I was born straddling two cultures, so it’s no wonder that I’m pretty comfortable absorbing all the culture around me in my city. My mother, a Mexican Catholic married a WASP whose family ties harkened back to Ireland and Holland. By age three, my parents had divorced and I was mostly raised by very loving, affectionate Mexican grandparents that were proud to be in America (my grandmother was actually born here) and also very proud of their culture. It was they who gave me my center, they who instilled in me my work ethic, a love for language, cooking and baking, herbal lore and yes, that very Mexican love affair with the moon.
Growing up was rough, because back at the end of the ’60’s early 1970’s I didn’t fit in anywhere really. The Chicano kids thought I was too white and I had that weird last name Gleason. The white kids thought I was too dark, and I ate that weird stuff: tacos and chiles in my lunch. I retreated to the libraries and in those stacks of books, I found my home. Books helped me build a life as a teller of tales, a writer – they helped me find my path, but when things got really difficult, it was the culture of my grandparents that sustained me and gave me the strong legs of a rich history to stand on. The world didn’t seem so hard to me when the moon had so many stories and songs.
“Moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Game day dawned bright and sunny. Unseasonably warm for Northern California in November, it was perfection for Ellie and I. I woke first and stumbled over to the in-room coffee maker before starting to get ready. Two women who love makeup, clothes and like to fuss meant blowdryers, straightening irons, bags of makeup and gewgaws everywhere. We managed to make ourselves not only beautiful, but Raider-appropriate, completely dressed in the Silver and Black of our team. We’d arranged to meet our midnight friend for breakfast in our hotel lobby before the game and we were excited to see him.
Our elevator opened and there, in the lobby were Raiderettes Janae and Brittany busily signing calendars. I made sure to get a calendar for my Uncle Kiki and chatted with them for a while about my uncle, the game, and my silver and black fingernails. That was a hit! While we were chatting, a couple came in straight from the hotel shuttle from the airport. They were insanely excited to see the Raiderettes and told me they’d flown all the way in from Newfoundland to attend the Raider Game. Fully clothed in silver and black, they were one of the most excellent representations of Raider fans I’d seen. Imagine flying for eighteen hours just to see a game! They did that and that is some serious fan dedication.
When I was a little girl, one of the big joys of my life was watching Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling) with the men in my family. I’d happily run over to our little black and white television and fiddle with the antenna wrapped in foil to get the UHF channel that ran Mexican T.V.
The big guy to me, and the one I admired most was Mil Máscaras, or the man of a 1000 masks. He was my hero, but El Santo (The Saint) was my grandfather’s and with good reason. El Santo, wearing his ever-present silver mask, went up against such fierce baddies as La Llorona (scariest ever Mexican legend to me) and the Momias de Guanajuato (think mummies/zombies) on film. Yes, there is Mexican Wrestling cinema! For a time, there were lots of movies made with El Santo & The Blue Demon going up against traditional Mexican monsters/ghosts and the like and good old American monsters like Frankenstein. I loved El Santo too and to a lesser extent, The Blue Demon, but Mil Máscaras stole my heart. It’s no wonder that he is considered to be one of the most influential Mexican wrestlers ever, he was that awesome. He was one of the first wrestlers to introduce those crazy high-flying moves of Lucha Libre to Japan – the plancha and tope suicida. He was internationally famous and was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame as well as inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2012, an honor well over due.
It is strange how the years flip things upside down and topsy-turvy.
It seems like just a week or so ago that I was bringing my tiny, preemie baby son home from the hospital. I was fascinated by him. This marvel that I had somehow created without knowing anything about the world myself was now my responsibility. I was married, but I was oh so young – just seventeen when he was born. My mother would yell at me when I visited her. “You’re going to spoil him! Va ser embracilado!”
Albert & Me – end of the 80′s
I didn’t care if he was spoiled. I didn’t care if he wanted to be in my arms all the time. All I could do was stare in wonder at this incredible little human being and hold him. I never wanted to put him down. It was a love affair. We adored each other – he was equally enchanted by me and I was floored by that. Our bond was unbreakable. We were connected – no longer by umbilical cord, but by love. As his intelligent brown eyes stared solemnly at me, I swore to myself he would have it all.
