Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dos Mujeres, Una Cocina | Two Women, One Kitchen

Her way is always better. She won’t say it, but I know that’s what my mother thinks every afternoon when she walks into my kitchen. And it’s implied in very subtle ways. The way my mother rearranges the tupperware in my cabinets or the food in the fridge. The way she scrunches her nose as she watches me cook. Or the way she scrutinizes my purchases, frowning at their prices. It’s not that you cook good, you just buy expensive ingredients,” she’ll say.

My kitchen is the size of a small cell. Room enough for only two: one to cook, one to watch but always one of us in the other's way. 
When I was a girl my mother used to call me into the kitchen while she cooked, commanding me to pay attention. Even though the kitchen was big enough for the both of us, I'd still get in her way; usually handing her the wrong items and asking too many questions. After a few ay Dios mío's and coño's my cooking lesson was over and my mother would exile me to the living room.
Many years later, my mother and I are titans, both vying for power in la cocinaI look forward to cooking holiday meals, creating my own traditions. My kitchen has become a place of solace, a place to stand and clear my head while cooking for others.  But in a galley kitchen like mine, it's too easy for my mother and I to clash. While I cook my mother will tiptoe to lean over me and criticize my technique, “That’s not the way I do it.” 
My mother wields the pilón; I pump the mini chopper. My mother blends peppers red and green, cloves of garlic, bulbs of onions, recao, cilantro and olive oil to make a large batch of sofrito. It is the base of her every meal.  I cook with sofrito so rarely that when I need it, I buy the ingredients, chop everything up and sauté it into my meal.
I shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's; I buy organic. My mother shops where she has coupons, scouring the neighborhood for the best prices. She goes one place for milk, another for eggs, somewhere for meats and so on. My mother will never pay full price for anything if she knows she can get it on sale.
My mother cooks her specialty dishes with ease, never having to consult a book, eyeballing ingredients. I rely on Food Network, printed-out recipes and measuring spoons. My mother trusts her culinary instinct. Mine are still being cultivated.
I am the occasional cook, making elaborate meals for a holiday or celebration. My mother cooks every day; it’s a part of who she is. I realized this the day I invited my parents over for Christmas dinner. I was going to cook the signature Puerto Rican meal: pernil, arrroz con gandules, potato salad.  My mother said she would bring pasteles.
The thought reminds me of childhood; watching my mother at the kitchen table late on Saturday night. A large pot at the center, sheets of wax paper in front of her, a ball of white twine. Wrapping each pastel in parchment paper like a present; humming to herself or the phone nestled between her shoulder and ear, talking with my madrina  It is an all day/ all night affair, an offering. And the culinary commitment secures my mother’s place as the master. I am still the apprentice.

My mother's pasteles are perfection. The masa is firm, filled with flavorful meat and neatly wrapped with care. And when cooked, it slipped out of its wrapping in one piece.
I do not want anyone else’s recipe other than hers. I cannot wait for the day for her to come over and share her pasteles recipe and technique with me. No matter how big or how small my kitchen is - there will always be room for my mother to stand beside me.  

A Thanksgiving cheers with my mother | 2013
This is a revised version of my essay Clash of Las Cocinas originally published on Being Latino, December 2010. 

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AutismWonderland - written by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez - is a personal blog chronicling a NYC family's journey with autism, while also sharing local resources for children/families with special needs.