I’ve spent the past two weeks defending myself against a flu that has sucked the life out of me, and has left me with no desire to deal with indolent students who now care about their grades and homework. We have one week left of class, I have already given them the best fourteen weeks of my autumn, and if they haven’t learned it by now, it’s too late.
When I am sick I always run towards the comfort and unconditional love of soups. I didn’t grow up in a family with culinary traditions, and I’ve always been a bit jealous of people who grew up exploring in kitchens with old relatives, learning family secret recipes.
When physical and emotional stress catch up with me, I love getting lost in the kitchen: the process of soup making, and its aromas become part of my therapy, and I don’t have to worry about food for a couple of days.
One of my favorite soups is with beans and corn: it’s easy to make, it’s light and comforting, and it tastes better the next day. Another one I love is my albóndiga soup – I call it “my” because I take a lot of liberties with the recipe: I bake the meatballs in a chipotle and poblano sauce, and eat it with rice, avocados, cilantro, cotija cheese, and red cabbage. It’s better than NyQuil.
And of course, the mother of all soups: pozole. Making it is so involving that it’s impossible for me to worry or think about anything else in the world. One of the best things about pozole is the nixtamal, the plump, puffy, white corn.
And whenever I think of nixtamal, I always think of another flu and soup: menudo (tripe soup). The flu is an unwelcomed friend who insists in yearly visits and while suffering the punishments of her company, my friends’ mother told me that the cure was as easy as a bowl of menudo. As my stomach tightened, and my head almost exploded, I was overwhelmed by the grip of Catholic guilt –technically I am Episcopalian, but emotionally and mentally I am Catholic. As I tried to exit gracefully, I couldn’t stop all the lies pouring out of my mouth:
-I just ate, thanks!
-I’m stuffed, thanks!
-I have a dinner engagement later, thanks!
-Actually, I don’t like menudo, but thanks!
-I’m sure yours is the best, no thanks!
-To be honest, I’ve never even tasted it, thanks!
The next thing I knew everyone had disappeared from the house except for the two of us –because they knew what was coming. Doña Rosa listened to me patiently with her beautiful understanding smile.
– Sit, and you’re not leaving until you’re done.
On the dining room table she put a bowl down, and declared:
– Eat this; I’ll be in the kitchen.
I obeyed her. I sat there and rebelled (quietly): I am twenty-four years old, she’s not my mother, she can’t force me to eat something I don’t want, I’m leaving right now.
-It’s good isn’t it?
In Panamá we have a soup that we call mondongo that is very similar to menudo, and I have never tried it. People always said that the only mondongo they ate was the one prepared by their grandmothers or mothers, and my family doesn’t have that culinary adventurous spirit. I’ve always felt that the word “mondongo” sounded horrible and unwelcoming, it’s not an inviting word like “squash flower blossoms” or “cucumber margaritas on the rocks.”
Back then I was a student assistant for an anthropology professor, and I was deluding myself into wishful thinking that I too, could be a brilliant anthropologist. She always stressed the importance of not offending people, their kindness, and their customs. So, with my best pseudo-anthropologist mindset, and in my eagerness to “not offend” I formulated and carried out my plan.
First I ate the nixtamal –which I surprisingly loved, it has such a pleasant texture. Then I picked the few vegetables I found, and finished the clear broth. I tasted a piece of the meat. I remember exactly what I was wearing that day: a black sweater and jeans. I took off my sweater, tied it around my waist, I grabbed the meat and put it in my pockets.
I got up, I said goodbye, and I drove home with my legs dripping with the juice of the squishy meat. That wasn’t the worst part: I confessed to my friends, I can’t go to confession, because I am not Catholic! Although their parish priest was a very nice Spaniard with a great sense of humor, and I think we could have worked something out. This was twenty-two years ago, they still make fun of me, but at least they never told their mom –as far as I know.
Due to this trauma that still haunts me today, last week I decided to alleviate my flu with a bowl of menudo. I found a place that served it, and even though it was a sad, drizzly, gray Thursday, I was excited and ready to prove how much I had grown up since my last experience. I was going to have the last laugh.
Unlike my first one, this menudo was red, had no nixtamal and it came with tortillas. The broth had a more aggressive taste than the one that lived in my memory. When I tasted the meat, I was immediately transported to Doña Rosa’s dining room. I put the meat in the tortilla, but it didn’t make anything better.
And as proof that today I am more mature, and I am an adult, I discreetly covered the meat with my napkin, I left with my jeans clean, and I had squash flower blossom quesadillas and a cucumber margarita on the rocks for dinner.