Disclosure: This is a sponsored post. The opinions expressed here are my own.
My Uncle Kiki (or Sal Camarillo as he’s known on Facebook) was one of my idols when I was growing up. He had this mysterious air about him and the whispers of adults spoke of the army, Brown Berets and other things which I’ve never asked about or confirmed. He was gone a lot when we were little, but when we did see him, two things were certain – Raiders and the time and care he’d spend with us kids. Uncle Kiki was an artist and would spend hours coloring with us and showing us how to use tissue paper on our crayon work to get softer looks in our art. He told us stories and most of them had to do with the Raiders. Every year, religiously, he’d don silver and black and settle down to watch the games. When he had his own family, he was around more. He instilled upon us and his own children, a fierce loyalty and passion for those guys in silver and black and we cheered them on every year.
My beloved uncle had his share of tragedies, he survived a brutal stabbing that left him almost dead and in the hospital for a very long time. He survived that only to have a car accident in 1977 that left him a C5-6 quadriplegic.
This post has nothing to do with food and everything to do with Doña Lupe’s Kitchen.
It’s about The Sound of Music.
You know, that movie with Julie Andrews as a singing nun who falls in love, gets married to a guy with a ton of singing kids and then escapes from Nazi Germany? That movie.
Why is it so important to DLK?
I’ll tell you…
I don’t remember my Grandma Lupe doing ANYTHING for herself. EVER. She devoted her life to her family, her God and religion. She gave back to her community. She rallied the Guadalupanas at her church into providing a communion dress for a poor girl in the area. She baked bread for the church bake sales, cleaned the church, and gave, gave, gave. Never once did I ever see her do anything that wasn’t completely selfless, except for the occasional moment she took out in the patio to eat an orange.
She never just sat still. Always there was needlework in her hands, she was embroidering pillow cases for someone, edging towels with crocheted lace, making baby blankets even while watching T.V. I don’t remember her ever just doing something because it was FUN.
Til the Sound of Music.
My grandmother had a library of Catholic books in her home. You know, things like the Lives of Saints, the Bible and not much else except for the books by Marie Killelea ( a Catholic author who wrote about her daughter Karen’s cerebral palsy and faith) and The Sound of Music. My grandmother LOVED the story of the Von Trapp family and I think, in some way found it related somewhat to her own life. She, like Maria Von Trapp, had wanted to become a nun and instead married.
She loved the message of the book. She loved that Maria Von Trapp had chosen duty – serving God even though she wouldn’t become the nun she’d thought she’d be. She loved the faith of the family and that they prayed often, had their own chapel built on their property when they finally settled. She loved the book.
I found the book because I was desperate. I was and am an avid, hungry reader. I’d already been through the Lives of Saints and had read about Saint Maria Goretti’s stabbing like 900 times. There was nothing else and then I found it, this little book. Grabbing an apple and heading out to the patio, I buried myself in the lives of the Trapp Family Singers for a couple of hours. I fell in love with the book too, not for religious reasons, but because it was an adventure. That same summer that I’d found the book, the movie came out and my grandmother decided we’d all go see it.
I take my grandkids to the movies all the time, no big deal. MY GRANDMOTHER GOING TO A MOVIE WAS AS IF THE WORLD HAD STOOD ON END AND TIPPED US ALL OFF IT!
IT WAS HUGE!
She didn’t go to movies. She didn’t do fun stuff. She went to markets, J.C. Penny’s to get sensible underwear and pajamas for us. She didn’t go to movies!
It was the one and only time I ever sat in a movie theater with my grandmother. We laughed, we cried, we had a good time. We went home and talked about the movie for days.
To this day, when I see the movie on television, I think of my grandmother and miss her.
It was on this Christmas Day. “Merry Christmas in heaven Grandma”, I whispered as I saw the opening credits. I watched the movie and remembered my Grandma.
During the Christmas season, there was lots of hustle and bustle at the creaky old house on Goodwin Avenue. All of us loved the season, but my very religious grandparents loved it most of all. For us kids, it meant presents; good food; a break from school; getting to live at that house for the whole school break and the excitement of the nacimiento.
