Food is my language of love – and I can thank my grandmother for it
Last year my family lost their matriarch, 95-year-old Alicia Melero Chavez. When I was asked to recite the eulogy at her funeral, I really had a hard time figuring out what to say about a woman whose story was so important. Am I to mention his trip to America from Durango, Mexico with three young children? Do I speak of her life as a single mother, working from morning till night as a seamstress? As I brought up these things, what I finally refined was how I will always remember her, as a joyful woman whose language of love was food; who could still be found dancing in her kitchen and contagiously laughing over a hot stove. The woman who taught me that sometimes the best way to care for and support the people in your life is to just feed them. The rest will fall into place.
I never really thought about my passion for cooking, baking, and entertainment until recently. I always thought it was just a hobby that came naturally to me, like painting or pottery (which it doesn’t). I never thought twice about the rush I get when my tiny one bedroom apartment is filled with friends enjoying chicken floutas I whipped or bite into my chocolate chip sea salt cookies. I always thought I liked being a hostess and was pretty good at it. But now I realize that food is actually a vehicle in which I deliver love and affection. And I got it from my grandmother.
The thing is, I really believe there is magic in a carefully prepared meal, and it’s threefold. The first element of this magic is the community aspect. Growing up in a large Mexican-American family with a seemingly endless list of uncles, aunts, cousins, and extended family, it might be difficult to bring people together under one roof. But somehow my abuela managed to do it. Maybe that was the appeal of his spicy cheese enchiladas, his homemade tortillas, his chili verde con papas., or – my favorite – chicken mole (a spicy chocolate sauce that really makes you dream). Most of my childhood memories of all of my extended family consist of gathering at my grandmother’s house where we helped her cut and cook in the kitchen, then gathering around the table to enjoy the fruits of our work (mainly his) work.
The second part of the magical impact of food involves its peacemaking abilities. It may sound strange, but stay with me here. As I mentioned before, I come from a large family – a large, noisy and very stubborn family. Conflicts and butts were not only normal growing up, they were commonplace. But one thing I remember from those countless vacations and special dinners at my grandmother’s house is that no matter how high the tensions can be, once seated for a meal, everyone’s white flags go up. are up. Even if it was only for the duration of a dinner, peace and civility reigned on the table. Maybe it could be attributed to the collective respect my family had for my grandmother … or maybe it was the power of a perfect plate of enchiladas? I guess it’s a bit of both.
Finally, and this is a big problem, I believe that food holds memory. Like a glance at a photo, biting into a familiar dish or treat can activate a memory and send you straight back to a specific moment. To this day I can’t enjoy a buñuelo (a golden fried mexican donut topped with cinnamon and sugar that my family usually enjoys over the holidays) without thinking about Christmases at my abuela’s house to house. As soon as the cinnamon hits my taste buds, a picture pops up in my brain of long white tables filled with plates of food, my aunt Hilda running with her video camera, my cousins throwing a soccer ball on the lawn, uncles playing cards in the garage, and my dad steals a buñuelo every few minutes from the kitchen basket.
And then there are the tamales, another traditional Mexican dish also prepared during the holidays that reminds me of all the women in my family. Every year at the beginning of December my mom, maternal grandmother, aunts and everyone who loves the game get together to make tamales. From morning to late afternoon we drink eggnog and sangria, play music and compile the masa, the beef filling and the corn husks in a delicious treat that’s easily one of my favorites, probably because it makes me feel close to my family. It’s true, food holds memory.
The past year without my grandmother has not been easy. I went through the different stages of mourning: sadness for the loss of my family, guilt for the missed moments, regret for the unspoken. But these days (and the holiday season ahead), I feel a little lighter and more upbeat as I now understand the important legacy handed down to me by a woman I love and admire so much. By cooking and just staying with me, I feel like I can express love without using words. I’m able to bring people together around decadent cake, chicken tinga tacos or, that’s right, peaceful enchiladas. I hope that my little kitchen creations will perhaps hold memories for the people I love one day, just like those of my abuela.