The Synthesis of Her Traditions
By Julieta Escobedo Salazar
In my childhood, I grew up surrounded by many activities that defined me as a Mexican and I wasn’t fully aware of them until the day I moved out of Mexico. All of these activities built a part of my idiosyncrasy, especially: family reunions and food.
Family reunions and food were interconnected in my family. We would gather with my mother’s siblings almost every Friday for “pan dulce” (sweet bread) and hot chocolate. She had 6 siblings so we would be approximately 35 people between family and close friends.
But my best-loved days of the year were Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Both meant a week of preparation. The whole process would start with commuting to my second favorite place in Mexico, the farmer’s market where my mom grew up, Santa Rosa de Lima.
This market was one long building where you could find life and death under the same roof. There were: fresh and colorful pyramids of arranged produce; fruit stands, which had thin fruit slices to sample so you could taste that they were ripe; smelly seafood stands, one after the other that made me feel sick; and then the butchers on the corner with the humongous cow head and some pig feet hanging beside the intense crimson chorizos. The poultry with the vibrant yellow sign promoting chicken giblets made me nauseous and I would keep walking quickly towards the florist where big red roses, flower bouquets and sympathy arrangements for funerals were on display.
My favourite stands were the candy shops and the forbidden one (as a child raised in a Catholic school), the esoteric business. I was mesmerized by the big skeleton dressed with a red cloak. She was holding a globe in one hand and a tall scythe in the other, her bony feet coming out from her attire. She was the Holy Lady of Death. I was so curious about it because no one talked to me about her. I could watch the statue while my mom bought fruit from the stand beside it.
I was also intrigued by the variety of new candles that they sold. There is a specific candle to fight almost all of the current matters that oppress the Mexican population like “chupa cabras”, currency devaluation, and also for any illness, such as coronavirus. How dogmatic for my 40 year old self! So abstruse and complex for my younger self!
The balloon guy walked amongst the children, his sales hook was the whistle and as soon as I heard it I knew it was him, he played with the bouncy balloons right in front of me. There was a very old lady wearing her traditional attire, a long white shirt called huipil with a long skirt underneath. Her leather sandals let me see her swollen feet, her beautiful wrinkles complimented her almond eyes, and a black yarn ribbon intertwined and held both braids. She was selling her handmade corn antojitos (snacks), her thick hands helped me guess. My mother always cared for her, I think she reminded her of her grandma.
Finally, some clay piñatas and fruit for stuffing them. Kids used to break clay piñatas and throw themselves to get the fruit, that was our 80’s candy. The best fruits of the season were mandarins, green sugar cane and small jicamas (a delicious white root that is juicy and tastes delicious with lime and salt). You could end up with your knees all scratched from the clay, but that wasn’t a reason to hold yourself back.
After all of the purchases were done, the food preparation was next and we did it one day before the dinner so that it could be as fresh as possible.
Peeling kilos of dehydrated shrimps made my fingertips dried and wrinkled. Dicing apples for the fruit salad wasn’t my strongest skill, but I mastered my technique with the years.
We prepared fruit punch days in advance, the infusion would get better and more concentrated with time. We boiled a big pot of fresh guava, apricot, sugar cane, apples, cinnamon and dried hibiscus. The punch was ready as soon they started dancing in the water. Holiday movies were playing on public television as our background while we talked. I cherished these moments with my mother because we had meaningful conversations and I was learning how to cook without realizing it in that moment.
On New Year’s Eve, people complimented the smell of spices which were delicious, a mix of cloves, smoked chiles, cumin and garlic. Everything was baked on that day: Mexican Bacalao (cod), Orange Chicken, Shrimp Soup, Pork Adobo, Romeritos (tender sprigs of seepweed) with deep fried shrimp patties in a sauce called mole, fruit salad, cheese flan as dessert…so much food. The house was warm and full of grown ups holding mugs with fruit punch. Kids were running around with sugar cane sticks, chewing them, and some toys. Sometimes the adults ended up dancing after 4 AM, drinking and having a good time. The children danced too, but only if we were not sleepy enough.
My last New Year’s Eve with my family was in 2012. The last big family reunion was in 2018 and it felt so good. There was food and many people to follow up with in our lives. I carried their children and they snuggled my son. All of the new kids played together, ran and chased the dogs. There was no fruit punch. We grilled steaks and nopales (an edible cactus), we talked of how we used to get frightened by the scary stories and we laughed. An ethereal corsi e recorsi (Vico) of my life with different children and different food and the all new bonding memories.
In Mexico, family reunions and food are braided into our soul just like my Mom’s hair was braided in that old black and white photo from her childhood. I am a synthesis of her traditions and experiences, and now I am braiding my son’s interconnection to this farmer’s market and their people.