Putting out the nacimiento (nativity scene) is pretty standard in Latino Catholic households. My grandparents really did it up. Every year, my Papa Chava would prepare for it. He had built a manger with branches from the trees outside and as it made its way up from the basement, he would check it carefully for loose nails, splintering or boughs that needed replacing. He’d take it into his workshop in el garaje (the garage) to make any needed repairs. Once it was fixed, he’d bring it and and set it down lovingly on the table that had been just as lovingly draped in a beautiful cloth by either my Auntie Jessie or my grandmother. Once the hand-crafted manger was set up, my Papa would go back outside and get up on his ladder. He’d cut down boughs of sweet smelling pine and use them to cover the top of the manger’s roof. The Baby Jesus needed a strong roof after all.
I often had the honor of going down to the basement with my Auntie Jessie and digging through all the goodies there to find the boxes of carefully packed nativity figurines. Some of these were incredibly beautiful. The Baby Jesus was life size and gorgeous. He was made in Italy sometime in the 1940′s and his glass eyes and little teeth were so very realistic. I loved that figurine. Mary and Joseph were equally beautiful and the Reyes Magos (Three Kings) were stunningly attired and regal. The hand-painted detail of these figurines was stunning. They all looked as if they had walked right out of a painting by Da Vinci or Carraveggio.
The animals too, were realistic and beautifully painted. Cows, donkey, camels, the elephant one of the Tres Magos rode in on all were placed carefully within and around the manger. A star was placed on top to replicate the Star of Bethlehem and my grandfather had rigged it so that it lit up when we turned it on at night. Everything waited in the manger for the Christ Child to be born, even the little cradle with it’s handmade, incredibly soft blankets made by my Aunt Jessie and Grandmother.
Some years, Auntie Jessie would make the Baby Jesus a new gown of baby blue satin, edge in gold lace or trim. He was a kingly child after all.
The anticipation grew each day as we watched the tree filling up with presents and the nacimiento still empty. Finally, the night of Noche Buena (the good night) would come and off we would go to midnight mass at the little parish church, Cristo Rey on Perlita Street. At communion, wine would be given with the host and we kids would feel VERY important and grown up with that sip of wine to wash away the wafer thin host.
The short walk home was exciting too, if cold but we were well bundled up by my Grandma Lupe so it wasn’t ever too bad. When we got home, hot champurrado would be waiting on the stove and the Baby Jesus would be “born”; placed in his cradle by either of my grandparents. We would line up to greet him, each of placing a gentle kiss on his forehead to welcome him to the world.
We’d had our champurrado and maybe empanadas or pan then be bundled off to bed to wait excitedly for Santa Claus and Christmas Day.
I don’t know what happened to my grandparent’s nativity scene, since lots of things disappeared after they died, so I don’t have pictures of it. There is a Baby Jesus almost like it here http://nicholasandsteele.blogspot.com/2010/10/this-n-that.html but our Baby Jesus was laughing and you could see his little teeth. He was a much happier baby.
Sinigang is a traditional Filipino tamarind-based soup that my grandchildren’s other Grandmother, Annabel makes. The base is made of tamarind, fish sauce, meat and tomatoes with vegetables and sometimes peppers added. The first time I had it, I fell in love with it. The flavor of that tangy, delicious soup haunted me and made my mouth water every time I thought of it.
Annabel knows its my favorite and so she makes it for me often. Whenever I ask her how to make it, she says, “Just meat and vegetables” in that typically modest way of hers. She doesn’t think she’s a good cook when in fact, she’s really an incredible one. In some ways, she reminds me of my Grandma Lupe. Like my grandmother, she tosses in a little of this and a little of that to make magic in a bowl or plate. She shows her love and care for the people close to her by feeding them, another Dona Lupe trait. Also like my grandmother, Annabel is overly modest about her abilities.
One of her specialities is her soup. Annabel makes soups that will make angels weep, they are so good. There’s always something simmering on the stove that smells amazing and nine times out of ten, one of those pots is full of some kind of yummy soup. The queen of them all though, is sinigang, my personal favorite. My Latina palate loves all things spicy and tangy so it’s no big surprise that this is my favorite Filipino dish.
