She came from very humble beginnings. Born in the deep South. Very close to where Texas meets Mexico. She had four sisters and a brother – Blasita, Neche, Angie, Tenche, and Tommy. She came from a home with both a mother and father, and depending on your definition of poor, they were poor — or they at least lived a very modest lifestyle. Being a girl, of Mexican heritage, in a culture and at a time when society had prescribed and well-defined notions of the role of women, I’m not sure anyone really had any expectations of her at all. Choices were for other people. No, she’d find a man to take care of her financially, keep a clean house, look pretty, and have babies.
In 1935 she was 13, and was no longer attending school. By 18 she’d given birth to the first of her six children, a girl named Antonia Annacelia, who would later become my mom. Her name was Eva, she was my grandmother.
I love to cook. I didn’t always. My mother would tell you that despite her efforts to teach me and show me the fundamentals of food preparation, I was almost always a disinterested student. But I think I must have absorbed something from her, given where I am today. When I was a boy I was far more interested in my baseball cards, playing street hockey, tossing a baseball, and hanging with neighborhood buddies. Later this was replaced rock and roll – and other music – and misbehaving with my high school friends. Cooking did not come into the picture until much later. I’m guessing it was in my late teens, when I figured out that it was an effective way of impressing girls.
I worked in fast food while in high school — Kentucky Fried Chicken specifically — where I became a master of the grease-ly arts, an education that still serves me well every Easter during the annual Fry event at our home. I think it was at KFC that I started to develop a sense of the timing that is critical to cooking, knowing the order of operations in which things need to be done in order for the preparation of food items to complete at the same time, so that somehow they could be formed together into a meal. I also learned the importance of cooking and cleaning at the same time, so you would not be left with as large of a mess at the end.
After that worked at other restaurants, most notably at Perkins, where I continued my education on both the front and back of the house. I waited on tables, manned the host stand, greeting, seating, and managing the inherent hostility of a wait list. I sometimes worked on the cooking line, cranking out burgers, pancakes, and over-easy eggs. I served many, managed the front of the house, and trained new staff, including one pretty brown-eyed girl named Jennifer would marry me a couple of years later. Along the way I worked in other places where I learned such important skills as bartending, cooking for a crowd, and was exposed to fancier dishes and more advanced culinary methods.
Despite all of the time I spent working in restaurants, I still consider myself to be self-taught when it comes to cooking. I believe most people who like to cook will tell you the same thing. Most of what you love about food and getting it right can’t be taught; it comes from desire, lots of trial and error, and suffering though many ill-advised or badly prepared meals.
My grandmother Eva had a hard go of it. As expected, with no education, resources or role models, limited family support, and few prospects, she became dependent on whoever was the man in her life at that time. She had six kids by four different men, over the span of 25 years. The youngest, my Uncle Steve is only a couple of years older than me. A couple of these men she married, but in hindsight, it is easy to see that these marriages never had any chance of succeeding.
Over time she became a raging alcoholic, and her bad choices defined her at that time of her life. Her children were full witness to her life of debauchery. Sometimes they were abused, neglected, or left under the supervision of others for extended period of time while she was off living her life of excess. She tended to associate with charming yet abusive men who shared her fondness for alcohol, and she herself was frequently beaten and assaulted by one of these men, while sharing a mutually drunken rage.
I look back at pictures of her and she was a beautiful, deeply-flawed, damaged woman. I don’t pass any judgment. I see her life and circumstances for what they were. In her own way, she was looking for all of the same things we all want — love, kindness, acceptance — but from her distorted view of the world, she simply had no concept of what was required to attain these things.
I never knew this person called Eva. I only knew the person she would become later – someone we called, with love and fondness, Guela.
I remember the smells of food so vividly. Sometimes it was a Saturday morning, and I could hear people moving around above my basement bedroom. The smell of coffee and bacon — Saturdays were the day my Dad cooked breakfast. Aside from that and grilling, my Mom handled everything else, food-wise.
Mom is a very good cook. When I lived in their house, I recall she liked to be adventurous and try new things, and frequently she hit the mark with a food experiment. It’s not these things I remember though. It’s the smells and sounds of everyday cooking. Onions and garlic. Roast beef. Fried chicken. All of the foods of comfort you can imagine. Then there were the Mexican and Tex-mex dishes — carne guisada, chicken with mole, calabacita, enchiladas, corn tortillas sizzling in hot oil, fresh flour tortillas, and of course, the beans.
The Beans are what gringos often think of as refried beans. Frijoles are made from pinto beans, a staple food for both Hispanic and Mexican Americans, but also across Mexico and other Latin American countries. They are frequently cooked whole as Frijoles Charros or Borrachos, and then later mashed and refried. The Beans are omnipresent in Mexican cooking, and have a prominent place in my food memory.
