Life’s a Feast: Family and Food

“It was very pleasant to savor its aroma, for smells have the power to evoke the past, bringing back sounds and even other smells that have no match in the present. -Tita”
Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

Food has always been a big deal in my family. For centuries, I believe all the women in my family were born next to an oven or smelling like tortillas. Food is more than an exhaustive chore, it’s life; a calling. You can melt the palates and hearts of men with the perfect meal. The magic power of saffron, a must have seasoning, can envelop you in a trance that’s hard to wake up from.

If you must know, saffron can also help to relieve symptoms in patients with Major Depressive Disorders. My grandmother knew everything about home remedies using spices and healing plants. The kitchen was her safe place. I’d sit close to her while she cooked, listening to my grandma explaining the healing power of many herbs; she even cured my sister’s sinusitis with eucalyptus leaves. In a way, I envied her wisdom and love for the kitchen. Her mission in life was to teach her granddaughters how to be the best homemakers. She would teach us how to cook, sew, tend a garden, have babies, and make sure to serve a cold lemonade to the husband when he comes back from work.

My grandmother wasn’t Catholic, but I’m sure she prayed every single night to St. Patrick (the saint of cooks) for a miracle. Especially for me, since I refused to go along with her kitchen lessons. I wanted to live up to her expectations, which in reality were not so atrocious. She had a successful marriage. My grandfather was a gentleman and in love. She loved him so much that, after he died, she never remarried or even considered to date anyone else.

Unfortunately, I grew up to be a taciturn teenager. I spent my days reading and avoiding everyone around me. Nevertheless, grandma was my favorite person in the world. Even though she knew I would end up crying when I couldn’t cook rice properly, she taught me everything she knew.

She said, “Tefy, one day food is going to save your life.” She was right.

In 1998, bad fortune knocked on our door. Due to the devastation of Hurricane Mitch, Honduras’s economy went downhill and my mother lost her job. It was the first time we experienced real poverty. We suffered from want of food, water, electricity, etc. Our spirits stayed alive only by the volunteer work we did during that time. The sweet aroma of grandma’s chicken soup months before turned into the stench aroma of death and tears. The entire country was devastated. With the birth of my nephew, we knew it was going to be a challenge. We barely had enough food to eat, let alone any milk and diapers for the baby.

Not even Saffron could help get us out of this depression. I wanted to help my family, but I didn’t know how until one Saturday night. While walking through the neighborhood, I noticed a new establishment, which sold snacks during football games. These places were everywhere in Honduras, street vendors selling everything from tortillas to the most delicious tacos you could ever taste. From that moment I knew what to do.

We would prepare and sell “pastelitos de perro” or meat empanadas, corn tortilla flour filled ground meat with vegetables. We didn’t have to spend much on ingredients, and preparation took about 20 minutes. The first two weeks were rough, we barely sold any food, but once soccer season started things looked better. I tried to follow grandma’s advice, preparing the ground beef with saffron, cumin, salt, and ground pepper. I created my own ritual while cooking the potatoes, smashing garlic, mixing the flour and saffron until the dough was ready. The combination of spices along with the onions, and the meat created a warm sensation that invaded the entire house. We set up a table and some chairs in front of our house, and that’s how our little business started.

Slowly, we built loyal customers, especially during soccer season. We were able to pay a few bills and buy food. It wasn’t a fortune, but we were surviving the best way we could.

I think circumstances like this shape your character and keep you grounded.

There were people worse off than we were. I was proud of myself for helping the family keep their spirits up. Grandma’s prayer was answered. The experience definitely created a spirit of resilience in our home. That Christmas we didn’t have tamales or presents, but we were happy. With our little funds, we bought a small chicken. I felt like Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol,” full of happiness despite our living situation. Grandma is no longer with us, but when I’m chopping tomatoes or garlic I can feel her spirit and hear her voice exhorting me to brilliance.


Photo Credit: Feed My Starving Children (FMSC) via Compfight cc

Stephanie Ortez

Stephanie is a highly caffeinated mother of two wonderful boys. She is hopelessly addicted to non-fiction books and literature that moves her to tears. She is an admissions advisor for George Washington University online where she assists homeschooled students internationally. Stephanie lives with Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. She is a passionate mental health advocate, member of Stigma Fighters. Her writing has been featured on The Elephant Journal, The Mighty, The Organic Coffee Haphazardly and Feminine Collective.

  1. Renee DeMont

    Fabulous piece, Stephanie! Made me warm inside, hungry, wanting to cook–and I never want to cook! Wish we could all meet your grandmother, hear her speak, smell the aromas in her kitchen. She lives on in you! Xo!

  2. doriowen

    Steph, what an incredible piece! Everything you wrote was so descriptive I felt as if I was right along with you. I felt the beauty and wisdom of your abuelita in la cocina and I was overwhelmed with the mass poverty. You are a gifted writer who tells wonderful, unique stories. This Tia one really moved me, Mija! xoMama

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