Annabel uses a tamarind base by Knorr though she’s told me that given time, she’d make it with fresh tamarind pods. Since the grandkids are still young and their palate’s not quite so developed, she omits the finger-length green hot peppers that traditionally are part of the dish. I’ve had it with those, and it brings a spicy heat to the soup that is delicious, but I agree with her to not include it when the kids are wanting soup. We don’t want to turn them off of a delicious thing just because its too spicy.
I spent last night at the grandkids’ apartment and had arrived sniffling. With the recent high winds all over Los Angeles, I either had a bad case of allergies, or the beginning of a cold. Either way my nose is red and raw. Annabel took one look at me and said, “You need soup” as she poured my coffee. Settled in with the grandkids later, I fell asleep and woke to the scent of tamarind. “Sinigang”, I thought, “she’s making sinigang” and jumped out of bed to watch her make it. Sadly, she was already done and serving it into a bowl with steamed rice. “Gina, eat soup. I made your favorite, sinigang.” Yes, I am a lucky woman to have this blended family that loves me. Well, she didn’t have to tell me twice. Jasmine popped her head out from the covers and said, “I smell sinigang.” It didn’t take her long to slide down from the top bunk and tumble into the small kitchen.
We sat at the table with steaming bowls of tamarind-scented soup, and I watched the grandkids smiling as they dug in. Annabel was hovering over Aiden, chopping up his meat in small bite-sized pieces and I found myself turning Jasmine’s bowl in just such a way so she wouldn’t spill her rice over. The wind howled a little outside as we ate our tangy, tomatoey broth with vegetables, meat and rice. Warm in my belly, the soup soothed, kept my sneezing at bay and I had made sure to snap a photo before demolishing it.
Annabel promises to show me how to make it. She often changes up the vegetables in it, depending on what’s available in her fridge. Today the veggies included radishes, baby bok choy, asparagus and tomatoes. I’ve told her I’m going to video the whole process so that the grandkids we share have it always. It’s as much their legacy as my grandmother’s recipes are, and most definitely belongs here in Doña Lupe’s Kitchen.
Far in the back of the house on Goodwin Avenue was a garden. Well, there were several gardens in that house, but the one to the very back of the property; past the patio and the garage was the vegetable garden. That garden belonged to my Papa (grandfather). There were nopales (cactus) growing against the back wall of the white-painted garage; a membrillo (quince) tree that I had planted with him when I was about two years old; a lemon tree that always seemed full of big, juicy fruit; and two guayaba (guava) trees. There was cilantro, chiles, strawberries, chives, and tomatoes growing in neat rows in one patch and a stand of tall caña a (sugar cane) and corn growing against the back fence that sheltered us from the witch’s house. Really, she was just a mean and nasty old lady who yelled at us over the fence. I have no idea why everyone in the neighborhood called her the witch, but she scared the crap out of all of us.
I loved that garden with it’s strange, but efficient irrigation system of old MJB glass coffee jars that routed the water from the hose neatly down each row. I loved my grandfather’s ingenuity. Two old and re-purposed broom sticks leaned against the lemon tree. My grandfather had attached the curve part of a wire hanger to them and those handy hooks on a stick would bring the highest lemons, tumbling into my basket or apron with just a single twist and pull. Most of all, I loved the guayaba trees.
My grandfather once told me he brought the seedlings of those trees from Mexico many years before. I believed him. I believe he nourished those seedlings with all the love and care he gave everything in that garden. Those trees to me, were a symbol of his love and devotion and I knew he would care for me and keep me safe just as he had those trees all those years ago.
Come the end of September and through the beginning of December those two trees would produce a wealth of delicious guayabas. They smelled musky and the white kids on the school bus would laugh at my full bags of fruit on the bus because they said they smelled like underarms. I didn’t care, through my face burned hotly at their cruel comments. I loved them. The guayabas tasted of my grandparent’s house and love. They were soft, sweet and delicious and I loved the little round ball of edible seeds. There’s nothing like the taste of guayabas and for me, they say Autumn in the way falling leaves do for other people.
