Delicious smells from my mother’s Argentine kitchen conjure up vivid memories of my childhood growing up in Hacienda Heights, Southern California. Every morning I would wake to the scents rising out of my Mom’s kitchen, her spaghetti sauce made from fresh tomatoes, basil and oregano picked out of her garden, simmering on the stove and wafting in the air through the hallway to my bedroom. She’d have empanadas baking in the oven or cans of condensed milk boiling in a large pot of water to make Dulce de Leche, a sweet Argentine caramel dessert. She lived far away from her family and missed the home-cooked meals her mother would prepare for her. Argentina was her homeland and what gave her a sense of place in a foreign land was her Argentine cooking where food was savored, talked about for hours over wine—where time stood still at the table with her family.
When my mother and father came to America in the 1950’s, my mother suffered severe homesickness. They were only in their early 20’s when they decided to escape the dictatorial oppression of President Juan Perόn, the economic hardship of high inflation and low paying jobs, and gender inequality where macho men ruled the roost. They came to America in search of the freedoms widely expected here, and set out to make a good life for themselves.
What they missed most about their country was the food. The fresh cut meats and fish displayed in the glass counters, hanging cheeses dangling in the store front window, breads warm out of the oven, homemade Alfajores (cookies) cooling on the racks, and dark roasted coffee brewing. These delicacies were sold on the four corners of every neighborhood in Buenos Aires. If there was a freedom Argentina enjoyed was the ability to fill out a tummy. They had an abundance of good ethnic food and few in their country went hungry.
My mouth still waters over my mother’s dishes: her Milanese, Ravioli and Meatballs, Gnocchi (her parents were from Sicily), grilled Chorizo, Carne Asada and even Yerba Maté (an Argentine drink) which we would share in the afternoons sipping and talking about our day.
I watched as she stirred, cooked, tasted, and gave of the gift of cooking to her family, serving up heaping helpings of lessons learned along the way. My mother would say, “Money is security and independence.” Having so little herself as a girl, her guiding principle was to have the basics of life covered while living on her own terms. She never followed a recipe. Here are some of the lessons gleaned from my mother on food and life:
- Trust your intuition, your gut, and all will come out all right. Life will show you. With my mother, it was trial and error. Never be afraid to make a mistake. When she cooked, she saved, and planned ahead, making sure she had all the right ingredients at the right price with plenty to store for another time.
- Prepare for what’s ahead. When my mother would learn a new recipe, she would try, try again, never giving up until it reached a level of perfection.
- Taste. Taste life as you go, until you get the result you want. She loved putting on a beautiful dinner table, whether it be for family, friends or large parties. She liked to impress.
- Share your gifts with others.
My mother is 85 years old and doesn’t cook much anymore. My father is in an Alzheimer’s home and her culinary motivation left with him. She lives by herself with her sweet dog, Angel. I am grateful my mom taught me how to cook. She continued her Argentine tradition, remembering the smells of her mother’s kitchen, teaching me how to make her delicacies for my own children in my home in Sonoma. The final lesson is to pass down the history of your ancestors. They live inside us.