Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Family, Food and Good Memories

Have you ever noticed how the smell and taste of certain foods can instantly evoke a memory of another time, or someone from the past, or perhaps some special place? Food has such an important role in our family life, we sometimes forget just how entwined it is in our lives. When I was a small boy, my father would wake me up in the morning to go to the baby sitter’s house. He would save a slice or two of bacon from his breakfast, put it between a slice of buttered toast, and I would eat it on the way. Simple and good. From time to time I still do that. I can’t bite into a slice of buttered toast and bacon without seeing my father’s face and remembering those early mornings. The taste and the smell are etched into my memories. As my kids were growing up I would do the same for them, and I would always tell them about my father. It connected them to him. Maybe because I have been working on the family genealogy, I have been doing a lot of remembering lately. Many of those memories are food related. .

When we would visit my great grandparents, Atanacio and Victoria Espinosa, (My mother’s grandparents, my grandma Mary’s parents) I would walk straight to the kitchen and stand in front of the bread box and wait for my great grandmother (we all called her little grandma) to notice me. She would reach into the box and pull out a white sugary pan dulce (sweet bread) and hand it to me along with a glass of cold milk. She would speak to me in Spanish but I never understood a word. Sometimes she would make me two fried eggs served with a corn tortilla. At home, unless my mother was making tacos, we rarely ate corn tortillas, it was always flour tortillas. So it was something different for me. So whenever I have fried eggs and corn tortillas, I smile and think of “Little Grandma”. It’s impossible not to remember.

Every summer all the family on my mother’s side, would get together and go camping, sometimes just for a weekend or if it was a holiday weekend, maybe a little longer. My grandma Mary and her husband Danny, Great aunt Julia and uncle Chuey and their family, my great aunt Peewee and her family, my mother’s cousin Helen and her husband Raul, My auntie Margaret and uncle Angel and my cousins David, Kathy, Cynthia and Lisa, my aunt Bea and uncle Sal, and cousins Ray and David., and of course my parents, and my sister Evelyn, brother Dennis and myself. This was the core of the camping group. It was like a mini family reunion every summer, sometimes twice. Sometimes there would be other people there, but for the most part this was the group. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s it was usually Shady Oaks on the San Gabriel river, in the San Gabriel Mountains, later in the late ’60’s and into the ‘70’s it was the campgrounds in Soledad Canyon, usually White Rock or Little Africa.

What I remember most about these camping trips is the food. We would all get together and barbecue hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, steaks, ribs, corn on the cob. There would also be potato salads, macaroni salads, chile beans and lots of bread and tortillas. Mostly I remember the beer, and singing and all the good camaraderie.

When morning came, my mother and father were usually the first ones up. My father would prepare the grill for my mother, and my mother would prepare the coffee and breakfast. It was usually fried eggs, potatoes, bacon, ham, sausage and toast or tortillas The aroma of everyone cooking breakfast and coffee would envelope the campground and whet our appetite, there is nothing like it. By the time I would finish my breakfast, my auntie Margaret would be serving my cousins. I would get up off the table and go sit with them and have another breakfast. No one ever said anything so I figured it was okay. My auntie made her eggs different then my mother, she would use bacon grease (she no longer does that) to fry her eggs, and she would baste the eggs as they cooked. They were delicious! Whenever I am outdoors cooking breakfast this is how I cook my eggs, and I think about my auntie Margaret every time. A little bacon grease from time to time never hurt anyone. I have shared that with my kids countless times over the years. Those were some of the best times when I was young. I hope my cousins look back and feel the same way.

I have to admit, I love food, anyone who knows me knows this. The food that really satisfies me more than any other is Mexican food. By that I mean Tex Mex, New Mexican food, as well as plain, good old fashioned Mexican food. The Mexican food that I ate as a boy and young teen was much different than the food I eat now, or maybe limited is a better word. In the 1970’s, with newer immigrants, came different types of Mexican food. Mexican food is earthy, everyday food. It will feed your soul.

