PHOTO: Strawberry Lodge, about half an hour west of Lake Tahoe (in northern California).
It was a weekend trip to a large mountain cabin at Strawberry, a point on the map on the east side of Kyburz, on California’s highway 50, less than an hour away from Lake Tahoe. Most of us in the Chavez clan signed up for the trip. Some of us came along for the hiking and to do family things. A few had the intention of making a trek to the casinos on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe.
Our mother came along too. The lure of the Nevada casinos was too much. She loved pulling the handles on the one-armed-bandits, always hoping to beat the house. Sometimes she did. She also came for the family fun and to breathe the mountain air. And to cook. She loved to cook.
She brought along a large pot, beef tripe, and all the ingredients to make and serve “menudo.” No one paid much attention to the trappings she had brought with her until our first night at the cabin. Sometime before midnight, our mother cleaned up the tripe, threw it in the pot, added a few spices, and began to slow cook the concoction.
As the night progressed and the menudo began to release a pungent stench that permeated every nook and cranny of the cabin, many of us complained, including me. It was a strong smell. Every hour or so, though, our mother would get up and stir the pot. During her last foray, she added hominy to the soup. Don’t know when, but before the morning sunrays lighted up the cabin, the menudo was done.
By the time we got up, our mother had already set up the large kitchen table. There was a pile of bowls on it. There was also a pile of large spoons and all the trimmings required to go with that feast. Warm corn tortillas, chiltepines, oregano, diced onions, and slices of lime. She had also brewed a large pot of coffee. No one complained about the smell, then. It was a great breakfast.
That’s how our mother was. She loved to cook for all of us, and to make us happy in her own way. She also loved seeing us together, enjoying life and sharing with each other our joy. During special occasions, we all trekked to her house and played and celebrated at her place. We ate her food and the one prepared sometimes by other members of our clan and had fun there. We yelled and caroused and did more yelling and in between that fun filled time we ate and ate again. Our mother, even after turning eighty and becoming the target of the slings and arrows flung by old age, she tried her best to keep tasty treats awaiting our visits. She did a good job doing what she loved.
We also trekked to our mom’s house at other times. It was good being with her. The food was good too. For those of us that loved that Mexican staple called menudo, no restaurant in the world will ever match the taste, the look and the trimmings of her version of the centuries old delicacy she served us. She stored the previously cooked menudo in small plastic containers in a freezer in her backyard. Our job was to retrieve a container or two from that hiding place and bring it or them to her kitchen. She would then take over and heat up the concoction, add hominy and lots of love to it. She would then cut up limes, cilantro and green onions and place them on a plate. On different containers she would bring us oregano and hot sauce. The red stuff, like the one she learned to prepare in her native state of Michoacán. By the way, we weren’t allowed to help her prepare the meal. That was her duty, she often repeated it. Our job was to eat it, enjoy it and have fun at her place.
We did. Over and over again.
NOTE: Our mother, Lydia García de Chávez, passed away nine years ago, on Valentine’s Day 2008. She was eighty-one years old at the time. I write this anecdote to celebrate her life and to tell the world about her and her cooking. She was good. Really good. A strict, but loving mom who kept us on track and taught us the great value of getting an education. She pushed us, loved us and kept us together. We got a great start in life because of her doings. As I mentioned before, she was good. And still is.