The lines on my mother’s face are deeper than I remember. I know I’m getting older – I can feel it every morning when I wake up – but I haven’t seen my mother in so long and her aging troubles me. There is more hard work and sacrifice etched on her face than any woman should ever endure, and I’m sure I contributed to many of the deeper rows on her skin, but there is love in her eyes as she walks into my Alexandria apartment.
“Hola, mijo,” she says.
She‘s visiting me for a few days, on her way back from a trip to Quebec with her husband, and I can tell she’s happy to see her boy again. I was 18 when I left home in South Texas, and I never really returned after stints in the Marine Corps and college. Even though I’m married with a 6-year-old of my own, I think she still sees the crazy teenager trying desperately to get away, so she tries to hold on to me the only way she knows how: with great food.
“What do you want me to make you?” she asks with a smile and a hug.
“To eat?” I ask.
Some of mom’s best meals were made when I came home from a deployment or some long holiday weekend. I run the endless menu of signature dishes through my head: bistek ranchero, enchiladas suizas, sopes, and chiles rellenos. What do I want? How can I choose?
“Carne guisada,” I say.
“Are you sure?” she chuckles.
“Yes. I’m sure.”
Carne guisada is the dish that eludes me in the kitchen. Not because it’s hard to make – it’s one of the simpler Tex-Mex staples to prepare — but because I can never make the roux and sauce the way Blanca Leal Estrada can. The funny thing about cooking comfort food from memory is that you usually get about 99 percent of the instructions right, but there’s always that one step you overlook, which almost always happens to be the most important one.
I watched my mother go through her recipe, watching closely for the big difference between her steps and mine.
– Cube and salt beef chuck. Check.
– Heat oil in skillet over medium heat, and then add the 1×1 inch chunks of meat. Check.
– Cover until meat is lightly browned. Add diced onion and bell pepper. Check.
– Cook veggies down and brown meat further before adding three teaspoons of all-purpose flour – wait, what?
That’s what I was doing wrong! I was browning the meat and taking it off the skillet before adding the flour. It usually turns out fine, but sometimes I end up with a clumpy goop. My mother just adds the flour onto the meat and lets it brown a bit before adding hot water, cumin, black pepper, and ¼ cup of tomato sauce. She lets the sauce thicken a bit and turns the heat down to simmer.
“This is ready,” she says as she checks on the rice and beans cooking on the backburners.
I give the sauce a taste. It’s not clumpy or stale like mine. It’s perfect, really. I take another spoonful and run the meaty sauce over my gums like an addict would with their first taste of cocaine in years. I heat up some packaged tortillas on the remaining burner, and wonder out loud whether it’s too late to make some from scratch. My mom smiles and lets me know, yes, it is too late. I feel like a child again. Maybe I’ll learn that lesson tomorrow.
As I sit at the dinner table a while later, watching my kid make carne guisada tacos next to his grandmother, I realize why food is so important and why my mother tried so hard to teach me to cook: good food brings people together, no matter how long they’ve been apart.