University of Southern Indiana

The Language of Food

By Norma Rosas Mayén*

I come from a family of cooks. My abuelita, as I affectionately called my maternal grandmother, was an indigenous Otomi woman whose passion was food. She prepared each dish from scratch. Born in the valley of Jilotzingo in the State of Mexico, abuelita’s homeland was surrounded by blue cornfields, maguey plants (Mexican agave), Castilian rose bushes and aromatic Mexican herbs like epazote, spearmint and eucalyptus. In this natural environment, the private language my mother learned and spoke with abuelita was not Otomi, but the language of food.

Growing up, I watched my mother and abuelita converse around the table in an atmosphere of flavors, aromas, colors and textures, sharing a bond that shaped and impacted my life forever. Abuelita’s kitchen, although rustic and modest, was a sanctuary. It resounded with the ringing of the molcajete (the Mexican version of the mortar and pestle), and food preparation was a daily ritual in front of the charcoal burner. On top of the burner, clay cooking pots of varied sizes and big wooden spoons were locked in a continuous dialogue with the skilled hands of abuelita. Aromas emanated from this lively scenario, bringing together my family, both nuclear and extended, every weekend, on high holidays and for funerals.

I still remember my mother helping abuelita kill and clean a guajolote (turkey) to make Mexican mole, seasoning moronga made of the turkey blood, frying buñuelos (crispy flat bread topped with brown sugar syrup infused with cinnamon sticks and orange peel), making huitlacoche quesadillas (a handmade fresh tortilla filled with edible corn fungus aromatized with epazote), seasoning rabbit or snake on a bed of pipian (a sauce made of pumpkin seeds) or gathering gusanos de maguey (a type of worm that grows under the maguey plant). 

If someone entered my abuelita’s kitchen and asked what she was cooking, she would answer, “Todo lo que hay en la milpa, corre y vuela, va a la cazuela” (All that grows in the cornfield, runs and flies to the pot). Both language and food underwent a symbiosis of humor and wisdom because her passion for cooking was so great that no matter what she prepared we loved. 

When abuelita passed away, for the first time her kitchen was silent. But, the spirit of her food, anecdotes, recipes and know-how migrated to my mother, who became the guardian of our culinary legacy that remains alive and unchanged in the kitchens of my family, including mine. She pounded, hollowed, stuffed, wrapped, fried, steamed and baked as her mother had taught her. Because she was the oldest of our nuclear family, everyone sought her advice, especially when it came to food preparation. 

One of our family’s most important celebrations is El Día de la Candelaria (the Feast of Our Lady of Candelaria, also known as Candlemas Day). It falls on February 2, 40 days after Christmas, and is a fusion of pre-Columbian traditions and Catholic beliefs. For Catholics, it represents the “Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.” For indigenous Mexicans, including Otomi, February 2 marks the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

A week before El Día de la Candelaria, the women in my family would convene to carry on abuelita’s tradition by preparing huge quantities of food: Mexican barbacoa (lamb slow-cooked in a hole in the ground, covered with maguey leaves), tamales wrapped in banana leaves and capirotada (Mexican bread pudding made with cinnamon, brown sugar syrup, cloves, raisins, bread and cheese), to name a few. 

My mother and her sisters would pride themselves on their cooking skills, and were happy to spend hours in the kitchen and on the patio preparing a festival of dishes. They cooked in company— chatting about daily events, gossiping about the neighborhood, singing Argentinian tangos, sharing secret recipes and, from time to time, indulging in a cup of tequila or mezcal (a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant). In doing this, they echoed and recalled abuelita’s favorite sayings: “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también” (For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same) or, “De golosos y tragones están llenos los panteones” (The cemeteries are full of gluttons and people with a sweet tooth). 

My mom learned to cook in the same way she spoke to my grandma; shoulder to shoulder, repeating, imitating, laughing, practicing, discovering and always inventing something new. They developed a secret code of communication through the preparation of food, bringing comfort and delight to my family’s table. This secret language was documented in their recipes, creating tangible memories; an endless feast for my family. Both my mother and abuelita are gone, but each time I visit these recipes, I reestablish that deep rooted relationship in a vivid way, and I see myself—the woman I have become— a bit more clearly through the foods they created. 

*Norma Rosas Mayén came to USI in 2008 as an assistant professor and became an associate professor of Spanish in 2013. In an effort to share her family’s culinary traditions, she created the USI Cooking and Culture Lessons, a program that teaches cultural diversity through food. The program, with the support of the Hispanic Student Union, Latinos Unidos, the Nutrition Department and the College of Liberal Arts, has been embraced by students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the Evansville community. It has enlightened the USI family with valuable knowledge of food and culture and original recipes. 

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