Since losing my mother nine years ago, I find myself drawn to things that remind me of her and her rich, warm Puerto Rican culture: The images of palm trees that seem to adorn every towel and shower curtain in home decorating departments, the energetic strains of the salsa and merengue music that float out of my car windows into the lush Vermont woods I drive through every morning and evening, and the smells of traditional Latino food that I have begun to prepare – all speak to me at a genetic level. It is the cuisine, though, that brings back the strongest memories of my Puerto Rican mother and makes me long for her languid island home.
I grew up in 1960′s New Jersey as the youngest of five children with a mother who was of the Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book generation. Any dinner that could be made in one pot and in massive quantities was her kind of meal. With seven mouths to feed I could hardly blame her, but it made for some hideous casseroles that forced us to sit at the table until we finished eating. Every once in awhile, Mom would prepare a Puerto Rican dish, a traditional Dávila family recipe.
Normally she would drag me to the supermarket with an air of “grab those instant potatoes off the shelf and get me the hell out of here,” but on those occasions when she made Chili Con Carne, Arroz Con Pollo, or on really special occasions, Paella, she would spend hours in the produce aisle choosing just the right tomato or making a special trip to the butcher for fresh chicken. She would spend an entire afternoon in the kitchen, crushing fresh spices with un pilón, and simmering, always something simmering on the stove, filling the entire house with the intoxicating smells of my abuela’s kitchen in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.
I would quietly sit on the little footstool in the corner of the kitchen, afraid to disturb my mother’s culinary dance with my presence. I couldn’t rectify this “chef mother” with the rushed and harried “short order cook Mom” I was accustomed to. She would normally be bustling around at the last minute, short-tempered and wanting to get it over with, barking orders at me to set the table or call my brothers down, or wash my hands. This mother would sing softly in her beautiful alto voice, melodic songs of the Caribbean, her skirt swaying back and forth as she moved between the stove and the sink, the sink and the cutting board. Intoxicated by the smells, I would eventually creep from my corner and convince my mother into feeding me spoonfuls of her creations, feeling privileged that I was getting a preview before my siblings.
Last month I made my mother’s chili con carne for my family for the first time. I rarely make Puerto Rican food because I don’t like to cook. All the dishes I know how to make are entirely too labor intensive. One day, though, as I stared at the Goya dark red kidney beans on the shelf at the local supermarket, I decided I would conjure Mom. Though my mother’s well-worn pilón remained on the shelf, I used the bottled version of the traditional Sofrito, and slowly began to prepare our meal.
I found myself humming as I browned the ground beef and onions and added the tomatoes. I pictured my Grandmother’s kitchen, with its black and white tiles, counters covered with technicolor vegetables and ripe tropical fruits. I heard the slow laughter of the women as they floated around the kitchen in a slow sensual dance of preparation. I smiled to myself as I found my hips swaying like those women of long ago as I moved across the kitchen.
After awhile my son Carlos came into the room, his nose in the air leading him to the stove. He peered into the pot and asked, “What’s that?” with a look and tone of sheer delight. He was very surprised. Usually Dad did the cooking. I replied, “I made your grandma’s Chili.” “Can I taste it?” I held a spoon up to his mouth and his eyes lit up as he begged, “Can I have some more?” I was surprised at the intense satisfaction I felt in his enjoyment. I felt as though I was channeling Mom as I fed the spoonful to my son’s waiting mouth, much like she had fed me so many years ago.
That night, in the recreation of my mother’s cooking and as my mind filled with images of slow and deliberate family meals in steamy Bayamón dining rooms, I realized why she was so different when she cooked the food of her island. My siblings and I were bi-cultural by blood. Mom had become, by necessity and choice, a mixture of two worlds. She married an extreme gringo and needed to adapt to life in suburban New Jersey, but still felt the salt of the Caribbean Sea on her skin. The song of the coqui, the Puerto Rican tree frog, still echoed in her ears. The rich tastes of a well-cooked Puerto Rican meal still lingered on her taste buds.
In the daily bustle of running the household, she had taken on the pace of a harried North American 1960’s housewife, but on those special occasions when she prepared a taste of home, she reverted to the deliberate care and languid pace of her Puerto Rican island. After my Mom’s death, I was surprised to discover that I too heard the coqui in my thoughts and yearned for the tightness of a salted skin after an afternoon swim. Most surprising was that, in recreating her culinary rituals, I could feel the same sensual pleasure I now understood my mother felt when she cooked her native food.
Elena’s Chili Con Carne
1 lb. ground beef
1 can red kidney beans
1 medium Onion
½ a fresh green pepper
1 small can tomato sauce
dried red pepper
1 tsp oregano
Chop onion and green pepper, and sauté in olive oil. When soft, add tomato sauce, and garlic, red pepper and salt to taste, and 1 tsp oregano. Set aside browned veggies (sofrito).
In fat in pan, brown 1 lb. ground beef. When brown, add sofrito (browned veggies), and drained red kidney beans (save liquid). Simmer on low fire until it thickens. Add leftover liquid from beans if it gets dry. Serve over white rice.