BY CARMELLA PADILLA
Sitting at the same table with those I love—and have lost.
I can see their faces through the foods they loved, hear their ummmmmmm whenever I taste the lip-smacking sabores that filled their stomachs, fed their spirits.
The same foods, same flavors, that fed our conversations, fueled our celebrations, connected our lives.
I see myself as a young girl, sitting at the same table with my grandfather, Don Manuel Lujan. In those days, Sunday afternoons meant staying with Grandpa while Mom and her sisters went to Furr’s Cafeteria to sip coffee, smoke, eat Millionaire Pie. After reading the Sunday funnies, before settling in to watch Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney, we sat down for lunch. For me, it was usually a bologna sandwich or Campbell’s Chicken Noodle. For Grandpa, it was something from a culinary rainbow: Red chile. Chile verde. Golden chicos. Brown pintos. Blue atole. And often, for dessert or as a meal in itself, a snow-white disk of queso de vaca with amber honey spread like sunshine over the top.
Grandpa ate in living color, in the vivid, farm-fresh, richly simmered hues of his Hispano heritage, and mine. I still had not grown into the flavors he savored—the chile was too hot, the chicos too chewy, the queso too full-bodied, the atole too weird—yet these were the seeds that rooted me in the unique gastronomic history of my New Mexico home. I was also too young to know my Grandpa—the educator, the politician, the chile farmer—very well, and he was a man of few words. But through our weekly feast, in the loving act of an old man sharing a meal with a young girl, I began to understand the preciousness of family through the relationship-building ritual of food.
For the most part, our ritual was confined to Grandpa’s house, for by then, he rarely left home. When he did venture out, it was often for a trip to my house with one purpose in mind: to sit at the same table with my family and eat my father’s famous posole.
My father’s name, Reyes, literally means kings. Indeed, he made posole with a regal flourish, using a simple, straightforward recipe that surely reflects the peasant origins—and I mean that in the best sense—of many New Mexican mainstays. No canned hominy here—only sun-dried posole, soaked overnight. No cilantro or oregano or delicately minced onions—just a little salt, garlic salt, more salt, and large, rough-cut cebolla chunks. No veggie posole in Dad’s castle, but posole packed with pork. And not just pork meat, but cueritos, or pork skin, plus the grand pork finale—pig’s feet. Eeewwww, disgusting you say? You had to eat it to believe it. And who can forget the delicious denouement: dried red chile pods, tossed whole—skins, seeds, and all—into the soupy, juicy depths of Dad’s New Mexican delicacy.
For my father, posole-making was an art form reserved for the most special occasions: New Year’s Day, birthdays, snowy days, days when Grandpa or other family members came for dinner. He assembled his creation in a pot so big it barely fit on the stovetop. His solution: cook it outside, on the grill, the same grill where, every Labor Day weekend, he roasted sacks of green chile, patiently blistering each pepper one by one by one. Just as the smell of Dad’s annual chile roast wafted through the neighborhood on the autumn air, the scent of his grilled posole permeated our backyard in all seasons like a magic potion. He was a posole legend, and family, neighbors, and friends prodded him for his cooking secrets. The secret was in the juice, in the mysterious multicultural consommé where the generations-old tastes of our ancestors mingled, where whole red-chile pods stewed and softened into feathery strips of spice, where crusty, garlic-salted bread was sunk with every spoonful, soaking up the memory of our most meaningful family traditions.
Grandpa’s sister, my great-aunt Clara, was another cherished guest who often came to sit at our table for posole or other special meals. If we were lucky, she brought her famous tortillas to share. Tía Clara was tiny, scarcely over four feet tall, and the diameter of her tortillas was no bigger than the span of her small and aged hands. She never married, and rarely cooked or ate at home. Still, her fat flour tortillas were the puffy, chewy stuff that gluten dreams are made of. The fact that they were tiny, like Tía, only made them more special. They were the hot, hand-rolled gift of a grandmother I never had, but who Tía filled in for. Who needed bread when you had Tía’s tortillas to spread the love?
If Tía Clara nurtured my love of tortillas, my best friend, Mary, furthered it. I met Mary in grade school, and from then until we went our separate ways for college, we spent countless hours sitting at the same table in her family’s kitchen—doing homework, devising ways to meet boys, discussing every detail, every outfit, every upset that defined our bright, scary, beautiful young lives. Mary’s mother’s refrigerator was stocked with her own homemade tortillas, and her pantry was full of fresh apricot preserves. After school, we’d pop a stack of tortillas into the oven, and when warm, wrap them tightly in a towel. There they sat in a steamy heap through our long, Coca-Cola-fueled conversations. One after another, we plucked them from the pile, slathered them in butter and jam, savored their molten mysteries. Plump, pliable, a sweet and greasy mess, tortillas and jam were the perfect metaphor for our angst-ridden adolescence. We couldn’t wait for the taste of tomorrow.
