Divining Lost Recipes

I spent some time recently in Laredo, Texas, a dusty town on the U.S.-Mexico border that I called home for many years.  My 90-year-old grandmother still lives there.  When I arrived at her door one morning, she reminded me that I don’t visit often enough.  Not by chiding me or layering our conversation with honey-dipped guilt. She simply did not recognize me.
By Gilda Claudine Karasik

This was a first. I am her eldest grandchild and we’ve always been close, even into my adulthood when the geographical distance between us grew to a span of almost 2,000 miles.  The more time I spent with her on this trip, the easier it was for her to recall who I was.  Though, betrayed by her short term memory, she was repeatedly surprised to see the grown-up version of the child she so fondly remembers.

Dementia has robbed my grandmother of the ability to remember whether she ate breakfast on a given day or that she spent the afternoon playing bingo with new friends.  She forgets where she put her glasses a minute ago.  That she has phoned a friend over and over again in the preceding hour because it is the only telephone number she knows by heart.  That no one has stolen her dentures because they are on the bathroom sink where she just plunked them into a glass of water.  Yet, she remembers her childhood when she and her family picked cotton in Robstown, Texas; the years during which she birthed seven children; and that she always had a passion for cooking.

Now, when I ask her how it is she came to love cooking, she says only that she has loved it ever since she can remember.  My grandmother spent many years cooking for the good people of Laredo.  She had a downtown pensión, managed a drugstore eatery, and set up restaurants where ever she could afford the rent.  On this trip, my Uncle Eddy and I drove through town, pointing to the different spots where my grandmother once occupied kitchens and fed customers.  All these years later, people still recognize her.  Most recently, a caretaker at her community center who hadn’t seen her since the 1970s and who gushed about how he used to lunch daily at one of her eateries.

I desperately wish that I had sat with her years ago to learn her ways in the kitchen, before a time when my grandmother’s unwritten recipes and techniques eloped with her lost memories.  I struggle to remember the times she showed me how to make the simplest of dishes, the staples that she always had ready to serve at the first hint that anyone might be hungry:  sopa de arroz, frijoles, enchiladas rojas.  Such typical Mexican foods that, like a mad scientist, I cook without looking at a recipe, daring myself to divine my abuelita’s alchemy.

Sopa de Arroz
 
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This is my grandmother's recipe just as she told it to me during a recent visit.
Author:
Recipe Type: Side Dish
Serves: 4 to 6
Ingredients
  • 2 cups (4.8 dl) of long grain rice
  • 1½ tablespoons of canola or vegetable oil
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • 1 small onion, “bien picadita” or diced thin
  • 3¼ cups (7.6 dl) of chicken stock or water
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 cup (2.4 dl) of chopped, fresh, mixed vegetables (e.g. corn, peas, lima beans)
Instructions
  1. Rinse the rice, first in scalding hot water and then immediately in cold water.
  2. Heat the oil in a medium-sized pot.
  3. Add the onions, garlic and rice and stir until the rice toasts and turns opaque.
  4. Stir in the tomato and add the stock or water.
  5. Add salt to taste.
  6. Bring the pot to a boil, add the mixed vegetables, and cover.
  7. Turn the heat to low and cook until the liquid evaporates (approximately 20 minutes).
Notes
To make a cilantro-infused sopa de arroz, omit the tomato and mixed vegetables. Once the liquid boils, add a bunch of fresh cilantro and proceed with the preparation.
 

 

5 Comments
    1. Hi Laura,

      Even though my grandmother has no short-term memory, I often still talk to her about cooking. Her eyes really do light up and she seems so much like her old self. I hope this is also true for your loved one.

      Thank you for reading.

      GCK

  1. Beautiful article, and I know how you feel. My grandmother made the best pie crust on earth and I never thought to get the recipe. I don’t know why, I just didn’t. Breaks my heart every time I think about it.

    1. Hi Judith,

      Thank you for sharing. I remember my grandmother often telling me that she wanted to show me how to make this or that. I was interested but not interested enough to document those moments in a more meaningful way, I guess. And I think there is something so universal about these lost opportunities and how we come to appreciate them later in life, perhaps as we ready ourselves to build the same bridges to our own children and grandchildren.

      GCK

  2. I too remember my grandmother, we traveled to El Paso Tx to visit her in the summers, when school was out. I remember sitting in her kitchen and watching as she cooked on a wood fired stove, Nana as we called her made the best beans in the world, the tasted great, I would ask how she made them and she would tell my with carinyo and a little bit of salt. I still can not make beans like my nana but I try, How I wish that I had written down the word to those great tasting beans.

    I will try the receipt that you placed on line they look great, there is nothing tastier than Mexican food.

    Buena suerte

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