Oct. 2, 2009
This is dedicated to my mother.
There are a few things I could just about die for -- any time. One is chocolate, and the other, espresso. As I sit here writing at Barnes & Noble in Paramus, nouveau flamenco sounds from the speakers, and I'm reminded of my mother, my great friend, fellow foodie and raconteur who is no longer with us. I am reminded of her because, as her passion was literature, she loved to be surrounded by books (as I now am), and because after that, there was food and sharing it with those she loved. Right now, I am enjoying something she would have liked very much -- my own espresso concoction -- one part espresso, one part hot chocolate, and a splash of soy (to mellow the color).
My mother loved food and also liked to sneak it. She was addicted to Marshmallow Fluff. You could be searching high and low in a cupboard for a favorite long lost cup and find there behind the woodwork, her secret stash, that Marshmallow stuff. One time I caught her, jar in hand, spoonful in mouth, and she explained, "This is exquisite -- I cannot help myself."
She was a gourmand, like me, but she could enjoy food like nobody. Watching her savor something delectable such as a piece of chocolate, a section of Key Lime pie, yes, even Marshmallow Fluff was an experience royale. Her lips pursed and you felt she was kissing the food inside her mouth. A part of you wanted to be there too. Then her fine long-fingered hands would fly up to her face, clench and fly free in a flamenco gesture of complete gratification.
You have to know how passionate she was and how much she loved the idea that she could savor something so delicious and sinful and have it disappear inside her -- never to be seen again -- as if swallowing, she might never be found out, even by her own body.
There was no richer experience than being asked to partake of a morsel of something delicious with my mother at the kitchen counter. When she was in a good frame of mind, happy and not plagued by worry or a bout of depression, from which she was prone to suffer, there was nothing she could do that did not captivate anyone I ever knew -- child or adult. She told stories like no one, making you live in her words and actions, leaving you breathless for more.
I can see her now, unraveling a small package, a dessert surprise, which she would treat like a filched prize that she had gotten just for you, and so absolutely had to be partaken. She enjoyed deep dark, bitter chocolate while I preferred sweet chocolate, and we both reveled in desserts and espresso, which provided the kick that catapulted us into some of our finest gossip and conversations.
Chocolate and espresso are both part of our Colombian culture and heritage. Colombians love to talk and laugh and eat. At three o'clock, afternoons when we were visiting relatives in Bogotá, we would drink hot chocolate, dipping sharp cheese into it, and nibble from an assortment of fruits and cheeses laid out across the long dining table. And we exchanged stories.
My mother usually presided, imitating relatives and friends, being outrageous and hysterical, so hysterical my uncle and aunt often doubled over, blushing so that one worried how much redder they could get without bursting. My uncle laughed so hard, he cried. It always endeared me to him to watch him, a suave and dapper man in a fine business suit, so moved by my mother, he had to wipe tears from his eyes.
Later, after we had moved to the U.S., and I was an adult, the experience of sharing a rare dessert with my mother -- say, a mousse pie or mocha tart or ice cream extravaganza -- would be the catalyst that would put her over the edge, causing her to slip into that most precarious pasttime -- revealing family secrets.
There were plenty of secrets to tell. She made me promise never to repeat them -- yet afterward, proceeded to write nearly all of them into her stories and novels!
She wrote about her crazy Uncle Saul, who claimed to carry the secrets of the universe on a slip of paper in his breast pocket. And beautiful but simple-minded Aunt Adelaida who was the butt of her demented brother, who would, for example, get her to rest her head sideways on a bed of grass, so he could set rocks against it. My mother wrote about her great grandparents, the man, so jealous of his wife's voice that he imprisoned her in an attic, where she went mad and died young. One relative attached a rope to a church chandelier and leapt from the balcony landing buck naked at the foot of the altar during a Sunday Mass. As far as I know, my mother never wrote about him.
While it's alcohol that gets most people going, it was lovely desserts and the perico, espresso, that cup of black heaven, that would launch my mother into realms of the forbidden, into declaring those things that were, for her, daring to reveal. Growing up in a repressive environment, my mother was forced to stuff much of what she wanted to say.
She grew up in Bogotá, Colombia during the beginning of a period called The Violence, when anyone critical of the government could be assassinated in broad daylight on the streets. Her father, a prestigious judge, dared to defend peasants in his courtroom and criticized the oligarchy. As a result of this, he and his family were forced into exile many times. Once, when my mother was around five, as she and her father and a few of his friends descended the steps of a capital building, a car came to a screeching halt below, a door flew open and someone began shooting. One of my mother's father's friends, an official, grabbed my mother, ferreting her to safety in a taxi, and fortunately no one was killed or injured that day.
Experiences like that must have percolated inside her for years, begging to be told. When my mother finally gave herself permission to write, she gave herself wholeheartedly to the task. She did not begin writing until after leaving her own country, after marrying my American dad and moving to the U.S. Even then, she chose to write in a language not her own, perhaps believing that this would distance her just enough so that she could revisit her past with clarity and objectivity.
For whatever reason, perhaps having to do with the culture and time in which she was born and raised, my mother associated indulging in special foods with being naughty, even sacreligious, which she loved to be. Being sacreligious must have been the complete antithesis of what she had been expected to be as a child -- silent, proper and obedient, always fearing that an inappropriate word or gesture from her could lead to a fiasco -- someone's imprisonment, even death.
My mother and I liked being naughty together. After Saturday shopping sprees at Bloomies, we would settle at a lunch counter somewhere and order a wicked dessert. She would eye the white cream curling up out of the cup of a white chocolate mousse with Cointreau that beckoned her.
"This is soo good," she would say, closing her eyes as if in prayer. "Too good. May God forgive me."
The desserts didn't have to be elegant or complicated. Just plain ice cream could do it. Each spoonful was a deeply felt experience, utter delight.
"Should we have another? No, no, I cannot," she would ask and answer herself, her eyes roaming the room, sad for something lost that someone somewhere had deprived her of and that had somehow abandoned her in its wake.
Her relationship to her treats and desserts was varied too. She might gaze at the truffle cream between two cookies fondly as if it was a cute child, or cruelly, as if the thing had the capacity to persecute her, until she somehow convinced herself that what she longed for was indeed benign.
Little treats bedeviled her -- candy by her bedside, truffles, and especially Marshmallow Fluff, which she hid and ate in a kind of ecstasy, her pleasure beholding to nobody.
"This, this is mine," her secret indulgence seemed to say. "I am owned by everyone -- my husband and five children, by my writing even, but this, this is all mine."
Second to discussing literature or her sinful affection for things sweet with her daughters, my mother loved cajoling her friends into divulging their best recipes, their secrets. Her best friends -- Fran Decker, Charlotte Sabo -- were superb cooks. My mother loved to envy them the talent she did not possess and ravished their treasures guiltlessly, listening spellbound to each step of their concoctions. It was the way she loved them back for having fed her habit. My mother would take a bite of something delicious from their kitchens and beg to know how it was made.
"I place the little buggers in the oven, say at 450," Fran would say.
"And they look like this! Unbeleefable! Dees, dees is true ecstasy!"