The ways of the modern world frightened her and her ignorance kept her a stranger in it. She ambled about her days enveloped in perpetual foreboding that could be eased only by a reassuring voice or diminished in the sanctuary of a familiar place.
Solace for Mama was her kitchen. She had finely honed skills cultivated in this workshop where she long ago earned her certificate of mastery. She delighted those who came with her meals and snacks and short orders prepared on the quick in the wee hours for hungry late night revelers. In her kitchen, her face wore no concern. If it was the only room in the house, she would lack of nothing.
It was cozy. The camper-sized refrigerator was squeezed up against the Kenmore stove that Esposo got her for Christmas, their first in the house. The porcelain sink centered below a single-pane window was peppered with chips and chinks that told its age. Stained cedar cabinets covered the portion of wall above and below the sink.
There was a lime green Formica table for four with aluminum legs fitted with rubber cups at their ends to keep the table from sliding into the living room. Just three chairs were in use because there wasn’t room enough for all four.
Mama knew her hundreds of recipes by memory and even if she had wanted, she couldn’t have written them down. Her daughters and others were often frustrated that Mama couldn’t produce copies on demand of their favorite dishes.
“You can learn, just watch me, you don’t have to write,” Mama gave the advice that for her was well-worn and battle-tested.
“What are you cooking?” they would ask.
“You just wait, you will see,” as she shook in more flour and added a sprinkle of salt.
“But why don’t you measure, Mama?”
“Oh, hija I can’t read the numbers,” she reminded. “But I have cooked this before so it will be all right,” pretending to hide the glint in her eyes.
Preparations for Thanksgiving and Christmas began on the night before to prepare for the large gatherings that were always expected. Her oven allowed for only one small turkey and with dozens coming, meals had to be prepared at least twice, usually making for marathon sessions. If there were helpers, the cozy confines of the kitchen were easily strained so when there were offers to assist, Mama usually graciously declined.
An old Zenith AM radio, kept in the corner, trumpeted out Mexican tunes and inspired a pattern of motion resembling the cumbia she knew so well. The blend of music and the clinking, clanking, steaming and percolating of the pots on the stove created a cheerfulness that warned all troubles, “Don’t you come here!”
One of the burners on the stove stopped working a long time ago. “Mama,” I told her, “You have so much cooking and one burner that doesn’t work. Maybe it is time for a new stove.”
“Why, hijo? I have three burners left. And they all work just fine.”
She made multi-course feasts, always so scrumptious and mouthwatering that friends jokingly ascribed them to wizardry and witchcraft. There was magic for sure, but it was more the confidence that is learned from a long and steady reliance on instincts well-serving when there is nothing else. The outcome always justified the means, near as I could tell.
When asked, “Do you have a secret ingredient, Mama,” she just swirled around and pointed a finger modestly in the direction of her pantry and her rack of spices.
But we all knew the music was in there too.