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.