It is a mild afternoon in Morelia and warm streams of sunlight filter in from the open-air courtyard of the house, brightening Yuyo’s kitchen. Although I’ve been in this room many times, I‘ve never really taken a good look around and a part of me is disappointed by what’s not here. I admit to having some romantic notions of the Mexican kitchen. I picture beautifully decorated, clay pots bubbling over with savory pozoles, an oversized copper kettle simmering frijoles de la olla, a sturdy hand-fired comal roasting deep-red chiles anchos. On the countertop of blue and white tiles from Puebla, I see an aged molcajete, the secrets of previous generations ground into the well-worn basalt tejote.
But Yuyo’s kitchen is stocked instead with all the conveniences of a modern Mexican household: a pressure-cooker for the beans, a high-powered blender for perfectly pureed salsas, a cast-iron skillet for frying quesadillas. Yuyo shows off her new nonstick cookware. It makes sense that she’d find ways to make cooking less of a chore, especially since she heads a household of eight boys and four girls. Throw in sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren and some days there are more than twenty mouths to feed. But I brush aside my momentary disappointment, grateful for the chance to spend a few hours in the kitchen with Yuyo learning to cook from this woman who certainly knows a thing or two about Mexican cuisine.
I first came to Morelia over ten years ago to learn Spanish. During my summer here, I befriended Yuyo’s youngest son Pablo, who at the time worked as a guide for the language school I attended, and was the first person I met in Mexico. On his way to Mexico City to meet me and accompany me back to Morelia, the bus he was riding veered off the road and crashed into a shallow, muddy lake. No one was seriously injured, but when Pablo entered the lobby of the Hotel Reforma, his cream-colored jacket, light-gray pants, and white sneakers were smeared with large splotches of dried mud. Despite his appearance, Pablo greeted me with a smile and a warm, “Welcome to Mexico.” During our bus ride to Morelia, Pablo’s outward confidence and friendly demeanor melted. Shaken and unnerved by the harrowing events of the morning, it was clear that he needed to talk. Between his broken English and my rudimentary Spanish we somehow managed conversations about life, death, fear, mortality, the possibility of an afterworld, and fate. I spent my first night in Morelia in Pablo’s living room, sipping Yuyo’s hot champurrado with his brothers and beginning a friendship that has endured despite the burdens of time and distance. Yuyo likes to think of my friendship with her son as destiny.
Since that first summer I have returned to Morelia as often as possible. Even if I visit Mexico and my primary destination is elsewhere, I manage to make my way back to Morelia. Recently, I went to the port city Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico to celebrate carnaval.
After a few days of excess and revelry there I stumbled onto a bus and didn’t wake from my stupor until I had arrived fourteen hours later in Pablo’s house where Yuyo’s spicy and bracing menudo nursed me back to soberness and reality. I remember telling Yuyo then that I would return one day so that she could teach me all of her cooking secrets.
Now, Yuyo approaches, shaking her head disapprovingly. I’m at a small table in the corner of her kitchen, furiously jotting down everything that transpires on a legal pad. She wipes her hands on her white apron and adjusts the pins that hold her silver-white hair in a tight bun.
“The secret to cooking you can’t write down,” she says, taking away my pad and pencil.
I protest mildly, insisting that I have to write things down or else I’ll forget something important later. I don’t want to blunder the same way my friend Suzanne did when she made her first marinara sauce. She thought a clove of garlic meant the entire head. But Yuyo is patient. “No te preocupes,” she says. Don’t worry. “I learned by watching my mother. You watch me.”
Yuyo lays out a few chiles poblanos onto a cast-iron skillet and toasts them carefully. We char the chiles, turning them until their skins are covered with black blisters, then we place them in paper bags. Before I can ask her how long we’ll keep them inside, Yuyo turns my attention to the Dutch oven where chicken pieces braise in a mixture of garlic, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Yuyo hands me marjoram, thyme, bay leaves, and a chile serrano. I add them to the pot. The sharp smells that jump out at me slowly mellow and meld into a potent, unusually fragrant and earthy aroma that smells nothing like any Mexican food I’ve had before. Sensing my curiosity about the dish, Yuyo answers the question in my head.
