Friedman’s Ana Maafs recalls a conversation with her abuelita about her experiences growing up and eating in Mexico.
My abuelita’s family owned a hotel. Since the hotel had a restaurant, food was always available: there was a huge variety of fish and shrimps; and unlike many of the households in Tlacotalpan, chicken, pork, and beef were also eaten regularly. There were not many fruits and vegetables in the region: mainly banana, watermelon, tomato, zucchini, onion, potato, and corn. White rice was religiously a side dish, along with beans and fried bananas, which are my abuelita’s favorite fruit. The typical meal included soup or broth followed by stew with red and green salsas, and sometimes beans. In the kitchen, everything that could be fried was deep-fried, and my abuelita remembers frequently seeing bananas swimming in oil.
My abuelita and her four sisters had to help with the hotel and restaurant chores, one weekday each. My grandmother stayed on Mondays. With the cooks, she learned how to prepare mancha-manteles: the “tablecloth stainer.” This is a stew made with beef; a special red mole sauce that includes chile ancho, tomato, onion, and garlic; fried bananas; and white rice. The spicy mole takes many hours to prepare, and if it splashes any cloth, the stain will likely remain forever. Looking back, my abuelita is grateful that she learned how to prepare the dish because that is what my granddad requested for supper the first day after they were married.
Unlike today’s overflow of nutrition information, in the 1940s, there was no nutrition education in school, no food labels on products and packages, and no regular weighing and measuring of children. People were not worried about their calories or their nutrients, and they decided seasonal menus based on holidays and ceremonies. There was no doctor in town, and the only well-known health advice (which my abuelita still believes in) was to eat a piece of bread if you were startled, to avoid “feeling faint.”
My abuelita remembers that it was common for people to eat until they felt uncomfortably full. If you could see someone’s collarbone, that meant that they were scrawny and prone to “feeling faint.” Compared to those standards, my grandmother was always skinny, and her mother desperately wanted to improve my abuelita’s weight. Therefore, she consulted the most reliable source of nutrition information available: her neighbors and the local priest. The advice they gave was adamant: after each meal, my abuelita would have to swallow two raw egg-yolks with a generous sip of sacramental wine (to have God’s blessing, of course). If sacramental wine was unavailable, regular red wine would not do the trick, so lemon and salt would have to be used instead.
My abuelita ate six raw egg yolks a day until she got married at 22. Her wedding was a big celebration and my abuelita’s parents “threw their house out the window.” There was a great feast with several fish dishes, turkey, three types of shrimp, roasted pork, ham, turtle soup, and two tables of traditional Mexican candy. My grandmother says that every guest had second servings.
After the marriage, my abuelita moved to Mexico City with my granddad. Foods were different from what my abuelita was used to, and she noticed that people did not fry things properly. Luckily, she had brought eight or nine clay pots from Tlacotalpan, which she used to deep-fry her rice and bananas. In the new city, she enjoyed eating all kinds of fruits and vegetables that were unfamiliar to her; she had access to breakfast cereals, sodas, and popcorn, and she went out to other people’s restaurants more regularly. When I asked about how she decided which meals to prepare as a housewife, she said “Colors! You always want your plate to look colorful”. She was careful to include a variety of foods and sauces that would ensure this.
The nutrition advice my abuelita had followed so far was based on culture, traditions, and family. The first scientific guidance she received was during a doctor’s appointment when she was pregnant. The doctor told my abuelita that she should reduce her intake of bread and tortillas, which she tried to do. He was also concerned about her daily consumption of raw eggs, and consequently, she started cooking her egg yolks.
Nowadays, my abuelita is not skinny anymore, but she remains as healthy and active as ever. She still has clay pots to make spicy mole, and she continues to eat two eggs with beans and tortillas every morning. Fried bananas continue to be her favorite fruit, but because she has a granddaughter who studies “something to do with food” (that would be me!), she tries to alternate them with papaya.
Sacramental wine is consecrated red wine, and it is used for religious ceremonies in Catholicism. After red wine is consecrated, it represents the Holy Blood of Jesus.
Popular saying in Mexico: “Tiraron su casa por la ventana”. Used to express that someone goes to great extends to plan a celebration.
Ana Maafs is a second year MS NICBC student. Originally from Mexico City, she worked as a nutritionist for a few years before coming to Boston. She is interested in behavior change at individual and community level. She enjoys having bubble tea from different places around Chinatown.