I don’t mind my grandmother scolding me when I cook. The only problem is, she is dead. I’m trying to make sopita and, without warning, she mocks me as I sauté the macaroni in a pot. “Careless child, you’re burning the pasta, lower the heat.” I begged her on her deathbed not to come back to pay me a visit, but she still loves to whisper behind my ear. With a tone of mischief, she’ll tell me that I put too much sage on the cocido or not to stir too much the chilaquiles. “See, I told you! That’s why they come out all mushy.”
Josefa Pérez, or Doña Chepa, as my abuelita was respectfully called, was not a celebrity in the Old Pueblo but her cooking was recognized in the heart of the west side of town, in neighborhoods like El Rio, Barrio Hollywood, and Menlo Park. Doña Chepa’s culinary skills were her only source of income throughout her lifetime. Thanks to the nostalgic palates of the Mexican-American community of Tucson, she established an intimate and loyal market for her wares.
Every morning my grandmother gave San Martin Caballero, the patron saint of business, a glass of water for the saint’s horse to drink. Before she finished her coffee, she had already watered her garden and fed the little birds in exchange for a chirp. Her work started with the tying of her apron. Rolling pins and flour-dusted tables were often in the agenda of the day.
Doña Chepa offered homemade Mexican food for sale. Her menu consisted of tamales, empanadas, flour and corn tortillas, posoles, menudos, and poked gorditas with butter. When the seasons were right, she made buñuelos for New Year’s Day and capirotadas for Lent.
When my cousins were young, they helped grandmother sell tamales and empanadas on the corners of the streets. Her fame led her to take pedidos (orders) from her neighbors and friends. With every delivery of tasty Mexican cooking, word spread around the community about her tamales and pumpkin and piloncillo empanadas.
Doña Chepa was born in Navolato, Sinaloa, between the sea and the tomato fields. Raised by her father, a rancher, in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, she once told me “You never knew who the good guys were.” She learned how to cook during her childhood in the hut where they lived—a hut sometimes looted by the federales, maderistas, and even villistas. When they entered, she learned to keep quiet about the vegetables and grains hidden inside her petticoat.
She was forbidden to go to school. She learned arithmetic and writing through practice, lining up the letters of her name to compose her signature. She’d learn the knowledge that would sustain her throughout her life by the time she was 10 years old. By then, she knew how to distinguish herbs and their healing properties, how to break a chicken’s neck, how to use a machete in the field to harvest the corn, how to pick tomatoes, how to grind and season fresh meat for chorizo, and how to make a hearty stew for her siblings.
Sometime during the 1930s, Doña Chepa became the head cook at the defunct RestaurantSonora Sinaloa in Nogales, Sonora. Customers stood in line for a table to taste her caldo de queso y de papa, enchiladas, calabacitas con queso y elote, and gallina pinta. In the 1950s, she was offered the position of head cook at a ranch in Oracle. The cowboys and the rancher’s family were delighted to have her stirring up the taste of home-style Mexican cooking. That’s how she made her way to Tucson, where she continued to make a living by offering tamales, empanadas, and other meals by the order.
I remember the early Saturday mornings when local farmers were already pulling up by her curb. They opened the back of their trucks to reveal mountains of corn in their husks, Anaheim and poblano chiles, figs, zucchini, squash, and other vegetables and fruits of the season. Doña Chepa had the privilege of selecting first, long before the produce was offered to local businesses or at the Tanque Verde swap meet. She touched among the heap, smelled, calculated amounts, and negotiated wholesale prices, just as any renowned chef would do.
When I entered Doña Chepa’s house, I’d be captured by a range of scents, from calming cinnamon to red chile smokiness. My grandmother’s odor was a mixture of celery and orange blossom Sanborn’s cologne. Her garden was an array of color, a perfumery of fragrant herbs, and a pharmaceutical depot.
With a giant tin bucket full of recently purchased produce, I used to accompany her to the back porch of her Barrio Hollywood home. That’s where we peeled the corn out of their husks and silky fibers. A frightened little worm would be exposed and crawl here and there, proof that you couldn’t get more organic than that.
By the end of our work, our dusty hands would smell of earthy sweetness. They showed the evidence of the land that helped conceive the corn. The kernels were washed and polished until they looked like an array of pearls. The grains were shaved off with a knife that looked like a small machete. Grandmother took the grains to the kitchen, poured a mixture of water and cal (lime), let them boil a little, and soaked them overnight.
The next morning, the drained grain was ready to travel to the molino for the grinding at Grande Tortilla Factory, where we waited in line to get it back as masa, the dough we would turn into tamales.
I never noticed how or when, but when we got home, she’d already prepared the meat filling, which simmered in its tangy, mildly spicy sauce. Together, we assembled the ingredients. Soft corn husks first, masa second, and the meat nestled in the middle, adorned with a manzanilla olive. The tamales would lean one against the other in a large pot, ready for steaming. What would emerge was a thick, spongy masa oozing with the juices of the carne or the gooeyness of the cheese and green chiles.
When I entered Doña Chepa’s house, I’d be captured by a range of scents, from calming cinnamon to red chile smokiness. My grandmother’s odor was a mixture of celery and orange blossom Sanborn’s cologne. Her garden was an array of color, a perfumery of fragrant herbs, and a pharmaceutical depot. The bees were friendly companions in lessons on the curative properties of chamomile, epazote, gordolobo, and tila. She taught me to grow a garden’s other indispensable herbs, oregano, parsley, and cilantro, and that a chiltepin bush is absolutely necessary because every good posole or menudo will need freshly cracked chiltepines on the side.
Any seed thrown in her yard would inevitably blossom and burst with color during the late summer. Soon, a few watermelons and pumpkins and squash would be ready for the picking. Sometimes, the flor de calabaza, the squash blossom, would be selected, cleaned, breaded, and fried, and the two of us would sit at the table to enjoy the warm dish with a little pico de gallo.
Doña Chepa spent most of her life in the kitchen and the latter part of her years anticipating the weekend. Visiting grandmother on Sunday was paid with a warning that we’d “better enjoy the food for it might just be the last batch.” The menu ranged from tacos to carne con chile to beef stew with carrots and potatoes. Recipes were never given. You had to watch. Portions and ingredients were unmeasured. Taste and aromas determined the contents.
Doña Chepa left this earth with an unfinished pot of calabaza enmielada on the stove, but her spirit and legacy lives among all her descendants in Tucson. From her I learned to keep boiled pinto or mayocoba beans ready for consumption, to keep at least two boiled potatoes stocked in the refrigerator as they add chunkiness to a main course or side dish. I learned the base for soups and frijoles charros, and to always have a little chicken stock sopita for the children.
My grandmother is my patron saint of cooking and the saint that puts the evil eye on my albondigas. But when it comes to my sopita, my children tell me that I “make the best food ever!” I guess it’s a good thing to still have her next to me—or should I say, behind me. “Muchachita cuachalota, look at how sloppy you poured that sauce.” Doña Chepa can keep haunting me and my soup any day. ✜
Gwendoline Hernandez, a proud Tucson native, is a former information technology professional who now dedicates her time to her family and writing. Her favorite Mexican dishes are Posole al Estilo Sinaloa and Marlin en Escabeche.