I loved bringing in bowls full of the yellow fruit to my grandmother. What we didn’t gobble up fresh off the tree was made into cajeta, ate de guayaba that was later used for empanadas, ponche navideño, and even once, a very pink cake that caused my Aunt Jessie and I so much work to strain the seeds so they didn’t fill the batter. I loved walking into the kitchen and smelling the guayabas ripening in bowls around it. The two trees themselves reminded me of a favorite song of my grandmother’s by Pedro Infante Dos Arbolitos, a song about two trees.
When my mother inherited the house, she let the gardens die including the two trees my grandfather devoted a big chunk of his life to caring for. When I heard from a nephew that the trees had been chopped down, it felt like my grandparents had died all over again.
Every time I see or taste a guayaba, I am transported to that garden that will live on in my memories forever. In that garden, the trees are entwined and represent my Papa and Grandma.
On the big holidays, my grandparents’ house was full of people. Aunts, uncles, cousins, relatives from Mexico or Piru, random comadres and compadres from who knew where. They filled the house. Kids ran all over the place and as the smells of a holiday feast got stronger and stronger, the children’s tables were set up.
For us, it was card tables; those remnants from the 1950s when people would have card games and vist. Kind of like an antiquated version of a Facebook Mafia game. The dusty card tables would be pulled from some corner in the basement, the folded metal legs would come out, someone would wipe it down and bam, there’d be a kid’s table. The card tables were set up around the house with little chairs also pulled up from the cold basement, another remnant from the Cold War era when everyone built bomb shelters in their homes. I loved that basement.
At the children’s tables, places would be set. Napkins laid out, the right silverware lined up neatly. We didn’t get to use the good china or the pretty, amber bubbled glass stemware. We got the brightly colored metal glasses or plastic. Our table had a cloth laid, but it was no where near as fancy as the hand tatted lace one or the hand-embroidered one that had taken my grandmother over a year to make, her stitches so fine that not a knot could you see. Even covered with the protective clear cloth made of plastic that went over it, those beautiful tablecloths did not belong on the children’s table. We got linen, white and snowy; freshly laundered and thick enough to absorb our messes. We felt quite grand though, even at the kid’s table and much in the spirit of the holiday.
The beautiful food made it to the grown-up table, where the adults got to sit. On that beautiful table, in pride of place would be the turkey or ham, beautiful garnished. Thanksgiving was turkey, Easter and Christmas was ham. Surrounding the gorgeous meat were all the beautiful dishes filled with wonders. Cut glass bowls of beautiful salads, jello molds, huge bowls of shiny, still wrapped baked potatoes, another bowl of creamy mashed ones, casserole dishes of yams topped with marshmallows, stuffing, and on and on. It was a beautiful bounty. The pies and desserts were still in the kitchen.
At the children’s table, we got sliced and scooped versions of all the stunning food. Plates piled high with slices of white and dark meat, small bowls with the accompaniments. Our glasses were filled with punch by an adult and then we were left to be on our own. Our conversation mimicked the ones going on at the adult table, or so we thought. We thought ourselves to knowledgeable and conversant. Maybe we were. Sometimes, as children are wont to do, we eavesdropped on the bilingually chattering adults, hoping to catch a gem of a curse word or a hint of a scandal. The kind of thing that usually made for hushed tones and anxious looks to our table. We never really put it together though, but all the same, we felt that delicious shiver of knowing something was secret.
Eventually, we graduated to the grown-up table and took our places. We found it was much more fun at the kid’s table and no where near as glamorous. If we were grown up enough to sit there, then we’d been working in the kitchen and around the house all day non-stop. We sat there tired,worn and hungry but still hostess enough to hop up every time someone needed something.
I miss the children’s table of my youth. I never did that with my children. From the beginning they sat with the grownups. I wanted them near me and now I wonder if I did them a service or disservice by denying them the children’s table.
DLK is a Los Angeles based blog written by Gina Ruiz. It is a narrative food blog that celebrates culture, family and tradition while occasionally meandering off to explore other foods and the City of Angels.