Mama Chavez's Cocina

A family tradition of cooking and prayer—recipes for delicious food and happy marriages.

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- Posted on Feb 9, 2011

Mama Chavez

Clorinda Chavez stared at me intently from her chair in the living room.

She came from a New Mexican family with proud Spanish roots, and had some Old World formality about her. She’d raised seven children with her husband, Cristobal. I was about to marry their youngest, Frank. This was our first visit to his parents’ house since our engagement, and I tried to hide my nervousness. In the car earlier, I’d rehearsed answers to all the things Mr. and Mrs. Chavez could possibly ask. Now my future mother-in-law leaned toward me.

“How much do you love my son?” she asked.

“I love him a whole lot,” I said. “Enough to marry him.”

“Do you love him enough to give me one week of your life?” she asked. “Stay with me here. I will teach you how to cook his favorite dishes, and I’ll teach you about our family. Are you willing to do that before you marry my son?”

Wow. I didn’t see that coming! Was this some kind of test? The few times I’d met his family, I could sense I wasn’t the girl they’d imagined him bringing home. I was a Southern California girl by way of Oklahoma and Mississippi, and didn’t speak a lick of Spanish.

Frank wasn’t bothered at all by our different backgrounds. We’d become fast friends at work. Our relationship had deepened one night at an amusement park, when the roller coaster we were riding broke down. We were stuck at the top and I was terrified…until Frank kissed me. From then on, I hadn’t feared a thing with Frank at my side—except his parents. I wanted so badly for them to accept me. But living with them for a week? Was that really necessary?

“Uh…sure,” I stammered. “I’d love for you to teach me to cook.” But I already know how to cook—good old Southern cooking taught by my mother and grandmother. What could I learn from his mom that I couldn’t from a cookbook?

A few weeks later, Frank and I drove to his parents’ house again. Clorinda put Frank in his old room and set up the spare room for me.

I awoke the next morning to voices. Peaceful, poetic sounding…but way too early. I looked at the clock: 6 a.m. The voices came from Frank’s parents’ bedroom. I sat up. The walls were thin, so it wasn’t hard to make out the words. Frank’s father was reading a psalm. He finished and the two of them began praying for each member of their family. I heard the names of their adult children, their sons and daughters-in-law, their grandchildren. Would I soon join that prayer list? Depends how I do with the cooking, I joked to myself nervously.

I got dressed and headed to the kitchen. “Ready for your first lesson?” Clorinda asked, pouring me a cup of coffee. On the counter were some potatoes and spices. “Today we make papas fritas,” she said. “Potatoes fried with onion, gar­lic, chile powder, and salt and pepper.”

With Clorinda, it was always a dash of this, a pinch of that. She’d been making these dishes for so long, she didn’t need a written recipe. It was hard to keep things straight. Still, the more we cooked, the more I learned. She showed me how to cook the best refried beans I’d ever had—a recipe passed down from her mother. She taught me how to make the tamales that were a family Christmas tradition. Next up were New Mexican “flat” enchiladas with a sauce made from dried chile pods—Frank’s favorite. I was lucky to have Frank, his mother said, because he was the only male in her house who ever helped in the kitchen.

One day I bought a set of measuring cups and spoons, so I could translate Clorinda’s memorized amounts. The teacup she used for dry ingredients was equal to seven-eighths of a cup. Her pinch of baking soda was one teaspoon. I was getting the hang of things…but had I won her over yet?

“Today we make tortillas,” she announced one morning. Tortillas were as important as biscuits are to Southern cuisine. Mixing the dough was easy. Then she took a ball of it in her hands and rolled it out into a perfectly round tortilla. Seemed simple enough. I copied her motions…and came out with an oblong. I tried again. Even worse—this one looked like a map of the United States!

I looked up sheepishly at her. Clorinda laughed. “Honey,” she said, putting her arm around me, “the only way you’re ever going to get round tortillas is to roll out the dough, put a saucer on top and cut around it with a knife!” Now I laughed too. “I think you’re right,” I said.

By the end of the week I could make all of Frank’s favorites. Clorinda even opened up about how she and Chris started their mornings. “It’s important to cover your family every day with prayers,” she said. “It helps you worry less about them.”

Now her family included me. Clorinda only expected one thing from the girl Frank brought home: that she’d be willing to continue the traditions his family held dear. And I have. I taught my children Clorinda’s recipes. I’ve taught my daughters-in-law also. Not just her recipe for enchiladas, but for a happy marriage too.

Try making Clorinda's New Mexican Flat Enchiladas!

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