There’s nothing to it really. Beans, salt, water, a clove of garlic or two if you have them, a pot and some heat. That’s it. All through my life there have been pots of beans cooking on stoves, emitting an very distinctive smell, one that permeates the home, and makes visitors say “Mmmm what is that you are cooking?”. They are healthy, and like other popular foods common in families and communities without a lot of resources, they are inexpensive. The beans can feed a lot of people for not a lot of money. For me, over time, they have come to represent warmth, and comfort.
Growing up I lived here in Minnesota, and once per year my family would drive to San Antonio to visit family. We would stay for a week, sometimes two, and park our RV — we called it a motor home — in the driveway of my Uncle Nonnie. His real name was Johnnie, not Nonnie, but somewhere along the line someone could not pronounce Johnnie, so Nonnie just stuck. Nonnie is my mom’s younger brother, 2 of 6. He was a very accomplished man — a Spanish teacher. He wrote textbooks and widely-used curriculum. He once one the Texas state teacher of the year award. He had a Master’s degree in education, and for someone that came from where he came, that fact alone was simply astounding.
Guela lived with Nonnie. Guela is a variant on Abuela, which is another word that someone probably could not pronounce, so Guela stuck. By this time she had moved into the next phase of her life, leaving the hard-living behind her. He took care of her financially, and she took care of the little domestic details of his life, shopped for him, cooked, cleaned – I believe she was sincerely happy to fill this role for him. He was single his whole life, so their arrangement was mutually beneficial.
On our visits, we’d have little adventures. We’d go the Alamo, or the Spanish missions in the area. Or the River Walk or Mexican markets in downtown San Antonio. Maybe to nearby towns to visit interesting sites, or family members, or flea markets. Sometimes we went to the coast — Port Aransas or South Padre — and hung out on the beach. Maybe we’d doing a little fishing from a pier.
Just as often thought we’d just hang out at the house and just be. My Dad is a carpenter, and he would always be doing something to Nonnie’s house during one of our visits, building an addition, a gazebo, a deck — every year it was something different. In the South Texas heat of summer, one of the primary objectives was also just to stay cool. So we also did a lot of not moving around too much, in our downtimes just to escape the heat.
I knew the place I held in her life. During these downtimes, on more than one visit, would pull me aside and in a sneaky way, give me a jar or bag full of coins. She’d tell me that since the last time we were here she’d saved all of the pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters etc that she’d found while sweeping or doing laundry for Nonnie and my two uncles, and that I should take it and go to the corner store and buy something — and for my sister too. It was our little secret.
There were lots of uncles and aunts and cousins always around. We sometimes visited at Easter, and large barbecue was always something we did on Easter Sunday. Music and the smell of cooking heavy in the air — Smoked brisket, sausages, tripas, burgers and hot dogs for the culinarily boring, potato salad, tortillas, and The Beans — they were always there too. This was no gentile Midwestern barbeque — my family, they are loud, and they are huggers. It was fun and raucous, and the fact that I was an adopted gringo boy made not a bit of difference, I was one of them. One of the highlights of our visits was always when I got to see my Uncle Hago – His real name was Javier — a large man of at least 400 pounds. When we saw one another I would hear a loud Heyy Mijo! Que Paso! as he grabbed me and picked me up off the ground with a giant 400-pound man bear hug. That is quite an experience, I can tell you.
I have these vivid memories of when I’d stumble out of bed at whatever time of the morning it was, and into the kitchen, hungry. The house was quiet, but the smell of food was in the air. There would be Guela. Probably sweeping – she was always sweeping something – or maybe folding laundry. Are you hungry mijito? For breakfast she would make us whatever we wanted. It was like having your own short-order cook.
She would make bacon and eggs, or huevos rancheros, or barbacoa if she had it, always with fresh tortillas grilled on the spot. And there would always be beans, in a cast iron skillet on the stove, waiting to be warmed up for whoever was hungry. For my Dad, who she loved very much, sometimes she would hide away a little steak or a pork chop, and would cook that for him for breakfast with his eggs. Sometimes I would just sit at the kitchen table and eat beans and hot handmade tortillas, because sometimes simple is better.
The thing I realize now, is that through the simple act of cooking for us, she made us feel like kings, that we were important and deeply loved. I have to admit I think the boys had things better with Guela. She loved my mom and my sister, and my Mom’s sisters Betty and Sandy, but the boys had it good. Nonnie was everything to her, the center of her world. I was her first grandson, and all that implies, and my Dad was this big, strong, kindhearted man, who did amazing things with a hammer and a saw – another son, by marriage. She treated us well, and we loved her in return. We became the men in her life. Cooking for us is the way she told us she loved us, using the best way she knew how. She replaced her previous life — the abusive men, the booze, the violence — with something that was good and nurturing. All of the bad was gone. I can see now that the little things she did for us became her salvation. This is what saved her. She was redeemed.