One dish that has been a part of my life from the very beginning is menudo. It is not for everyone, and if you did not grow up with it, you might never be willing to give it a try. It’s a soup made from beef tripe (cow’s stomach) and hominy, along with red chilies, onion, garlic and sometimes Patas (beef feet). It is still one of my favorite weekend breakfasts. When I was younger and still living in Santa Fe Springs, there was an old lady that lived in the barrio “Canta Ranas” (Singing frogs) in a small wood frame house, about five minutes from our home. She sold homemade menudo from her front door on the weekends. My father and I would go there with a empty pot and the woman’s husband would take it in the house and fill the pot. I don’t know how old she was but to my young eyes she seemed ancient. Later in life, I would learn to make it from my mother and grandmother (grandma Mary). My grandmother loved to serve me a large bowl of menudo and then sit across from me and watch me eat. I never had to ask for seconds. I have a ladle that belonged to my grandma Mary, it is a simple restaurant cooking and serving ladle. She cooked with this spoon when she cooked at her restaurants and bars. It has to be over sixty years old. It was my mother’s for years, and I have had it for at least twenty five years. It is my favorite cooking tool. My grandmother is with me whenever I make a pot of menudo, or anything else for that matter. It has become a treasured family heirloom. I don’t keep it hidden away somewhere. Jeri and I use it everyday. I know my grandmother would prefer that. It keeps this great woman close to me, always.

I was lucky to have parents that loved food and knew how to cook. In my father’s case, he had a small repertoire of recipes, but the foods that he did make were great, and I still continue to make them myself. His signature dish was Chile Verde. It was my favorite dish that he made. My father had a cousin that lived in Whittier. She was from New Mexico. She always seemed to have gunny sacks of New Mexico Green Chile. My father would roast these chilies on the barbecue grill and then freeze them. Sometimes he would roast them in the oven or the stove top. There is nothing quite like the aroma of roasting green chilies. My mother mastered this dish as well, and she makes it as well as my father did. My father enjoyed the simple things. He loved chile beans and he had a simple recipe that used canned pinto beans, canned kidney beans, chorizo sausage, tomatoes, onions, garlic and a bottle of Salsa Brava. It’s as good as it is simple. On Saturday or Sunday mornings my parents took turns making breakfast.. My father would make Huevos Rancheros with leftover Chile Verde spooned over fried eggs and served with his fried potatoes or he would make his dollar pancakes.

My mother on the other hand, cooked everyday. She had her specialties too. Chile Colorado, Chile Rellenos, Tacos, Cheese Enchiladas, and Lengua (beef tongue),. Though Mexican food was, at least to me, the heart and soul, of my mother’s cooking, she also made good fried chicken, pot roast, beef stews, meat loaf and so much more. On those days when my mother went grocery shopping, my father, my brother Dennis and I would be at home and he would, almost invariably make hard boiled eggs, fried bologna or fried hot dogs, or anything that was simple to make, and he would wait for my mother get home, knowing she would make shrimp cocktail for us. It was almost a ritual for us. Usually on the weekends my mother would make homemade tortillas. Through the years, from the time I was a boy and into my twenties, as fast as she made them, I would eat them, smothered in butter, until she chased me out of the kitchen. After my father passed away in 1981, with the exception of Chile Verde, she never made any of those things again. She loved cooking for my father, and once he was gone, so was her love of cooking good Mexican food. Later as she became more health conscious, she would change the way she eats. I miss her old way of cooking.

When Jeri was growing up in San Antonio, Texas, there was a man that would come around selling barbacoa. Jeri and her sisters and her father Henry would go outside and buy the barbacoa from the man and go inside the house to eat it. It’s one of her favorite memories of her younger years. Years later she would try to find that dish in different Mexican restaurants. Mexican barbacoa is different than the Tex Mex version. She finally found the Barbacoa she was looking for at the “Taste of Texas” in Azusa. Actually my mother discovered it and then told us about it. The kids love this place and for Jeri it was a chance to introduce our kids to some of the food she grew up with.

