by Rachel Gray
“Se cuecen las carnes aparte,” my grandmother, Gra-Gra instructs, as I arrange each of the meats on to separate plates. She’s been gone for 25 years, but comes to visit when I cook. I remember being around ten when I began to assist her, no longer a child begging to stir something, but a pupil, requesting guidance in developing my own instincts within our heritage of sustenance. Her love of cooking originates from her gift for nourishing others, a ritual healing where she would drop into her ancestral alchemy, conjure familial expertise and invite them to join her in the dance of preparation.
In my mind’s eye, Gra-Gra carefully lays tattered From the Kitchen of… cards before her with sacred reverence. She skims over their scribbled spells, using them to reconnect with her mother, Mamá, her hair the color of aged lace, twisted up in a loose bun, her impish eyes overflowing with love. And with her grandmother, Mamá Pablita, their sprits joining together, commanding the kitchen as one. Gra-Gra intuitively improvises, adding her attributes to the familial dish. And as I relish in their creations, each bite invites me to embark upon a voyage through our gastronomic endowments.
I move to the stove and gently stir the saffron into the rice. I remember being fascinated by Gra-Gra’s adeptness in the kitchen, the speed of her knife as she julienned, the stiff peaks of her hand-whipped cream. She used only authentic ingredients and would frequently bring home treasures like asedero cheese made by the local nuns, wrapped in wax paper and still warm. I came running, begging her to peel slices off for me. Or the jagged blocks of Mexican chocolate, infused with cinnamon and chilies from some hidden market across the border. How she found them and their artisans I used to wonder, but I experience it now as a web of coveted information, passed down in secret culinary veneration.
As the rice begins to boil, its spirited bubbles summon me back to when Gra-Gra took me to one of those Mercados, buzzing with locals bargaining fervidly, gritos colliding in the air. We wound through stalls of clanking children’s toys, jumping Mexican beans, Queserias stacked with mountainous wheels of pungent cheeses and Santería shops brimming with mysterious saints for every ailment. Her hand, always silky and well-manicured, tightly grasped around mine, pulling me safely through the crowds, around Carnecerías and past Pescadores calling out the daily specials. We passed many candy shops before arriving to her favorite Dulceriá, where she was greeted with kisses on either cheek. Excited chatter erupted as they caught up on family and their favorite novelas, before addressing culinary needs. My eyes widened and traveled around the stall, dancing and darting from hand-made chocolates, to layers of vibrantly colored plastic bags hanging from the walls, filled with tamarind-coated candies, Limón powder and Chiclet gum. Gra-Gra selectively chose blocks of cooking chocolates, loose spices, infused sugars, each element then delicately wrapped for our transport back across the long lines over the border, and home to El Paso.
I turn the burner down and add the chicken and chorizo into the rice, then place the lid on the skillet. As they simmer, I thumb through her recipe boxes, pulling one out. It’s like reading a love letter, capturing her nourishing care. Her scribbled handwriting evokes desires to better understand the meaning behind her measurements, to seek the essence of the recipe and add mine in as well, allow the culinary instincts to maturate in me the way they had in her. Some of the recipes are incomplete or written in short-hand, a further biding to uncover the heirlooms and search for the alchemy that stirs within, the one she cultivates still through antiquitus offerings of Tamal Indio, Pollo con Mole and Bacalao.
I feel her presence every time I step into the kitchen. I call on her and Mamá as I tie my apron around my waist, pull ingredients and mentally order my steps toward the completed dish. Gra-Gra’s apparition peers over my shoulder, whispering in my ear, encouraging me to fill in the blanks with visceral selections. She and Mamá join me behind searing hot skillets with wide, inviting smiles and soft, legacy-bearing hips. They volunteer piping hot guidance as I lift the whistling lid, steam escaping into the air, swirling around and within our spirits. The rising aroma transports me to Mamá’s kitchen as I nestle the mussels into the pan. Memories echo through my mind of her birds as they chirped from their massive yet delicate cages next to the open kitchen door. Their melodies flutter forth images of the family picture wall, reading like a treasure map to our roots and the culinary jewels bestowed.
It’s my turn to add ancestral idiosyncrasy, to take my place in our line of nourishing magicians, to conjure and reconnect, stirring their quintessence back to life. I feel a coming home when all burners are aglow, sauce splattering, oil jumping, from the pans that cradle them. I bring in my distinction of flavor as I trust intuitive selections to enhance our dishes, honor our tradition, and embrace the elements our ritual evokes.
I turn from the oven, set the steaming skillet down, and offer our creation to those I now call family. My neighbor, Kevin, always eager for a home-cooked meal, my best friend Jess, her newborn baby cooing against her chest, and our friend Fall, back from hosting a massage retreat in Thailand. They sit around my table in anticipation as the skillet is passed. I witness them embark upon their individual tasting excursions. I serve myself and take a bite, closing my eyes, I allow the spicy chorizo to bite playfully at my tongue, the vibrant rice to further invoke Gra-Gra and Mamá’s spirits. I open my eyes to find them there, within the nibbling of juicy chicken, the extraction of succulent mussels from their shells, and the sustenance of empty plates and full bellies. Our ancestral assemblage can never be taken. With each preparation, with every bite, we partake again in our communion, revealing through our nourishing ceremony that nothing can separar las carnes.
