Like most things in my grandmother’s life, cooking was an industrious and utilitarian act—meant to take shortest amount of time and produce the largest return. As a mother and farmworker, she couldn’t afford to think of cooking as anything other than a necessary part of daily life. Having followed her husband to San Jose, California from their small town in Mexico through the Bracero program in the 1960s, my grandmother found herself in an unfamiliar, unforgiving agricultural workforce. Long days in either the canaries or field, in addition to raising six children, left little time or energy to cultivate true culinary passion.
I didn’t know this growing up though. As a kid, I only remember my abuela singing in the kitchen, always with a pot of beans simmering on a backburner, slicing tomatoes and onions. Only recently did I find out that she had learned to can tomatoes from working in the canaries and that beans became a staple in her kitchen when her family needed a cheap source of protein to replace meat. I learned that the nopales she now buys in stores used to be taken in stealth (by her husband) from the wild cacti patches that grew on neighboring train tracks. My abuela’s speediness in the kitchen, too, was a skill cultivated out of necessity. Waking up at the crack of dawn, she’d only have one to two hours to prepare breakfast and lunch for her family before heading to work.
Despite this, my abuelita’s relationship with cooking was as much a product of creativity as it was of necessity and utility. Particularly as she got older and cooking became less of a burden, my abuela began experimenting more, playing with new spices and flavors. Though she doesn’t spend as much time in the kitchen anymore, her recipes and kitchen rules (Never spend more than an hour and a half in the kitchen!) still prevail.
Do you have a story about a woman in your family and cooking? Keep an eye out for a special Mother’s Day recipe print promotion! More details to come this week.