Story Collected by Yaritza Guillen
There is always that one traditional food in the family’s special recipe book that always stands out to any individual. It is always that one special treat that triggers a wave of emotions and nostalgia that manages to emerge from your subconscious as soon as you take that first bite. In my case there isn’t a recipe book that one can easily share and pass along within my family, instead I have my grandmother.
Every year around Easter my grandmother makes these sweet pastries that resemble French toast, which are calledtorrejas. It has always been a tradition to create dishes that correlate specifically to different holidays in my family. In the case of this specific pastry, the process of making them is clearly shown as one indulges a piece of a torreja, and its burst of traditional flavors that teleports you to a different place. But, this story is not going to be specifically about food, but instead will be taking a closer look into how my grandmother’s cooking became to be.
My grandmother is from a small village in Mexico know as San Luis San Pedro, which is a two to three hour drive from Acapulco. She grew up in a rural village where having neighbors was crucial for trading livestock, fruits and vegetable, and other necessities. My grandmother learned how to cook for herself and her family at a young age, but could not really go beyond her talent since she was from a poor family, whom could not really afford anything beyond what they grew in the family garden. She did not fully emerge into crafting her great dishes until she married at the age of 19 to my grandfather, who came from a financially sufficient family. Most her cooking skills came from living alongside her mother-in-law who had access to many ingredients and could afford larger and pricier livestock. Her mother-in-law was also the person who taught her how to make these delicious torrejas that I mentioned before. Also moving from a rural environment to a village made it accessible for her to interact, share, and trade with those in her community.
One great thing about small communities is the fact that interaction plays an important role in the daily life of many people living there. My grandmother knew almost everyone in her village; she knew those living around her, those who sold her products, owners of local shops, and many others. When I asked her what she missed about her hometown since moving to Chicago, she mentioned, the freedom of being able to walk around her village and talking to people freely. She spoke about how large city like Chicago where people are enclosed into their homes for most of their time makes it difficult for her to interact other neighbors. There is a lack of friendliness that one cannot easily obtain in large cities, unlike those in smaller communities. Although she did mentioned that one advantage of living in Chicago is that although the food may not be as fresh as those in her former village, it is probably much healthier and cleaner to eat in comparison. With my grandmother knowing the people who lived around her, she also managed to learn recipes from her neighbors and in exchange would repay them by giving them sewing lessons or making them clothing. Other times she would just trade whatever was available in her garden or in her kitchen. Apart from that my grandmother and her mother-in-law would cook not only for their family, but also for the workingmen and women after a hard day of labor.
This nostalgic emotion that my grandmother reflected upon for her hometown made me think about how she was right; there tends to be less communication and interaction with people and their communities in cities like Chicago. If people could care less about getting to know one another, imagine trying to convince them to care for their environment. If people were inclined to interact with their environment more, it would establish a bond with community residents. My grandmother is now past her prime years and at that age where she is not able to go far without getting tired. At the moment all she really needs is companionship, which she can establish as she entices family and friends to her home with her cooking. When one takes a bite of her sweet tasting French toast a la Mexicana, it acknowledges years of tradition and contribution of community that presents value and skills in the food that is still being practice outside of that village.