“Mañana. Tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll meet you in the morning for blue corn piñon pancakes.” He was Father Michael Baca, a Franciscan priest who had grown up in my father’s east side neighborhood. Born and raised in Santa Fe, he spent most of his career ministering in Latin America. Now, he had returned home to attend to his own gente in the Franciscan cradle of St. Francis Cathedral. I had heard stories of a personable preacher, the beloved “Father Mike,” for much of my life. From the moment I met him at a welcome home gathering, I knew he was no ordinary Catholic cleric. He wore a leather jacket and a black bolero hat. He rode a Honda Goldwing. He had read all of the same books and writers as me.
Out of courtesy and curiosity, I accepted his invitation to sit at the same table over breakfast to talk about writing, reading, and the beauty of words. It was the first of many breakfasts together—our blue corn piñon pancake years—for Father Mike couldn’t get enough of the nutty blue stuff. I couldn’t get enough of his intellectual and philosophical knowledge and views, of his bold progressive opinions on politics, religion, and the Catholic Church. With every syrupy bite, I chewed over his insights and advice on topics as diverse as faith, illness, aging, forgiveness. He was no preacher, but a true mentor and friend who guided me through some of the most challenging years of my life. He gave me confidence in myself as a writer and as a woman. He gave me permission to eat pancakes as often as I liked.
Father Mike was not blood family, but he was a cherished part of my Santa Fe clan. My mother and father both came from large tribes, with eight siblings each, as well as from extended families formed over many generations of life in New Mexico. As a result, my family is huge; beyond my own five siblings, I was raised with aunts and uncles and cousins galore. That’s not counting the tías and tíos and primos who aren’t really related, but who I call tía, tío, primo, just the same.
Within this grand family spread were three blood tías: Tía María, Tía Paulina, and Tía Candelaria—better known as Aunt Mary, Aunt Polly, and Aunt Candy. Each had a flair for food that elevated them to the Holy Tía Trinity of favorite family cooks. To sit at their tables was an eating adventure, but some dishes undoubtedly, and deliciously, stand out. Aunt Mary’s natillas were a natural wonder, a seemingly simple medley of eggs, sugar, and milk, stirred and simmered to a fragile thickness, served warm with a cinnamon-sprinkled meringue cloud on top. Aunt Polly played with the fire of some of the hottest green chile we could eat, slow-cooking it to perfection with potatoes and meat. Aunt Candy always appeared at just the right moment with some of her good-for-anything-that-ails-you albondigas—a hearty ground-beef-and-rice meatball soup that was truly transforming.
Come Christmas, the Tías turned it up a notch. Aunt Mary made sweet-meat-and-piñon empanaditas in a chewy sopaipilla dough. Aunt Polly made tamales in miniature, beautiful handcrafted bundles of corn masa, red chile, and pork that packed a monumental punch. And in a decidedly non–New Mexican holiday twist, Aunt Candy proved her prowess with that all-American item—Jell-O—creating everyone’s favorite blueberry, pineapple, cream cheese, pecan delight.
Sitting at these tables, eating these foods, I grew up believing that life was a sweet, spicy, meaty, cheesy, meringue cloud of delight. And then:
I was ten when my Grandpa Manuel died.
Twenty-four when my friend, Mary, met a drunk driver head on.
In my thirties when Tía Clara, Aunt Mary, and Father Mike moved on.
Aunt Polly died in 2011.
Her brother, my father Reyes, was lost to me in March.
Aunt Candy slipped away in early summer.
Now, considering all the meals prepared and shared in the collective cocina of our lives, it may appear that I am left sitting at the table, alone. Indeed, there is no comfort in their absence; every meal without them holds the dull ache of an empty stomach. But if I sit back, take stock of the table and the sustenance they laid before me, if I consider the full belly of my full life, I realize that our culinary connection is richer, our spiritual connection stronger, because they are gone. I am sitting at the same table with those I love, and though I have lost them, they are all still here.
There is nothing but comfort in eating and cooking the foods they cherished, and I cling fiercely to the recipes they handed down. The flavors with which they raised me are the flavors I crave—chile, chicos, atole, queso, posole, pintos, piñones, tamales, natillas, albondigas, empanaditas, tortillas with butter and apricot jam. I can see their faces, hear their voices, feel their souls stirring whenever I stir a spoon, or stick a fork, into their favorite dish.
I can taste the bold flavors of their being.
Ummmmmmm. Every bite is a memory that nourishes my life.
Santa Fe native Carmella Padilla has written extensively about daily life, culture, and history in New Mexico. Her books include The Chile Chronicles: Tales of a New Mexico Harvest, Low ’n Slow: Lowriding in New Mexico, and El Rancho de las Golondrinas: Living History in New Mexico’s La Cienega Valley, all published by Museum of New Mexico Press. She is a recipient of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and a frequent contributor to El Palacio. This essay was first presented at the FUZE.SW 2014 food and folklore conference at the Museum of International Folk Art.