After I had been living outside California and far from family for about five years, I started to try to make my Abuela’s recipes. My whole life, we had eaten her rice, beans, tamales, chorizo con huevos, and enchiladas during regular monthly and holiday/birthday visits. These were beloved foods, expected foods. Not once do I remember a childhood visit that did not feature her 32-quart dented, silver-colored pot half full of rice. There was always enough for my father, the person he was dating, my two uncles (the women they were dating), me, my sister, my grandpa, and a possible neighbor or unexpected friend. And then there were the leftovers. Almost as special as eating the fluffy pink rice in her warm cozy kitchen with the gauzy white half curtains that waved in the breeze of the ceiling fan was the Ziploc bag of rice you got to take home. If you were really lucky, it also came with a Ziploc bag of frijoles, some foil-wrapped tortillas, and a plastic grocery bag full of oranges or nectarines from their backyard. No one in the history of visits has ever left my Abuela’s house hungry or empty-handed.
It was summer when I asked to learn her rice recipe during one of my longer visits in from the Midwest where I was attending graduate school. This was years before the stroke that blocked a significant portion of the English she worked so hard to learn during her sixty years in the U.S., before the subdural hematoma which left a scar the circumference of a baseball stretching from the left ear back, the stitching eerily similar. And so typical for her, when the hair grew back, it was all thick salt with an edge of pepper, soon cut in the most stylish fashion. Even in the kitchen so many hours of the day, her nails were done, slacks pressed, a bright-colored blouse under her red apron. I did not inherit her sense of fashion or interest in the domestic, but I wanted to eat that rice whenever the spirit moved me.
What I didn’t know was that there was no recipe, no measurements in the way that I understood them. She didn’t use measuring cups or teaspoons.
“Sure, Mija,” she said when I asked to watch her. “You just go like this.” This became a blur of coffee mugs and eye-balled ingredients. I had a notebook with me, writing down what I thought the standard measurements might be. But two weeks later, back across the plains, my rice was somehow both oily and dry. I called her, “Grandma, how much? You know, how many teaspoons of salt?” I asked. She seemed confused by the question.
“No teaspoons,” her voice echoed from the phone speaker on the counter while I stood in the middle of the kitchen staring at my new cast iron skillet, vegetarian bullion, and long-grain rice. “Just do like I showed you.”
Grandma Chavez’s Mexican Arroz
Serves: ~ 8
1 coffee mug full of rice (the inexpensive white one)
3 coffee mugs full of water
Half of a white onion cut into 4 wedges
2 regular spoonfuls of tomato paste (almost half of a tiny can)
Really heaping soup spoonful of caldo con sabor de pollo (the green packaging)
A cupped palm of salt
Heat a cast iron skillet over medium open flame heat. Pour oil into the pan until the bottom is covered and it looks like a little too much. Rinse the mugful of rice two or three times under cold tap water, check that there are no bad grains—if you find bad ones, take out the bad ones.
Brown rice in oil until they are tanned like your brown hand (but not burned). Add spoonfuls of tomato paste and one mug of water, stir around. Add spoonful of powder pollo and another mug of water. Push the rice around in the pan with an old wooden spatula until pollo powder is dissolved. Pour the other mugful of water, maybe add a little more tomato paste, dump in the salt. Push everything around (without spilling the water) until it looks about right. Place onion wedges cut side down in the pan with the rice. Lower heat to medium-low, cover with whichever pot lid isn’t too small. Pot lids can be substituted with corning ware lids or old cookie sheets with an oversized can of something placed on top to weigh it down.
Check the rice in 20 mins. Smell it, then push around to mix, and take out a small spoonful to taste. Maybe add more water, or don’t. Put the lid back on for another 10 – 15 mins.
When rice is pink and on the verge of mushy, take pan off the heat and leave it on the stove for people to take bites of while they walk through the kitchen before transferring it to a corning dish and placing on the table for dinner.
Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the poetry collections, Hands That Break & Scar (Sundress Publications, 2017) and All Day, Talking (dancing girl press, 2014), selections of which were awarded the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the anthologies Xicanx: Mexican American Writers of the 21st Century and Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzalduan Borderlands as well as the journals Brevity, North American Review, Pretty Owl Poetry, Atticus Review, and The Fourth River Tributaries Series, among others. She recently joined the faculty at the University of Washington Tacoma where she teaches creative writing and Latinx/Chicanx-focused courses. She serves as the poetry coordinator for the Best of the Net Anthology, is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop, and is a ravenous consumer of all manner of carbohydrate.
Sarah Chavez’s Hands that Break and Scar