Early on after moving to the canyon I was introduced to Victoria, a Mexican woman who lived in a little house with her husband Alfonso, for whom she cooked every single night. She worked for people in the neighborhood, but I didn't want cleaning or child care (well, cleaning, OK, I wanted -- still do want), I wanted her cooking.
She was an incredible cook. When she lived in Mexico, as a friend of hers translated, she cooked for wealthy women in their kitchens, for their parties. I've never met such a refined cook, working in any cuisine, in my life. And like all good cooks, she was a stern taskmistress. Cheery and easygoing in other ways, but cooking was cooking, and serious business. Since I've long been of that mind myself, Victoria and I understood each other. We had few words of spoken language in common, between my nonexistent Spanish and her shy, imperfect English. But as happens, we communicated fluently in the language of cooking.
She'd often bring me a sample of what she was preparing for Alfonso's dinner. Unbelievable smooth green mole on chicken legs, with pepitas and herbs and I don't know what all. The depth of flavor! Indescribable. Albondigas soup which put what self-styled Mexican restaurants serve under the title to shame. Tiny, tender little meatballs, flecked with herbs, cilantro, marjoram from the garden. Victoria, I discovered, like me, vastly preferred marjoram to oregano. She did specify oregano, the dried powdered type, as one of the necessary condiments for her pozole, buying a new cellophane package each time she made it, so that at least it would have that advantage. But in her heavenly escabeche of vegetables, for instance, it was marjoram all the way, and maybe a little thyme.
Little being the operative term. From Victoria I learned that onion can dilute the flavor intensity of a preparation to a terrible degree. Making her green salsa under her own watchful eye, prepping ingredients and putting them into the blender, she had me reduce and reduce again the wedge of onion I was showing her, until it was a veritable sliver of a quarter-inch or so. That was what went into the blender. And not too too much cilantro, either, she was adamant -- it's a tomatillo and jalapeno trip, mostly. You don't get the perfect neon green any other way, not to mention the perfect texture, and not forgetting, of course, flavor.
It was during Lent ten years ago or so that Victoria taught me maybe the biggest lesson of so many. I usually think of it as the mind-blowing realization that tuna and jalapeno are one of the best combinations under the sun, but really it was more than that, although it needn't have been, if you love tuna, and jalapeno, as much as I did and do. The Lenten Friday food I grew up with, and every Lent-keeping family I knew served, was a processed-food feast of frozen fish sticks and Kraft macaroni and cheese from the box. There might have been variation over the several Fridays of the season, but honestly I can't picture something different just now.
What Alfonso was having for this Lenten dinner was, yes, a trinity, by no accident; also looked like something suitable for a food photo shoot, as all Victoria's plates did. Alfonso was a funny old guy, came to our door one evening intent on showing us the lid from his lunchtime Maruchan Instant Lunch (which, I had learned, was the lunch of choice of many of the local Latin working men -- sold, along with lots of cooked foods, on lunch trucks all over the place), rather the inside of the lid. Perfect representation of Jesus's face, right there. Looked not at all unlike the image on the Shroud of Turin I'd seen in National Geographic. Remarkable, honestly. I mean it.
On his Lenten plate were three nicely cut pieces of fresh white cheese, the kind Victoria'd showed me how to use in chile rellenos. Tomato wedges with a little mayonnaise. And what I guess would be called macaroni salad, only was so much more than that to me. Cut pasta, lightly dressed, cilantro, canned tuna, chopped cucumber, onion, a chopped tomato, and quite a lot of chopped jalapeno. Looked beautiful, tasted even better.
At this moment it seems funny, and terrible, that there existed a time when I didn't assume tuna and jalapeno together, but it is true. That very sad era ended AT THE EXACT MOMENT I tasted Victoria's thrifty and appropriately austere Lenten offering. I've been pairing those flavors ever since in various ways. What she made was not a big deal, to her, prepared with her customary care and refinement from a handful of fresh ingredients. I thought about fish sticks and Kraft macaroni and cheese from the box, and the many meanings of poor.
Priscilla writes from a Southern California canyon where the variety of four-legged creatures walked on leash currently evinces a vogue for miniature horses and pygmy goats, along with the usual llamas and rescue greyhounds.
The Last Caprese