Doña Lupe’s Kitchen is a Los Angeles based blog written, designed and curated by Gina Ruiz.
Let me tell you a story, the story of Doña Lupe’s Kitchen and how it came to be. When I was growing up, the most magical place in the world for me was my Grandmother Lupe’s kitchen in Los Angeles in a little neighborhood they call Toonerville for reasons unknown to me. Toonerville is near Atwater Village, Los Feliz and Glendale but it’s closer to the railroad tracks, near factories and the L.A. River just below Chevy Chase. My grandparents settled there sometime in the early 1940’s right at 4040 Goodwin Avenue, I believe right after they were married. My grandparents are in the picture above. That handsome guy in the middle is my grandfather Salvador Medina Camarillo or Don Chava as he was called. I called him Papa. My grandmother Lupe is sitting right below him. My mother and her sisters were born in that house with my Tia Luz as my grandmother’s attendant.
The house was an old Craftsman of white wood with green trim. It came complete with creaky wooden floors, a cool cellar for storing things and the magical kitchen. There was an old 1950’s aluminum table with a red laminate top that looked to my childish eyes just like chopped tomatoes in a bowl. There was a formal dining room with an ornately carved table and a cabinet where the good china and glassware sat on display. That table sat 12 and there were always card tables to be set up for the children during the big holiday meals.
As far back as I can remember that kitchen was filled with good smells, companionship, love and food. My first memories are in that kitchen, standing with my grandmother at that crushed tomato table watching her chop, mix, stir, roll, season and taste. The whole barrio would smell of her baked goods, her salsas, her incredible moles. Her surprisingly soft little hands always smelled of rose lotion, garlic, onions, chiles and cumin – a comforting perfume.
One of my first jobs that I can remember were pinching the sides of sopes, those marvelous little corn cakes filled with meat, beans and vegetables or gently picking cilantro leaves from their stems. I remember using a tortilla press for gorditas, learning to roll out flour tortillas and pat corn tortillas into shape.
I remember my strong but gentle grandfather, Papa Chava rolling out massive white tortilla moons and handing them to my grandmother standing at the comal. I remember how the light would shine right through them and dazzle my eyes. It’s no wonder I have this obsessive love affair with food, color, light, texture and taste. I can’t ever remember not knowing how to cook.
My young life was filled with the colors and smells of my grandmother’s kitchen and if we went to my relative’s houses they cooked in the same way, keeping the same traditions. My Tia Luz for example, even when she was 70 years old would climb her own peach trees to pick just the right fruit for her famous peach pie that tasted tart, sweet and fresh as a summer day.
This is me sitting in front of one of my grandmother’s incredible picnic lunches and that’s my grandma right behind me with her apron on.
Our summers were filled with barbeques, there were tamaladas in the winter, sope making for church bazaars, baking, the distilling of rompope, that Mexican eggnog loaded with rum and poured carefully into sterilized bottles, the famous pan for any holiday and special ones for Catholic mass at Cristo Rey Church when they enacted the last supper. When whomever was playing Jesus raised that huge roll of bread, shiny with it’s brushed-on gloss of egg wash and the lights of the stained glass windows hit it, my breath always caught knowing that my grandma made it, that I had lovingly brushed on coat after coat of the egg wash till my grandmother judged it good enough for mass. I’d turn my head and catch my grandfather’s eye and watch his big dimples get bigger and bigger as he smiled with pride. Together, we’d look at my devout grandmother who was anxiously hoping that her bread was pleasing to the Lord she dedicated her life to.
I remember cold mornings waking up under a mountain of wool blankets and sarapes and just lying there listening to the sounds of my grandmother in the kitchen. She’d wake every morning at the crack of dawn, open all the windows and doors, and go out and water her beautiful garden of flowers and herbs. She’d then come in and make fresh tortillas, salsas, put on a pot of beans and whip up things like huevos con nopales, crispy refried enchiladas and eggs, scrambled eggs cooked in her fresh salsa de molcajete, beans straight from the pot with chopped tomatoes, cilantro and onion, or her fresh pan (bread) straight from the oven and dripping with creamy butter. There was always coffee for my grandfather from that old blue coffeepot and hot atole or chocolate for me.
Summer mornings I was given milk or juice, or her orchata de melon. The variations were endless and one of morning rituals was to try and guess my the sound or the smell what was being prepared. I could never stay in bed long though, I’d open my eyes and find my Aunt Jessie’s laughing eyes upon me and I’d tumble out of bed and run to the kitchen to help Grandma cook. Nothing made me happier unless it was helping my grandfather out in the garden learning to plant cilantro and chiles for my grandmother’s kitchen.
Food and religion, food and spirituality, food and family, food and tradition. Food was never just something to fill our bellies. There was always a purpose, always love and always the unmistakable hand of my grandmother in all of it. Every bite tasted of her devotion and love for us and I grew up memorizing her memories, her stories, her recipes.
Like my grandmother, I don’t measure unless it’s something new I’m trying and even then, I can’t help but change things about. I don’t think I’ve ever stuck to a recipe from a book. I am always trying new things, but my roots are strong and I still make the things the way she did, using her methods, the freshest ingredients, everything from scratch, and using traditional processes for certain foods like my moles and chile salsas.
As I became a young woman, her teachings proved invaluable. Managing my own household and four small children, I was able to share her love with them. I knew how to make something from nothing during the really rough times after my divorce. I could whip up pies and cakes from the barest cupboard.
I had hoped at least one of my children would learn my grandmother’s recipes but none show an interest so far and they are all grown and married. Every once in a while they ask for something but to them, these are their mother’s recipes not the great-grandmother they didn’t have the privilege of knowing.
I have grandchildren now, two of them who live nearby and these two love cooking as much as I did and in ways my children never did. Jasmine and Aiden adore being in kitchen and Jasmine, in particular has my grandmother’s touch with food. She has the same soft hands too. She often tells me “Grammy, try that spice” and sure enough her four-year old eye is uncanny. She’s always right on the money and brings new flavors and insight to my kitchen. Two-year old Aiden is already following in her footsteps and loves the kitchen more than any place in the house.
My grandmother always wanted a restaurant but her dream never came true. Her idol was Julia Child. I, on the other hand never wanted to cook for people I didn’t love or cherish. To me, cooking was just another way to show my affection or caring and cooking for strangers didn’t fit into that mold. My hero in of the culinary world was my grandmother and her ability to make anything, even the simplest pot of beans taste like nectar from heaven.
Today, on my 46th birthday, I thought I’d not only honor my grandmother’s memory by giving life to her recipes but that I’d create a testament, a legacy to leave my grandchildren of memories, stories about food, a life almost forgotten in these days of microwaves and instant meals. My youthful arrogance seems to be tempering (a bit) with maturity and my sense of immortality is fading. I’ve grown anxious that my grandmother’s recipes will be lost, that my children don’t care enough, that I won’t be around long enough to teach my grandchildren everything she knew.
This website is dedicated to my grandchildren in the hopes of preserving the past and the present in order that they can go into the future strong in their traditions and the knowledge of their family and where they came from. It’s also a tribute to my grandmother, Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez Camarillo and to all grandmothers everywhere. It will have family recipes, new and old and it will have stories about the people that made them, like my Tia Luz, cousin Rachel, my Nina (Godmother) Marie. Bienvenidos! Welcome to Doña Lupe’s Kitchen.