More Than Lunch
By Norma Pinate
My memories are not so much of cooking with my Nana, but rather cooking at my Nana’s house. You see, my grandmother was partially paralyzed from a stroke, but she could walk short distances with the aid of a crutch and another person holding her. So each morning, my mom would bring her to the dining room and sit her in a special chair.
Cooking would start around 10 a.m. with the kneading of the masa for the tortillas. The vegetables would be washed and chopped, then the meat was cut into bite-sized pieces. Mom liked to use round steak, but generally the cut of meat was determined by whatever was on sale at the butchers that week.
In a few minutes, I’d see my Tia Cata coming toward the house with a couple of her little ones in tow. On those days, she and mom worked as a team, getting the food ready for my uncles who came home for lunch, hungry for a hot meal. My Tio Ramon worked for the City of Tempe, and my Tio Gabriel worked at the Hayden Flour Mill; both had back-breaking jobs.
Nana’s kitchen could best be described as a modern barrio cocina because it had indoor plumbing, a gas stove, and a Kelvinator refrigerator, as opposed to an icebox (which some folks still had).
Taking center stage in the kitchen was a big blue-and-white wood stove. It was only fired up during winter because it would make the whole kitchen feel like a furnace. So on this winter morning it had been stoked, making for welcome warmth in Nana’s kitchen. The radio was turned on to radio station KIFN, which played soulful boleros, as well as musica ranchera.
I sat at the small table in the corner doing my chores, which were meager because I was not allowed to handle a knife yet, so I couldn’t do any of the chopping. But I was good at opening cans, and tidying up. The hustle bustle of my mom and Tia Catalina preparing lunch was like a synchronized dance.
My little cousins watched cartoons in the living room. Sí, claro, we actually had a television set. I think my Nana was the first one in the neighborhood to own one. Her sons bought it for her so she wouldn’t get so bored. She could never quite understand the concept of people (who only spoke English), being in the box; she was more afraid of it than entertained by it.
After a while, you could hear the light slap-slap-slap of mom making the tortillas and stretching them by hand into those big, delicious rounds. On this day, Tia Cata was assigned the task of cooking them. They were cooked on the wood stove and the smell permeated the whole house. We knew that pretty soon each of us would be given a fresh-cooked tortilla slathered with butter. What could be better than that?
The calabacitas were bubbling on the gas stove, and the main course, carne con chili verde, was simmering in the biggest olla in my Nana’s kitchen. After all, besides feeding a couple of hungry men, we all had to eat, as well as anybody who happened to drop by. My first chore that morning had been to sweep the floor before the food preparation started, and to clean the frijoles and make sure that all the tiny clods of dirt were removed. This was a job I took very seriously. Mom always put a small trosito de jamon in the beans and cooked them for a few hours. Just before serving them, she sprinkled them with a bit of queso blanco.
The dining room where my Nana spent most of her mornings was adjacent to the kitchen. Her chair was positioned so she could have a clear view of the patio and yet be close enough to converse with her daughters while they worked in her kitchen. As soon as my uncles came home for lunch, mom would start plating up the chile verde, calabacitias and frijoles while my aunt would fix bowls for the little ones and Nana.
The tortillas were wrapped in a white tea towel that my Nana or my mom had embroidered with tiny flowers. They were put in a basket and set in the middle of the table so everyone could just help themselves. There was no such thing as eating in front of the television, because everyone was expected to sit at the table. It was the almuerzo, the midday meal, a respite from work and an opportunity to share conversation and laughter with the family.