Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Green Chili

         She stood in the kitchen, a long brown braid going down her back and her hands were busy. She sniffed and began to make very subtle noises, trying not to bring attention to herself. She often did not want to bring attention to herself. She hid herself off from all of us at times because she talked to God, and, I think, because having five children made her anxious and she sought peace and quiet. She shifted her weight from one side to another and grabbed a paring knife laying next to her, she chopped an onion into the smallest pieces I had ever seen. And the noises continued. "Mama are you o.k?" I asked and joined her at the counter at which point my entire face became red and my eyes started to burn. "I'm o.k" she said, "Just making green chili for your daddy." She continued to peel the skin off chilies (we never called them peppers) and placed them in a small bowl along with the already skinned onions and tomatillos: which always made me laugh because I wondered, What would a green tomato taste like? I would never know because Mama only used them in the green chili she made for Daddy. "Mama why do you make chili when it hurts your eyes and skin so much? Can't daddy just not have chili sauce?" She smiled, "Yes Daddy could have no chili sauce for his eggs but he misses his family, his home. This chili sauce is a small piece of home that I can give to him. No stores in town have chili sauce like your Grandmother's recipe and there are no tortillas or cheeses he can have from home." (think 1977) I thought about what she had said and it was so true. My Daddy had brought home some tortillas once from a store about 45 miles away from our house. He drove a long time after his shift in the subway tunnels to get them and was so excited. Mama had made beans, rice and chili sauce. We all sat down to the table. Daddy took the first bite and it tasted like cardboard. My family ate plates of beans and rice without tortillas and Daddy and my big brother's put the green chili on everything. Mama had wished she had spent the day making Grandmother's white flour tortillas. Daddy said we should have some soon and everything she made tasted delicious.
            Mama continued to work on the chili sauce, big tears dripping down her face and her hands bright red from the acid from chilies. I got a tissue and came to wipe her face for her knowing that if her hands came anywhere near her face that things would go from bad to worse. "What is that thing called, Mama?" I pointed to the stone thing Mama was putting the chilies in. "This is called a stone grinder" said Mama. "A long time ago, when I first was married to your Father, your Grandmother tried to teach me to cook." said Mama and she giggled. My Grandmother spoke no English other than "hello" and "yes". "Your Grandmother would talk and talk and use her hands trying to explain to me how to cook these dishes. I was patient and tried to understand her, but couldn't. As time went on I stopped listening and started writing things down and watching what she did and I learned a lot and became a good cook. Your Grandfather was watching the whole time and told your Daddy that after his next trip to Mexico he was going to bring me something special. When he returned he brought with him the stone grinder and your Grandmother taught me to make the green chili, which was your Daddy's favorite." I listened as my Mother spoke about the grinder and my Grandparents, who I had never met. My Mother shared with me that afternoon that her own family had turned her away and wanted nothing to do with her. My Father's family had welcomed her as one of their own even though she was not Hispanic. In the 1950's, when they got married, people from different places did not marry each-other. In the 1950's there were not a lot of Mexicans in the country and people did not treat them nicely. She was touched by the love they had shown her.
        Mama cleaned up the chili and washed her hands a few times. I told her that tonight I was going to taste the chili and she said that is was too hot for me. (which it was, making me cry)
        Many years later my Mother was sick with cancer. She was asking each of us what things we wanted of hers. I told her that I wanted the stone grinder and a notebook of her's. "Why would you want that thing?" said Mama. "I just do Mama, it reminds me of you." I said. The grinder reminded me of all the sacrifices she made for her family, putting each one of us first, going through painful things in order to make us happy. The grinder was a sign of her love for her husband and of her children. The stone grinder sits in my kitchen today. I don't have to make green chili, I can walk into any supermarket and buy all kinds of chili sauce. Oh how times have changed.