent there were some changes, but those didn’t stand out like enchiladas because they had to be freshly prepared. They showed that there was time cook with love and patience.
When enchiladas appeared on our plates it was like an affirmation that all was OK, or would be even if my father was facing a layoff, or if my mother had been laid off or if I had had a bad day at school or if my baseball team had lost. Enchiladas did not set the world straight, rather that meal born from the pan and my mother’s hands was a sign of God’s grace – a sign that with love, family and good food we would always come together around the table once more and many more times thereafter.
© Juan Carlos Hernández Chicago, Illinois 2013
Why wouldn’t anyone come by? We might as well have asked a wall because no answers came. The sun set on pots full of food and empty tables and a breeze was more likely to carry away the napkins than any customers. It couldn’t have been the location. Or was it? Just few months before streams of students flowed into our house, but now they just walked past us on their way to class and some other place to eat. We were invisible. We tried. We kept cooking. We passed out flyers. We wanted to make it work this time.
The restaurant had been our main source of money. It paid for our school, and clothes and for the expenses of living in Morelia, the growing city that grew more expensive by the day. Father called us into the main bedroom.
“Nos vamos, nos regresamos a Tingambato.”
Even though I was 15, I cried. My two older brothers quietly walked away to their beds. Packing began in the morning. I didn’t sleep. I don’t think anyone did. We left the very next night to avoid paying extra rent.
We sold most of our belongings and gave away most of the food including some garlic, and tomatoes and chiles to our neighbors. The stove, the refrigerator, the old couch and beds would join us in a few days along with a few boxes of clothes. We loaded up our pistachio green 1970 Opel, and asked my oldest brother to take some of the boxes on the bus, so we would have enough room. We would pick him up by the roadside when we all arrived. My mother tried to hide her tears, wiping, wiping them away as she changed the radio dial. My father was quiet most of the way as we drove into the forests. My sister slept with her doll. I looked out the window at the fading lights of the city. The three-hour trip felt like a three-day journey of failure and questions. What if we had sold at different hours? What if we had changed the menu every week? What if…what if…?
A large, dusty beehive oven would provide part of the answers in time. Aunts, uncles and cousins arrived later to help us clean and settle down. We helped my father clear the wood boards off the oven. I crawled inside to sweep it and then mop it with an old rag. My father went to track down some logs and ocote, order some sacks of flour, and look for some clients to sell our bread out of their stores. Instead of making quick meals for hungry students, we would bake bread.
It was between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning when my father would rise from his warm bed to step into the darkness. The metal clang of the bathroom door was the first sound in the house during six days a week. Other melancholy noises streamed in from the cold alpine air – the zoom of a lonely car or a truck downshifting and emitting a barrage of gunshots into the wind as it came around the bend and into the straightaway passing through the town. And back then, perhaps a rooster would crow. They’re gone now. So are the donkeys and the cows.
He would drink water, get dressed, brush his teeth and wash his thick bronze hands in the freezing water of the pila, needles stabbing his thick skin. After adjusting his thick-framed glasses, he would switch on the lone circular light of the gray, unpainted cinder block room.
And then he would go to shake the three of us from slumber.
“Ya es hora.”
Sometimes it took two or three calls, for us to get up.
And, so we began kneading and pulling and shaping a new life. We did it all by hand. No machines. We poured flour from 45-kilo sacks onto a large wooden table, mixed in water, yeast and sugar and then we would work the dough with our fingers, palms, and arms, with the energy of the muscles from backs and chest, and our legs – my father showed us how, my two brothers and me followed along. Back and forth, stretching over the table. Back and forth. It was a painful way to wake up, but we had little choice. If we didn’t bake, there would be nothing to eat. The first few months back in the pueblo were the most difficult. Days were long, ending at 7:00 p.m. And sales were short. Sometimes we were left with entire baskets of bread, and little money to buy more flour.
But, the loyal oven that had waited for us for so long provided another answer to my questions. It showed me that hope is sometimes found in a simple piece of bread.
© Juan Carlos Hernández Chicago, Ill. 2013
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.