Some food memories stick with you for one reason or another. Sometimes the reason is not explainable and other times it’s crystal clear, serving as a reference point to a period in our lives that we hold dear. I was barely 10 when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away. She often stayed with my family for long periods of time taking care of me and my sister. She would pass the time with us by playing games and cooking. The house always smelled amazing. She was adept at cooking many delicious Latin meals and basic food items like rice and beans or fried sweet plantains. The fall before she left, for whatever reason, we grew a bit of corn in our back yard garden, enough for a few meals. While different than corn from Honduras (where my mother’s side of the family is from), she took it upon herself to use some of the corn to create corn tamales or as they are knowing in Honduras, montucas. I remember peeling them open after they had just been cooked, the steam escaping and the sweet aroma of the corn escaping into the air. We devoured them instantly. The semi-solid, slightly creamy tamale, a combination of sweet with a bit of salt was amazing. It was one tradition that my mother didn’t pick up before moving to the US and as a result I never had the likes of it again. I would ask my mother every so often if she would attempt to make it, but without any basis or experience for making it inevitably she didn’t know where to start.
Cultural heritage and tradition are just as much a part of if not entwined with cooking as the ingredients. Meals start with a blank canvas that is shaped by the experiences, traditions and tastes of those who cook. I was listening to an episode of the podcast, Chef’s Story. During the interview, Chef Joe Viehland stated, “if you don’t cook with flavors from your childhood, you have no frame of reference.” In some ways I agree with this. When I cook, I’m often drawn to using ingredients like tortillas or plantains and spices like cumin to shape my meals. I believe that you can learn and develop perspective for new flavors, although it may take more time and effort for them to feel “authentic”.
Last night I visited my parents’ house to see my mother’s stepmother, Bella. She was on vacation and visiting the Boston area. While making plans, my mother said that she was running to the grocery story to pick up corn to make montucas. I smiled. I wondered if I would finally relive the taste memory that I had longed for. We sat down for dinner. I happened to sit in my childhood chair location. To my delight, Bella served up some amazing montucas.
Each bite brought me back to that day when I first tasted my grandmothers. This time around, my mother was around watching and learning. It’s funny, as Bella made the same remarks about the corn being different, more sweet and watery than the savory and hearty varieties found in Latin America. Despite the differences, the end result was right for me. This was my memory and I know I’ll be there at the stove, watching and learning when it’s time to make them again to keep that memory alive.