My mother used to call me into the kitchen while she cooked and commanded me to pay attention. After a few minutes I would get in her way: handing her the wrong items and asking too my questions. Frustrated, my mother would have me exiled to the living room.
After becoming a wife and mother, I realized my family required sustenance and I was forced to conquer the kitchen. My kitchen became a place of solace, a place to stand and clear my head while cooking for others.
Now my mother and I are titans, both vying for power in la cocina.
My mother wields the pilón; I pump the mini chopper.
My mother blends peppers red and green, cloves of garlic, bulbs of onions, recao, cilantro and olive oil to make a large batch of sofrito. It is the base of her every meal.
I cook with sofrito so rarely that when I need it, I buy the ingredients, chop everything up and sauté it into my meal.
The beginning of almost any great meal includes:
I look forward to cooking holiday meals, creating my own traditions. While I cook my mother will lean over me, criticize my technique, “That’s not the way I do it.”
One by one my mother inspects my items, frowning at the prices. “It’s not that you cook good, you just buy expensive ingredients,” she’ll say.
I shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joes; I buy organic.
My mother shops where she has coupons, scouring the neighborhood for the best prices. She goes one place for milk, another for eggs, somewhere for meats and so on. My mother will never pay full price for anything if she knows she can get it on sale.
My mother cooks her specialty dishes with ease, never having to consult a book, eyeballing ingredients. I rely on recipes and measurements.
My mother trusts her culinary instinct. Mine are still being cultivated.
I am the occasional cook, making elaborate meals for a holiday or celebration. My mother cooks every day, it’s a part of who she is. I realize this the day I invite my parents over for Christmas dinner. I was going to cook the signature Puerto Rican meal: pernil, arrroz con gandules, potato salad. My mother said she would bring pasteles.
The thought reminds me of childhood. Watching my mother at the kitchen table late on Saturday night. A large pot at the center, sheets of wax paper in front of her, a ball of white twine. Wrapping each pastel like a present; humming to her herself or the phone nestled between her shoulder and ear. It is an all day affair, an offering. And the culinary commitment secures my mother’s place as the master. I am still the apprentice.
I do not want anyone else’s recipe other than hers. And I know I will have to watch her and ask questions and hope she doesn’t throw me out of her kitchen.
Originally written & published in December 2010.