Years ago, I was a cook at Jojo’s restaurant in Ontario, California, so I know my way around the kitchen. After my parents and grandmother, there were two men that taught me about food from a different perspective. The first was my boxing trainer Mel Epstein. He was a cook in the Merchant Marines during WWII. Up until I met Mel, I had never had an omelet. He made me my first omelet and taught me how to cook one for myself. From the moment I ate my first omelet I was hooked. I learned to make a pretty fair omelet but I didn’t perfect it until I was a cook at Jojo’s. He also taught me how to make a Swiss Steak, got me to drink buttermilk, and to love cole slaw. He also passed onto me my life long love of eating at diner’s. We ate at so many diners and restaurants that it’s wonder I ever made weight.

The other man that introduced me to new foods was Leon Mazza. Leon was a Greek Orthodox Jew. He was as rough a guy as you would ever want to meet. With arms like Popeye and hands like bear paws. He had a glass eye. His real eye was taken out in a fight. He was from the Bronx, New York, and there was no mistaking it. He was a former restaurant owner. He was close to my father’s age. We worked together at McDonnell Douglas. He invited Jeri and I to his home to celebrate Hanukah with his family. Jeri still talks about it to this day. He gave me my first hot link sandwich. Up until that day I had never heard of a hot link. Leon came up to me one day just before lunch and handed me a big sandwich filled with hot links and said “Try this” he walked away for less than a minute, and when he returned I was cleaning my face with a napkin, he looked around and then asked “Where’s my sandwich?” I said “I ate it.” He screamed at me “What!!” I just wanted you to try it, that was my lunch! I wasn’t gone a minute!. He was a good sport about it though. Leon learned a valuable lesson that day. Never, under any circumstances put a sandwich that you intend to eat in my hands and then walk away. It was a fine sandwich.

I learned to make lasagna from Leon, and so many other things. Both Leon and Mel taught me not only to cook, they opened my eyes to the world of food and this is how I raised my kids. They can all cook for themselves, and they are willing to try anything. I have made gumbo’s, jambalayas, paellas, soul food dishes, Italian dishes, anything and everything. Jeri and I have taken our kids on a journey around the world, from our kitchen. Our son Andrew has literally been around the world and has eaten so many foods from so many different countries. In that respect, he has surpassed Jeri and I, but his love of food was learned at home and it has sustained him. The same with Meranda, Deedee and Lori, they continue to make the foods they learned from Jeri and I, adding their own twists, and they have added new foods and have started their own traditions. The girls have learned to make potato salad from the master, their mother. They have tweaked it to suit themselves, but it is still their mother’s potato salad. Savannah is still young and has other priorities, but she can cook when she has to.

My favorite meal of the year is Thanksgiving Dinner, it was when I was a kid, and it still is. I like a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner with mashed(not whipped) potatoes, homemade gravy and stuffing, yams, vegetables, like green beans or asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, egg nog. I prefer the dark meat, always have. It’s juicier and has so much more flavor. It also would not be the same without tamales. From Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Years we have tamales coming out of our ears. Thanksgiving represents best how I feel about food and family. The Thanksgiving dinner is Jeri’s job, that’s the way she wants it, I don’t interfere. I just enjoy it. I do however make the gravy, that is my sole contribution to the dinner.

One last comment about Chile Verde (green chile), both the vegetable and the dish, and particularly the New Mexican green chile. It has been the thread in all the generations. My father learned from his father Santiago De La O, and Santiago learned from his father Rafael. It not only connects me, and my children to our ancestors, but culturally, to New Mexico as well. If there is one food that reflects our family it is the New Mexico green chile. It is almost symbolic to me.

I bought our kitchen table in1984. I bought it used but it was in great shape and it was probably about ten years old when I bought it. It’s old, worn and scarred now from a lifetime of raising kids, eating breakfasts, lunches , dinners and late night snacks. Pumpkins were carved on that table. All the kids did their homework on that table. Arm wrestling matches were won and lost on that table. I have been told more times than I can remember to get rid of it now. But I won’t. I’ll never get rid of it. I might move it to the garage but that table will be with me until I die. All the kids , except Savannah ,are gone now. Andrew lives in Seattle. The girls are busy with their own kids. Meranda lives nearby, so she visits with our grandkids. Savannah works but her hours make it hard for her to eat dinner with us. The table that was once filled with laughter, crying, children arguing, scolding, spilled food and just overall chaos is quieter now. Until the grandkids come by. I will never get rid of that table.

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