“Pollo en cuñete,” she says and nothing more. I nod. Chicken something, I translate in my head, remembering only later that “cuñete” means clay pot. When I ask her how she adapted the recipe without the clay pot, Yuyo ignores the question and asks me to make sure the caldo on the back burner is not boiling. Inside the stockpot is chicken broth steaming with garbanzo beans, carrots, garlic, onion, epazote, and smoky chiles chipotles. I have trouble adjusting the stove settings and the caldo comes to a roiling boil.
“It’s still boiling, Señora,” I say, a slight hint of panic in my voice. We’ve only begun cooking and already I’m afraid I’ve ruined the meal.
“Ay, Augusto,” Yuyo says with a sigh. She presses her fingers to the lines on my forehead and chuckles slightly. “These will become permanent unless you stop worrying,” she chides.
“But I want everything to turn out perfect,” I say.
Yuyo smiles, pats my arm, turns the knob on the gas range. The flame subsides and the bubbling caldo settles down into a slow, gentle simmer.
“You could burn everything and the boys would still eat it,” she says. “What matters most to them is that you’re here with us.”
The boys, of course, are her sons and my friends. While we cook, Yuyo and I remember my previous visits, recalling eventful moments from my first summer here. There was the weekend getaway to Zihuatanejo when Luis and I forgot the sunscreen and came home as red as bright cherry tomatoes. There were the morning trips to Mercado Hidalgo where Pablo and I would buy Yuyo’s produce, never leaving the market before a stop at the food stands for creamy licuados made with mamey or fresh corn corundas, still steaming in their husks. Yuyo reminds me of Ricardo’s birthday when I played traditional Mexican folk songs on the family organ while everyone sang along. I go into a lengthy account of the night when Miguel got into a scuffle on the dance floor of a local club that nearly turned into an all-out brawl.
“It’s a good thing nothing happened,” I remind Yuyo. “I probably would have run away—or fainted.” I shouldn’t have even been there. But when Miguel was threatened I stood my ground by his side and never moved. The memory makes me cringe. I tell her that it was an act of folly.
“Miguel remembers it differently,” Yuyo says, not looking up from the chop board as she dices calabacitas. “For him, it was the ultimate sign of loyalty, and he has never forgotten it.”
As we talk, I watch Yuyo go through the motions of preparing ingredients. She starts a task, then hands it to me; I simply imitate what I’ve seen. It’s a curious cooking demonstration, not unlike watching a Saturday morning cooking show with the TV volume on mute. My mind races with questions; I don’t feel like I’m really learning how to do things because Yuyo doesn’t talk me through the steps or give me directions. I yearn momentarily for the wild and colorful antics of Emeril Lagasse. Even the carefully paced, measured narration of Martha Stewart would be welcome right now—at least she is thorough and describes every important step. But over the next few hours, Yuyo and I don’t talk about food, or recipes, or anything remotely related to cooking. She never divulges any culinary secrets. She never describes her technique for stuffing chiles, never explains the varied uses of the herb epazote, doesn’t bother to say how she makes the chicharrón that flavors her guacamole. Instead, we take this nostalgic walk down memory lane, swapping stories about our families, our friends, and our lives.
My frustration with Yuyo mounts; for an instant, I regret not taking a “real” cooking class where I could get actual recipes or more specific training in culinary skills and techniques. Before I can scold myself for such a lack of gratitude, Yuyo has another task for me. She sets up an assembly line of sorts on the counter. I stuff a mixture of rice, onions, diced squash, and bits of queso manchego in the chiles poblanos we’d roasted earlier. Then I dip each one into a light batter and Yuyo fries them with oil in the cast-iron skillet. Under her watchful eyes, I take over the cooking completely.
“You’ve learned a lot today,” she says. “The boys will be impressed.”
Hiding my disappointment, I flash her a grin, hoping it conveys a sense of humility and gratitude, even though I’m resigned to the fact that a real cooking class in a more authentic Mexican kitchen will have to wait.