She passed away about 20 years ago, and Nonnie about 10 years after that. Both were too young, and I miss them very much.
In our house today, we have unusual food routines. Ryan was a vegetarian for a while in high school for a while, and we adapted our cooking to that. Evan, my conscientious young man, is today a vegetarian, and we accommodate his wishes with cooking that reflects his sincerely held beliefs — although I can tell he misses bacon. And my wife Jennifer, four years ago this month, underwent bariatric surgery that profoundly and positively changed her life, but has also placed significant restrictions on the type and amount of food she can eat. Me, I’ll eating anything. I just try to fit in to everyone else.
Because of all this, as a family it is very challenging to find a common meal that we call sit down and enjoy together. So in our home we operate in a modified short order mode. As the primary cook, I’ve just gotten used to cooking when someone is hungry. Burrito here. Omelet there. Maybe once in a while a dish we can share. The kitchen is not always open, but if you are hungry, and are reasonable about your request, I will make you something to eat. It is just how things work best for us.
As my family has evolved to where we are now, the thing that I have since realized, that my grandmother showed to me, whether she consciously understood it or not, is that cooking is love. Cooking for people we care about is an expression of our regard for them, and is a real and tangible way to express our care. Like her, for me, cooking is the best, most reliable way for me to tell my people that I love them.
I want to read you something. It is not from any scripture, but something I read, strangely enough, from a Penzey’s spice catalog – one of those that comes in the mail.
Our years of selling spices have taught us that cooking is not a one size fits all world: far from it. We’ve learned the wonder of cooking lies in the incredible diversity of the people who cook, and in the incredible variety of the food they cook. Over the years we have come to understand for all of our differences, for the tremendous variety of what we cook, people who cook have something in common. They care enough to make the lives of those around them better. The research shows that the kindness of cooking works.
This is now our tenth year since we got it into our heads that there has to be a better way to tell the story of cooks and cooking. Back in ‘03 there actually was a lot being written about cooking. Celebrity chefs were still big, so many cooking stories were really about going out to eat. It was the height of the one-right-way-to-cook-things school of thought; so much was written about the right temperature for cooking chicken breasts. There was also a style of writing about food found in both newspaper food sections and upscale magazines that seemed to be very successful at putting people in a mindset to buy luxury items.
Lots of stories. Lots of good people working hard to find just the right words. But for me none of it was really about actual cooking. None of it expressed the love I found in the food I experienced growing up. None of it captured the spirit of kindness so universal to the cooks I had met over the years who had come out of their way to buy spices.
Maybe it was something about meeting and falling in love with my wife, or maybe it was something about her becoming pregnant with our daughter and thinking about what kind of world we were creating for her. But at that moment, the idea that the most popular “cooking” shows were about angry chefs swearing and throwing food at people was more than I could take. I snapped. Real Cooks are Real Heroes. The love and kindness they share through their cooking matters, maybe more than anything. They have taught us the best recipes come to us right after the words, “What I do is nothing special, all I do is…”
It’s been a while now and we hope you appreciate our stories of the love and kindness that are at the heart of cooking. Great recipes too. Along the path we hope we’ve helped you to see yourself as a little more noble and that you better understand that each time you step up to the stove you make a difference. Your cooking matters. You matter.
When I was living in a dorm in college, I wrote letters to my Uncle Nonnie, telling him about my trials and tribulations at college, especially about how the cafeteria food was so bad. I remember getting so excited about “steak night”. It was a cruel hoax, based on the cut of meat and the preparation method they used. Nonnie sent me a check, and I went and blew the entire thing in one night on fajitas and margaritas for me and my equally-starving friends. I wrote and told him about what I’d done with the money he sent. He responded with a note telling me how much he enjoyed knowing how I spent that money, and that he had laughed and told all of his friends about it. Included in his note was another check.
Ryan went off for his freshman year of college last fall. In our many trips to see him over the course of the school year, the one thing we always managed to do was feed him. It was a challenging transition for everyone. Sometimes it was hard for he and I to know what to talk about, being the two introverted people we are. I’m thinking — I may not have the right words to say right now. I may not know how to relate. Nothing I say may make a difference in what you are going through right now. But I am here. Are you hungry, mijo? Let’s go have something to eat.
Evan will tell his friends what a good cook his dad is. When we got home from our recent vacation our West, he told me, I really had a good time, but I missed your cooking.
I keep a cast iron skillet on my stove, full time. The beans are in the fridge at all times. Like my grandmother, if anyone is hungry, I am ready.