I cook the way I speak Spanish, which I describe as a “kitchen Spanish.” My accent is intact, but my fluency comes and goes. I learned the basics of the language from the women in my mother’s Cuban family, whom I watched as they peeled and fried and roasted their way to an improvised repertoire of Cuban infused Sephardic Jewish food. I think of the ropa vieja that my Abuela—my grandmother—made. She sautéed shredded beef in tomato sauce, onions and garlic. The dish was then studded Sephardic style with raisins—small bursts of sweetness swimming in an oily broth. A gift from one culture to another.
Abuela’s cooking genes bypassed my mother to be inherited by her younger sister, Tia. But my mother could not abide Tia doing anything better than she did. Mom anointed herself the prettier sister. “All of my cousins wanted me to be in their weddings,” my mother bragged. “I had a beautiful figure,” she said outlining the shape of an hourglass.
My mother eventually vanished into a mental illness that blurred my teen years with fear. “No one will believe you,” she once said to me when I threatened to expose her after she threw a milk bottle at me and bloodied my head. These days a crippling arthritis mires her in loneliness and maroons her in a wheelchair. But before that she was, as my father used to say, crazy like a fox. As a child I intuited that my mother was not so much smart, as she was wily. I would learn much later that she pretended to have a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Havana.