Wow! This is so beautifully written! And what a nostalgic tribute to your heritage today, Rachel! I can almost smell the flavors bursting out of your story and this reminds me how important it is to love the ones we have while they’re with us. It is clear you were very close with your Gra-Gra and she’s left in you beautifully selected pieces of her cultured upbringing. Thank you for sharing a part of that with us. I can’t wait to read more from you!
Thank you, Myiesha. I appreciate your taking the time to read and leave such a touching comment! I’m glad it brought your loves ones to you as you read. It’s such a special gift to be a part of that communion.
Rachel! This is a gorgeous, vibrant story and tribute to your lineage and the women who make magic with you! I feel the generations and decades merging over that bubbling pot of rice, and I cannot wait to taste the deliciousness that is abundant on your plates! Thank you for sharing the moments, and including me in the feast! Beautiful in all ways!
Thank you, Fall. You are a part of the feast and always have been. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment…and for being a part of the magic 🙂
A mouthwatering piece, Rachel, in more ways than one!
Thank you, Karen. I’m grateful for you taking the time to read and leave a comment. I’m eating it up like a yummy dessert!
This terrific essay has me thinking about the women who taught me to cook. Wonderful prose!
Thank you, Windy! I’m thinking about the women who mentored me 🙂
I felt like I was right there in the kitchen with you! Beautiful!
Thank you, Gibby. Welcome to The Kitchen Of!
Rachael: Artfully written with careful crafting of words to create a sacred essence in your story. The food sounded delicious and the spiritual dance to prepare it was vivid and divine. Thank you for sharing this and trusting me to read it!
Thank you Carrie for trusting me to take you on this journey! And for taking the time to comment. I’m truly blessed.
Thank you for your creative way with words that led me on a meaningful journey with my heritage. You transported me directly into that kitchen, feeling the love and kind faces of “Gra-Gra” and “Mamá”, while also smelling and tasting the food! What a magical and touching tribute to family members who remain in our hearts forever. I can’t wait until the next one!
Thank you, Laura. I appreciate you taking this culinary and familial journey with me, Gra-Gra and Mama. Our ancestors are always in our hearts and it’s in the gifts they bestow upon us during life that we can reconnect with them over and over again whenever we wish to.
Oh, Rachel, you make me hungry! Not just for your succulent meal, so carefully crafted with artful words, but for the awareness of your loving presence and that of your family and your treasured heritage; all are so powerfully evoked. This loving tribute is beautiful.
Thank you, Gale! I appreciate you taking the time to read my essay and I’m thrilled you enjoyed the culinary journey as much as the tribute to my heritage. So often many ordinary things are connected to our memories and to become present of that and celebrate it knowingly is such a gift. I’m so thankful for your comment and your support.
Thank you, Gale! I appreciate you taking the time to ready, comment and take this culinary and ancestral journey. So often our most precious memories are intertwined with the ordinary and it is such a gift to realize them as such and share that with others. I’m so blessed to have the ability to share them with you.
Your delightful story is beautiful memory of a beloved grandmother sharing her love and expertise with a precious grandchild. Every memory is tenderly written and vividly described so that one is present and all senses are awakened to experience an unforgettable time between generations.
Thank you for bringing your memories to life so artfully and sharing them with the lucky reader!
Thank you, Tita! I’m grateful for you taking the time to read and connect to this piece. It is such a gift for me to have these memories and I’m delighted to share them with you and all my readers!
Rachel, what a wonderfully evocative piece of writing! And what a greatbtribute to those strong and competent women whose memory you honor so gracefully.. C ongratulations on spreading your wings and flying into the world of writing. Your essay made me want to go out and buy chorizo and chicken, and to seek out those exotic ingrediants that make my mouth water!
I am again living in the land I love….Mexico . You must come down and see me and teach me a little lesson in the ways of your Gra Gra’s cuisine.. Much love and best wishes , Donna Hugh.
Thank you, Donna! Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my essay. I’m grateful for all the women who have found it within themselves to impart their wisdom and add their unique spices to my life, you included. And they are potent gifts worthy of sharing. I’ so happy you are loving your time in Mexico! It is such a magical place rich with delicious food, joyful people and cultural treasures. I would be honored to come down to visit sometime!
I love this! Such a powerful story of food, culture, family legacy, and all that lies between. A beautifully written piece and powerful tribute to your Gra Gra… I look forward to reading more!
Your inspirational narrative embarked me on a visual tour of
loving embrace, savory aromas and vibrant authentic ingredients. Being
seasoned in the kitchen myself, I can appreciate how much these touching memories have meant to you. A special thank you, for sharing your culinary journey with us!
Love this essay! I love even more it’s about cooking! I could talk about food all day. Then, you added a special touch with memories of family and culture. Beautiful, and well done.