As most of you know, since my mother-in-law’s death I’ve been on a mission to find ways to keep the memory of Sue alive for my baby girl. That desire, in turn, sparked a passion to help other families in the same situation.
Unfortunately, I have many close friends mourning the loss of a parent, right at the time when we’re figuring out how to be parents ourselves. The idea that our little ones won’t know those special people—people who would’ve been such integral parts of their lives, our lives—is simply unfathomable.
That’s why I was intrigued when my friend Jen told me about her continued connection to her mother through food, particularly the native Colombian dish, arroz con pollo. I asked her to write about it, so I could share it with all of you. The result is this beautiful guest post.
Thank you, Jen, for your support, understanding, inspiration, and willingness to share. You, like your mother, make this world a better place. I’m so glad I know you, and through you, her.
Without further ado …
Nothing brings back memories of my mom better than food. It’s been nine years since she passed away, and I can still taste her arroz con pollo.
As early as I can remember, I loved spending time with my mom in the kitchen.
She taught me how to make patacones, papas choriadas, pan de yuca, arepas, ajiaco, and on one ambitious day, empanadas. We would sing along to Colombian music playing from the family room. Yo me llamo cumbia, yo soy la reina por donde voy… Or of course, to Julio Iglesias.
She would tell funny stories of learning to cook in the early days of her marriage to my dad, an American. Here’s one of my favorites:
New to the United States, she and my dad went to a friend’s house for dinner where they served a baked zucchini dish. My dad seemed to like it, so she decided to recreate it. But when he started eating her version, his face grimaced. Having never cooked zucchini before, she confused it with cucumber. Baked cucumber? Yuck! The punch line was always, “And your dad didn’t even like zucchini! He just ate it to be polite!” She mostly stuck to traditional Colombian dishes after that.
She would tell me that the way to a man’s heart is though his stomach and sing me a familiar children’s song.
Arroz con leche, me quiero casar
Con una muchachita que sabe concinar.
(Rice pudding, I want to marry
A young lady who knows how to cook.)
I would laugh and change the words to bailar or cantar or nadar (dance or sing or swim).
In college, I started coming home with my own ideas about how to make our family favorites. Let’s add eggplant to this. Let’s make that with brown rice instead. Let’s make this—gasp!—vegetarian. She was usually skeptical, but always amused by the results.
When she died, everything crystallized. All I wanted were the unadulterated flavors of my childhood. I would reach into the depths of my memory for those unwritten recipes, those perfect ingredients, those exact measurements in the hope that I could feel her presence again even for just one meal.
There was comfort in my attempts, but even more solace in the occasions that brought my dad and sisters together to remember her—her birthday, the anniversary of her death, Mother’s Day.
There was also sadness, the looming feeling that each batch of lentils was getting further away from the original taste I craved. I worried that I would not be able to pass on my mom’s legacy, or at the very least her cooking, to my own (as yet unborn) children.
But I kept trying. In fact, the first meal I ever cooked for my now-husband was arroz con pollo. I should mention here that Colombian chicken and rice is to me what hashweh is to my as my Palestinian-American husband. Hashweh is an Arabic rice dish with ground beef, cardamom, and allspice. Our culinary roots run deep.
One day a few months ago, I was making “Mom’s Lentils” again. Carlos Vives played in the background. I opened the freezer and saw that we had Jordanian allspice, a gift from my mother-in-law. An idea came to mind: forgo the ubiquitous Goya Sazón seasoning packets of my childhood in favor of an Arabic-Colombian fusion? Yes! Pushing aside any thoughts of betraying our family traditions, I went for it. And it was good!
My mom never met my husband Ramsey or my son Faris. I try to picture what life would be like if she were still alive. I imagine her visiting me in San Francisco, holding my baby, chatting with my mother-in-law, sitting down for dinner, trying hashweh for the first time …
So, Colombian lentils with allspice, a new family tradition. My mom would surely be amused.