I call my grandma “Tita,” an endearing short-hand for “abuelita.” She calls me, “chiquita,” even now, as I head into my thirties, savoring the twilight of my twenties. But this is how we coddle and show affection in our Mexican culture, with nicknames in diminutive.
We’re also known, rather famously, for expressing our love through food. If you’re visiting a Mexican home for dinner, you better expect the host to encourage you to eat well beyond the stretch of your pants– to the point of exhaustion– though it’s just a stubborn gesture of love to make sure you’re well-fed.
This is our tradition, and what is expected of a Mexican woman within our culture. It’s antiquated and flawed, yet beautiful– the way tradition can be– inspiring resilience through culture in our matriarchy, savored in bites of dishes rooted in history and nostalgia. But it missed me.
My Tita, who was always larger-than-life, smiling in her beautiful dresses, jangling jewelry, glue-on eyelashes and iconic cat-eye, who would blow-dry my hair to perfection, “como Snow White,” as per request, had lost everything before moving in with my family. Her life with my grandfather had taken her to multiple cities in the US, to countries abroad like, Spain, Canada, Mexico, and back. But after her life-altering stroke in Conneaut, PA, which paralyzed the whole right side of her body, her life became a rolling avalanche of misfortune. Soon after, she lost her son, Patrick (RIP, tío), at 20 years old, which profoundly shocked all of us. From there my grandparents moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where a few years later, my Tito would pass too. Tita was mysteriously left with nothing; a life full of luxury reduced to a pair of Dior sunglasses and a wheelchair.
During this time, my family was going through our own turmoil. My parents had finally, officially split, which sent my mom into a downward spiral, leaving me to care for my two younger siblings. When she would be home, sometimes during her lunch break, she’d start a pot of beans for me to watch, or would make a quick “pasta rápida,” that we would stretch, eating it for breakfast. Things got to a point, once, where I had no choice but to accept the goodwill of my friend’s mother, who collected food and goods from her friends in church after hearing about the state of our fridge.
When my Tita, a foodie well before I even knew that word existed, moved in, we had become different people, in very difficult circumstances. We couldn’t connect the way we used to, our dynamic had been flipped on its head. Now it was my turn to blow dry her hair, to cut and layer it at the base of her neck like she liked, “como Farrah Fawcett.” And all-the-while I’d snip and brush, Tita would recite recipes to me like poetry, recalling her past through food. She’d tell me about her chicken baked in clay, when I knew nothing beyond making rice and a basic sauté, how the clay would make the chicken cook in its own juices, like a confit, a dish that required a little mallet to crack open and devour– while I kept a steady hand trying to get her cat eye just right. I’d paint her nails and she’d swoon over refried beans, her recipe for strawberry tamales, and chayote con crema; stirring up an appetite and feeding my curiosity for cooking. During this time, and for a long time, I worked in the restaurant industry, living off tips to stay afloat. Though, through my Tita’s enthusiasm for food, the job I kept to make ends-meet was slowly becoming a life raft. And perhaps, for us both, in different ways.
My Tita’s big, highlighted ash-blonde, hair-sprayed waves and colored-in eyebrows were her humanity, but food was the very essence of her soul. It was a language she taught me, despite her physical limitations. Like the time I learned to make refried beans, she, in her room watching a show, and I in the kitchen, stretching the last of a pot of beans by mashing them to a paste. I’d lower the heat and run back with a tasting spoon asking, “¿Qué necesita Tita?” It was then I learned to use flour to thicken, well before learning about it in French cuisine. Sometimes I’d come home after a shift, excited to recreate dishes or practice techniques I’d see the cooks use at work; like reducing stout beer for a dessert during prep, which I served for Tita over a poached pear. She was my best critic, and my only supporter, while I awkwardly learned my way through the kitchen.
One day I asked her how to make mole, and because I wasn’t making it from scratch I got a little glass jar of Doña Maria. “Más peanut butter,” I remember her telling me, as I prepared it unceremoniously for my first time. “Más Nutella chiquita,” she said after another taste, like me, she likes her mole sweet. I remember feeling clever as I fried triangle-shaped pieces of tortilla de maiz in simmering oil to make her chilaquiles de mole, thinking it to be a genius reworking of a traditional breakfast. Her face lit up as she saw the dish, now one of her all-time favorites and most-requested dishes, though her mind now is slowly fading.
My chilaquiles de mole had the power to uplift the woman who was always uplifting us. It’s a lesson I’ll never forget: our culture’s food can serve as powerful medicine. And though, I was too in-the-moment to truly appreciate it then, it was in those twinkles of time while I cared for my Tita– brushing her hair or filing her nails– that she gifted to me, something I didn’t know I desperately needed: the right of passage in the Mexican kitchen, the heirloom of care through cooking, and memory of people through recipes.