It often feels like I have a thousand ideas floating around inside my head. For the most part, 90% of them just stay floating; shifting and evolving to something else until completely forgotten. Other times these ideas just begin to mold and shape themselves into something so much more substantial to the point where it seems like a large boulder is in my brain. It becomes so that I can’t think of anything else until I’ve dealt with it or done whatever it is that has been persistently nagging my mind. It’s like my brain is a slow cooker and everything inside of it gets done at a different time.
Now… let me tell you a story, or rather the background to some stories:
I think every family has their stories which they bring out in fond memory whenever they get together. Many of the stories before my time have been repeated so often that they have just stuck in my memory. Other stories were told just a time or two but were indelibly recorded in my mind. What I began to notice, however, was that lot of these stories had to do with food. The original idea of attempting a sort of cookbook came about a few years ago when it began as a joke between myself, my mother and my aunt upon first realizing the connection. Some of the recipes are actual ones that can be made, others are more metaphorical and still others were actual recipes but I honestly would not hazard anyone to make them. But the more I analyzed each remembered “recipe” as I grew up, the more I could identify certain factors that had to do with the history of my family and the relationships had between each person with one another.
While my older brother was the English major and the, supposedly, main writer of our family, I don’t think he has the sensitivity and capacity to analyze some of these stories and relate them to our own family. So the task sort of unofficially fell on me, if ever it were to be done. The idea may have started off as a joke but I have to say that the idea struck me quite seriously. Like I mentioned, I needed to put it into my mind to let it process and slow-cook until the right moment. Lately I’ve become compelled to get theses recipes and stories written down and share some of them with others.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I’m home more and have been spending a lot of time with my grandparents; my grandmother often accompanies me on my errands and inevitably I hear more stories or repetitions of some that I already knew but never tire of hearing. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to have spent as much time with them as I have and gotten to know them and their history. Perhaps its in seeing them now, growing older and declining in health with their age that compells me to try and honor them by telling their stories in my own way. I love my family very much and whenever I refer to my family, I refer to just this specific group comprised of my mother, my mother’s parents, my mother’s siblings and my own two brothers with the added wives and children for both my uncle and my older brother. (Sidenote: While, as a Puerto Rican family, our numbers are quite large, I cannot say that I associate at all with my father or my father’s family. But that was my father’s choice and for those who cannot make a choice, like my younger half-siblings, I will try in the future to get to know them but on my own terms.)
So, whenever this family cookbook gets mentioned in my house, it has been universally decided that the title of it and the leading story is one about Calabaza Pela’ (translation: plain pumpkin). And here’s why:
You could say that we’ve only reached the classification of middle-class with this generation, but we’re hanging more on the lower end of it. My grandparents both came from very poor and humble backgrounds and my mother and her siblings grew up in this environment. My uncle just recently visited for 2 weeks and everytime he’s here there are stories to be had. It always amazes me how differently people remember the same period of time in their lives. You often have to listen to the account of the same event from several view points in order to get an accurate idea of where the truth of the memory lies. My uncle recounts the past with exaggerated hilarity, my aunt remembers things with serene plain-ness and my mother remembers things with a lot of anger while my grandmother tells things with embarrased humility and my grandfather in a more obtuse but blunt way.
But all tellers seem to agree on this one story where the words of my grandmother, to me, are so profoundly touching that I can not retell this story without actually crying over it. (Maybe you can say that my way of retelling is by far the most sentimental) So know that even as I type this, tears are clouding my vision but I shall endeavor not to allow typos to escape me as I do.
As was the tendency for impoverished Puerto Rican families looking to change their lot in life, my grandparents had moved from PR to Chicago, IL, when my mother (their youngest) was barely a year old. As was often found by such families after a few years, their situation was often not very improved by their moving and many of them return to the island where at least they can own their own land and perhaps even work it a little to get some sustenance for their family. So it was that my grandfather had to bring back his wife and three children back to PR. They could not afford to carry much back with them. My mother often mentions with deep bitterness the fact that she could not travel back with even her childhood doll.
For a time they stayed with the large grouping of my grandmother’s siblings and children as the land that my great-grandfather left behind was divided. My grandmother was the third oldest of 6 but the eldest of the girls. She cannot recall when injury she may have caused her father for her to be the one child left nothing upon his death. However, after pleading her case to her siblings, the land was divided so that all of them could have their piece. The house that was then constructed was of extremely modest size. My uncle is the one who says that it was so tiny that you did not have enough space to extend your hands to be able to decently clap your hands. (Sidenote: As the columns of the house still stand on the property which my grandparents and my mother’s house are located, I can tell you that it was about 15′ wide and perhaps maybe 20′ long)
It was on one of their first few nights in this house, when they had nothing more to eat except plain boiled pumpkin. It was all they could afford and my grandmother said in most heartfelt ways “Jamas pense que tendriamos que comer calabaza pela’ sazonado con solo la sal de nuestras lagrimas y nada mas.” (translation: I never thought that we would only have to eat plain pumpkin, seasoned solely by the salt from our tears, and nothing more.)
- Boil pumpkin in 3inch chunks until fork tender.
- Consume with the heartfelt grief of all things missing with such a plain meal for your family.
It is my hope to bring a new story and recipe every week and try to introduce you to the amazing people in my life. I can only hope to do them justice by honoring such memories and learn more about my own family history. Such it was that the title was created for the series of stories that could go with it… “Calabaza Pela’ y Algo Mas” (Plain Pumpkin and Something More) because there is so much more to tell and since then there have been joys to flavor our meals aside from sorrows.