At quarter to two in the afternoon, the family begins filing into the house. Ricardo returns from the family panadería, his shirt dusted with flour. He sneaks into the kitchen, grabs a tortilla, dips it into the beans and snoops around for something else to snack on. Yuyo shoos him out. Felipe comes in, sets his books down, kisses Yuyo on the cheek, and takes a stack of plates from the cupboard into the dining room. As if on cue, Luis and Carlos emerge with bowls and silverware to help set the table. Pablo and Miguel enter from the courtyard and greet me with a hearty abrazo. Together we carry out the last serving bowls, utensils, and platters of food. This is well-oiled machine, the product of practiced routines that have long since become habit. Yuyo’s husband Martín appears shortly and everyone takes his place at the table.
There are nine of us for the comida today. Yuyo graciously announces to her family that they have me to thank for cooking the meal. A pause follows. Miguel glances at Carlos who looks across to Ricardo. Felipe puts down his fork. Luis stops chewing his tortilla. Pablo pushes his chair away from the table, stands with lips pursed, says in his heavily accented English, “Eh, I am not hungry anymore,” and starts to walk away. Another brief moment of silence. I feel my heart stop. Then, he turns, looks at me, a wry, mischievous smile spread across his face. Simultaneous strains of “Ayyyy!” and bursts of laughter erupt from the table. I should have seen it coming, but I always fall for Pablo’s jokes. A chorus of “thank you” and “gracias” and “provecho!” fills the room and everyone digs in.
We start together with the caldo tlalpeño, dividing shredded chicken, diced tomatoes, and avocado chunks into soup bowls, next we ladle in the smoky, chipotle-flavored broth, and finish with a generous squeeze of limón. After the soup, the “order” of the meal falls away—everyone moves on to a different dish. Luis and Felipe take crisp-fried tortillas and stack them with frijoles, dark meat strips of the braised pollo en cuñete, potatoes, salsa, Yuyo’s guacamole and top each unusual tostada with a dollop of Mexican crema and crumbled queso fresco. Ricardo layers sliced plantains on a bed of white rice, flavored simply with chiles serranos, garlic, and parsley. Pablo and Miguel cut into the chiles rellenos and the savory filling spills out onto their plates. In between bites and slurps and finger licking, the family doles out compliments. Carlos asks me where I learned to cook. Ricardo asks if I want a job in the bakery. Senor Martín jokes that if I stick around and cook, Yuyo will have nothing to do. We laugh and we eat, going back and forth between dishes, scooping up every last bit, clearing every platter.
Halfway through the meal, I look around the table and experience a moment of alchemy. Watching everyone eat, I slowly understand what Yuyo and I did together in the kitchen. In my time with her, I kept waiting for Yuyo to reveal some nugget of wisdom, some secret to Mexican cooking that I could take back with me and replicate at home. I wanted an experience rooted in an imagined sense of authenticity or romance, something worth boasting about. I could say that I learned to cook from a real Mexican grandmother in a real Mexican kitchen, and everyone would want to know the secrets I gleaned from her. Maybe there are secrets to cooking, some bit of magic that can turn the ordinary into the sublime. But it doesn’t really matter. I can always read a Diana Kennedy cookbook, experiment with ingredients, master some technique by watching the Emerils, or Marthas, or Julias of the world. But in Yuyo’s kitchen, I realize, how is not nearly as important as why.
Here are my friends, eating food that Yuyo and I have created together, from ingredients I helped prepare, the result of hours of care, respect, and attention. There is a current of humor and affection, a kind of joy that comes with the closeness of family sharing a meal together at the dinner table. Although I am a guest and an outsider, they envelope me in their warmth and humble me with their generosity. Another look around the table reminds me why I return to them again and again.
Yuyo catches my gaze and smiles, her expression as warm as the afternoon Morelia sun that angles into the room through the courtyard. “Look at what you’ve made,” she says.
I smile at her and pull my chair in a little closer to the table.
Augusto Andres is a writer and teacher living in San Francisco.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.