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Family Fiesta

Yvonne Tally
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August… those long, slow, hot days that signal the end of summer. The end of sleeping in just a bit longer, late evening walks after dinner, the end to bare feet, shorts and lemonade. Fall is just weeks away and yet it feels like summer has just begun.

When I was a kid, August marked our big Enchilada Fiesta. It was a time of year everyone seemed to be around and the perfect time to sit outside under the covered patio and eat my mother’s famous enchiladas. Now, let me explain: my mother is not Mexican. She isn’t Spanish either. She is, however, a wonderful cook. She has had several strokes over the years and my dad now does most of the cooking and my mother does the “sideline” cooking. She pulls up her kitchen stool and directs with great detail the function of the kitchen as the grand dame of pantry and palette.

She learned to cook at an early age, watching her mother and grandmother prepare the daily breads, cake, and pie every morning at 4:30 a.m. She learned the fine art of stews and slow cooking using simple ingredients and mastered techniques. And when she married my birth father (another story for another time) she found her place along side my grandmother in the familykitchen. There was just one complication — my grandmother spoke no English and my mother spoke no Spanish; somehow they managed. Kind of like when I went to France to cook and spoke no French. I somehow managed not to burn down the restaurant or poison the patrons.

My mother listened and watched my grandmother time after time. She perfected my grandmother’s family recipe for enchilada, chile relleno, salsas, spices and so much more. But it was the enchiladas that we all loved so much. The sauce simmered for hours. The chiles were roasted over an open flame then peeled and sliced. My grandmother’s hands were so calloused and hardened from this type of cooking — she, without hesitation, peeled and cleaned the chiles. My mother’s first attempt lead her to the ice bucket where she sat with her hands immersed for the next 20 minutes trying to put out the flame that she felted digging into her soft white fingers. My grandmother never winced; she kept on peeling and instructing my mother in Spanish what to do next. The meat lightly browned on a low temperature so it remained moist and soft and the bit of fat that cooked off was added to the sauce as the secret ingredient for that distinctive flavor that my taste buds still tingle for. Then, the spices were added — a mix of I still don’t know what. It was just the right amount of spice, not too hot and not too mild. My grandmother handmade all of her corn tortilla, passing them between her rough hands, fingers spread wide apart making her palms flat like two big spatulas. Pat, pat, pat… a rhythmic slap that formed each tortilla, one at a time. Finally, after the sauce had simmered 12 hours, it took on a deep chocolate brown edge and a rich dark red. It was time to assemble the enchiladas.

Because the assembly of the enchilada was a seniority thing, and age related, the most important phase of this assembly was the frying of the tortilla. If you fry too long, it gets too crispy and wont bend in the sauce and will break. If you don’t fry the tortilla enough, it will fall apart in the sauce. The temperature has to be just above medium; the oil hot, but not popping, when the tortilla touches the pan. The tongs have to be smooth so the tortilla will not tear when flipping; if you flip too soon the tortilla will fold onto itself and form an unwanted permanent fold — flip too late and the tortilla will not bend at all. So, this part of the assembly was reserved for the seasoned cooks in our house or for those over 14 years old.

My job was putting the onions and the cheese into the tortilla after they had been dipped and removed from the steaming sauce. Then my mother would add the meat, carefully roll the tortilla and transfer the enchilada to the baking pan. We waited by the baking pan in hopes one would break, knowing if it did my mother would slide it onto a small plate and pass it around for all of us to try.

The bold smoky smell of the tortilla frying in oil filled the kitchen with heat. I waited year after year to get at that frying pan. My sister got to fry, then my other sister got to fry, then my brother got to fry, then my other brother got to fry, but I never got to fry. Then, the year I turned 12, I got to fry. This is my first memory I have of feeling like a real cook. I was so excited and I wanted so badly to make my mother proud. I had learned the fine details of frying the tortilla perfectly, not too long and not too short and flawlessly transferring it from frying pan to steaming sauce. That day we all got plenty of opportunity to pass more than one small plate between us. Nonetheless, I mastered the art of frying and dipping.

This summer my 13 year old daughter learned to fry and dip. And as I watched her skillfully maneuver the tortilla from one side to the other, testing for the right texture of doneness and then transferring it to and from the sauce, I realized in that single moment how much time had passed between my first time at the frying pan and hers and yet, it was such a short time ago I was standing there for the first time. Like flipping from one page to the next while reading a great book, the seamless story unfolds, the chapter ends and a new one follows.

It was such a short time ago my own mother guided me not only in the making of the family enchiladas but in all the little secrets cooks share with one another. Why you add your salt to the water after it is boiling and how to bring back a seemingly lost bernaise or the reason never to boil the liquid while making stock. She taught me how to fold napkins and organize a preparation plan for a party. She taught me how to be a host and a guest — and she always reminded me of my manners.

Yes, she was an amazing cook. And now when I watch her stumble a bit with her cane or when she needs me to cut her food for her when we are out to dinner, I can’t be impatient helping her with this task. When she gets confused in the kitchen and drops her silverware I can’t get crabby about the time it take to help her. When she asks 3 or 4 times to have me repeat myself, I tell her each time like it was the first. Because when I remember all the times she let me tear the tortillas and never criticized; when I think of all the questions I asked her about why she was adding one ingredient before another; when I remember all the times she complimented me on even my smallest accomplishment like setting the table or mashing the potatoes; all those times mark the pages of my memory book. And now, with her so frail and tired, I can hold her hand and remember all the bruises and all the tears she healed with them. I can hold her hand and help her walk just as she held mine and taught me to fry and dip.

Yvonne’s mother and father live in Arizona. Her father has just successfully completed cancer treatment and her mother still directs with great efficiency from the kitchen stool.

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Yvonne Tally

All stories by: Yvonne Tally