I have to confess something. You may be shocked. Growing up at my mami’s house, I didn’t cook at all until about age 15. My mom wanted her three daughters to focus on school and make good grades. She never explained, but I understand now. Mami wanted us to get out of the neighborhood where we were being raised. You’re thinking .. yeah, so .. what parent doesn’t want their child to have a better life? Raise your hand if you came down for school one day and saw blood smeared on the wall of the ground-floor hallway of your building. Thought so.
When my mother finally let me into the kitchen it was because she had a job outside the home. By then I was about 15, old enough to understand that feeding a family is an act of love, sacrifice and giving. So when mami said to me and my sister (about 2 years younger) “ustedes van a hacer habichuelas y carne, cuando yo llegue hago el arroz y la comida está completa” (you two will make beans and meat, when I get home I’ll make the rice and it’s a full meal) I took this as a serious responsibility. On holidays like Nochebuena, when mami let me take over the kitchen two or three days early to season a pernil (pork roast), I raided the refrigerator and every cabinet. Ajicitos, paprika, achiote, oregano, garlic, onions, I used everything. Recipes were not part of the ritual. The menu was guided by what was available, and mami was glad to sample whatever I created.
It seems like not much time passed while I learned to make a few things in my mami‘s kitchen. I moved out and never thought about the joy of cooking until I had my own daughter. Cooking for myself seemed like a chore. When Lesli saw her father cook and take over the kitchen with a flurry of pots, pans, sauces, spoons and secret ingredients, she was intrigued. When it became just us girls, we bonded over stories, flavors and smells of food. That was when the kitchen became the heart of our home.
I won’t pretend it was always fun in my kitchen. But there was hope. Some days food got burned, overly seasoned, or I was too stressed to think “what to cook” and wanted to make sandwiches. On those days, I watched food shows on television. When I didn’t have pay TV, cooking shows on PBS gave me inspiration. Then came the Food Network, and the Cooking Channel with 24 hours of food shows available. The chefs, gadgets, techniques .. don’t even get me started on the competition shows. I could eat ham and cheese with mustard on white bread, but taste grilled chicken marinated in balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes. It didn’t matter if I had balsamic vinegar or sun-dried tomatoes on hand. The extreme close-ups, vivid descriptions, and enthusiasm of the chef or host always took me past imagination, even triggering that special spot by your ear that jumps when you eat mustard on a hot dog.
Fast-forward to 2009. I accepted reality. My books include a cookbook collection, ranging from exotic to simple with a couple of collectibles that found their way to me. Lesli is curious about how to combine different foods, flavors, textures. She is unafraid to try things that sound weird. She throws bijol into white rice, or adds a special ingredient to sweets. When I suggest exploring a new restaurant or new neighborhood, Lesli gets her comfortable shoes. We split dishes and order things that aren’t on the menu. And I, the girl who wasn’t allowed in the kitchen while mami cooked for the family .. I’m sharing recipes and stories every week.
While typing this post, I realized that in Spanish the words for “recipe” and “prescription” are exactly the same – RECETA. Makes sense, when you consider that too much of this or not enough of that, and you don’t get the intended result.
Every morning I wake up knowing that my life is amazing. And every night I thank God for giving me the energy to participate in the day’s events. On February 19 I’m getting the chance to do something I never dreamed possible. Look for “cooking is love, part 2” on February 26.