Sometime before Thad was born, probably 1981, we drove over to Chihuahua state in the wintertime. South of the city of Chihuahua, yes it’s where the dogs come from (and also the home of Pancho Villa, whose third wife Yvonne and I met just before she died), we had a few churches around Julimes .
One of the ladies in the church was married to a wealthy farmer, which was unusual in those days. Not the marriage part, but that anyone in our churches might have any money was unusual. Everybody was poor, as a general rule. So to go into their house, with fancy furniture that still had the plastic covers on the chairs, was quite the treat for us. And he had a truck. Not a beater truck that we had to constantly fix by the side of the road with tie-wire and inner tubes for gaskets, but a real truck with shiny paint and no cracks in the dashboard. I, myself, wasn’t poor but we’d been immersed in the lives of the poor and living with them long enough that I found myself quite impressed by this level of luxury that wouldn’t have been even middle-class where I came from.
That doesn’t have anything to do with my story, except it was the same place and the rich household was strained. I suspect the husband had another woman; and I suspect the wife knew; it made for tension in the house. I mean, if I, a casual stranger, suspected it, it was probably true.
That doesn’t have anything to do with my story either, except it wasn’t anything like the house we all ate breakfast at.
I don’t know what the purpose of our trip was, but for some reason there was a group of us and we all ate breakfast together in another kind of house. A house without plastic on the chairs. We would come in from the cold, into this kitchen/dining room that was filled with a woman in motion, the cook, the mother, the hostess. She’d been up since before daylight making breakfast. The beans were refried, tweaked with pork fat, covered with white cheese, and cheered up with jalapeno chile bits, a few onions for good measure.
The Mexicans don’t make oatmeal the way we do, they make it as a drink, not as a porridge. The first time I drank it I thought what poor cooks they were, to not know how to make oatmeal. But later I wondered why we make our oatmeal so thick and gloppy and paste-like when it could be thinned and sweetened and infused with cinnamon and drunk out of a big cup with both hands wrapped around it for warmth. She ladled the oatmeal drink out of her stock pot that bubbled on the stove and cheerfully insisted on refill after refill.
The comal was kept hot and she slapped tortilla after tortilla on it, warming them. Like most Mexican women her fingertips had long since lost their sensitivity: every tortilla flipped by hand, each flip a light touch on the hot comal. The tortilla warming was done as a constant backdrop to everything else she did: it was like breathing, an involuntary motion, tucked into the choreography of her work and talk. As you know, these were corn tortillas, the everyday tortilla, the tortilla of the masses; not fancy-smancy flour tortillas. These tortillas are bought daily from the tortillería in a stack large anywhere from 6” high to a couple of feet high, depending on the size of the family. She insisted on being friendly and optimistic even as her kitchen was invaded by this group of us. She made us feel like we had honored her by sitting down and rolling up our tortillas in one smooth motion, by joining her in her kitchen.
The largest frying pan in the world was being scrambled with eggs and onions, chiles and diced prickly pear cactus, tomatoes, and probably garlic in the background. She had cooked up the sausage called chorizo and added that to. Chorizo is an acquired taste, but once you acquire it nothing else quite does it. I still prefer Italian style sausage like we generally get in the U.S., but whenever I even smell chorizo I desire it. But I don’t like large chunks in it. Sometimes they use a fairly coarse meat grinder and you get chewy parts in the chorizo. I don’t like that.
I don’t remember her name; but I remember the way she filled up the room with her personality. She was cheerful without being pushy; she had that hospitality which the poor most ready offer. There was a steamy mist in the room, from so many lit burners, so many pots and pans bubbling and the steady heat of the comal.