Last year, my family lost its matriarch, Alicia Melero Chavez, aged 95. When asked to recite the eulogy at her funeral, I truly struggled with what to say about a woman whose story was so substantial. Should I talk about her journey to America from Durango, Mexico with three young children in tow? Should I discuss her life as a single mother, working from morning to night as a seamstress? While I touched on these things, what I finally honed in on was how I will always remember her, as the joyful woman whose love language was food; who could always be found dancing in her kitchen and infectiously laughing over a warm stove. The woman who taught me that, sometimes, the best way to care and support the people in your life is simply to feed them. The rest will fall into place.
I never really thought about my passion for cooking, baking, and entertaining until recently. I always thought it was just a hobby that came naturally to me, like painting or pottery (which do not). I never thought twice about the rush I get when my little one-bedroom apartment is filled with friends enjoying the chicken floutas I whipped up or biting into my signature chocolate chip and sea salt cookies. I just assumed that I liked to be a hostess and was reasonably good at it. But, now, I realize that food is actually a vehicle in which I deliver love and affection. And I get it from my grandmother.
The thing is, I truly believe there’s magic in a carefully prepared meal, and it’s three-fold. The first component to this magic is the communal aspect. Growing up in a large Mexican-American family with a seemingly endless list of uncles, aunts, cousins, and extended family, it could be difficult to bring people together under one roof. But, somehow, my abuela managed to do it. Perhaps it was the allure of her spicy cheese enchiladas, homemade tortillas, chile verde con papas, or — my personal favorite — chicken mole (a spicy chocolate sauce that is truly the stuff of dreams). Most of my childhood memories of my entire extended family consist of us gathering at my grandmother’s home where we helped her chop and cook in the kitchen and then gathered around the table to enjoy the fruits of our (mainly her) labor.
The second fold of food’s magical impact involves its peace-making abilities. That may sound strange, but stay with me here. As I mentioned before, I come from a large family — a large, loud, and very opinionated family. Conflict and butting of heads was not only normal growing up, but commonplace. But one thing I recall from those countless holidays and special dinners at my grandmother’s home was that no matter how high tensions might run, once seated for a meal, everyone’s white flags went up. Even if it was just for the duration of a dinner, peace and civility ruled the table. Perhaps this could be chalked up to the collective respect my family had for my grandmother ... or perhaps that’s the power of a perfect plate of enchiladas? My guess is it’s a bit of both.
Lastly, and this is a big one, I believe food holds memory. Like a glance at a photograph, biting into a familiar dish or treat can activate a memory and send you right back to a specific moment. To this day, I can’t enjoy a buñuelo (a golden fried Mexican fritter topped with cinnamon and sugar that my family typically enjoys around the holidays) without thinking of Christmases at my abuela’s house. As soon as the cinnamon hits my tastebuds, an image appears of long white tables piled high with plates of food, my aunt Hilda running around with her video camera, my cousins throwing a football on the lawn, uncles playing cards in the garage, and my dad stealthily stealing a buñuelo every few minutes from the basket in the kitchen.
And then there’s tamales, another traditional Mexican dish also made around the holidays that makes me think of all the women in my family. Every year in early December, my mother, maternal grandmother, aunts, and anyone else who’s game gather to make tamales. From morning to late afternoon, we drink eggnog and sangria, play music, and compile the masa, beef filling, and corn husks into a yummy treat that is easily one of my favorites, likely because it makes me feel close to my family. That’s right, food holds memory.
The past year without my grandmother has not been easy. I’ve gone through the various stages of grief: sadness for my family’s loss, guilt for moments missed, regret for things unsaid. But these days, I feel a bit lighter and more hopeful as I now understand the important legacy passed on to me from a woman I love and admire so much. Through cooking and simply hosting in my home, I feel like I’m able to express love without using words. I’m able to bring people together over a decadent cake, chicken tinga tacos, or — that’s right — some peace-making enchiladas. My hope is that perhaps my little kitchen creations will hold memories for the people I love some day, just like those of my abuela.