My Grandmother's Guacamole
El Guacamole de mi abuela
Miel de la Tierra Studio Newsletter - Volume 2, Issue 1
It’s deep in the heart of winter, but here in California, it’s the time when many of the avocado varieties we grow in the state are ready. Unlike Hass with their bumpy black skin, these thin green skinned varieties are ready right now to be picked and ripened. They’re showing up in CSA boxes, at the Farmer’s Markets, and maybe some of you have wondered why you’re seeing green skinned varieties for sale in the stores. This is the land I grew up in, and where I live again. The avocado tree in my garden currently is a young one. Given drought conditions, it may not ever produce. The drying Santa Ana winds last longer and are more fierce than before and I had to move the tree site in order to give it better growing conditions. In keeping with permaculture ideas, it has a plant guild growing beneath it to keep the soil protected and cool, as well as give the beneficial insects food and a place to live. A little extra help--daisies, sage, and herbs during the summer like basil and borage, will make a bit of difference for the tree. I hope it makes it and gives avocados for somebody, if not to me.
All this has me thinking about the guacamole I ate growing up. My grandmother made the best, but she was a strange and enigmatic figure to me. As I was led to do, I always chalked her countenance up to her hearing loss and the language barrier between us. She was explained to me in this way by others in my family. As I recall, the story is that she did know English to some capacity, but as she got older and lost more and more of her hearing, she reverted back to her primary language of Spanish. The other part of the story is that her hearing loss is attributed to having been kicked in the horse as a child, although other stories say it had to do with being beaten by an uncle. Needless to say, trauma of some sort was involved and the exact details were swirled around in the lore of who she was. According to photos, she was a beautiful young woman, with dark hair, and green eyes. By the time I knew her, she was fairly wrinkled as grandmother’s can be. What stood out to me were her eyes, which looked out in a wild way, with a deeply furrowed brow. Coupled with the fact that I never saw her smile, in my childhood estimation she looked scary and on the verge of getting very angry. I preferred to avoid her as a result.
Practically speaking, avoidance was fairly easy to do because visits with my grandparents were rare, despite their not living far away. When a visit happened, cooking or a meal of some sort was always an integral part. The women—my mother and aunt and grandmother, would go off into the kitchen and the sound of their talking would emanate out from the swinging door between the dining room and the kitchen, up the stairwell, and beyond the laundry room into the backyard. Loud, was associated with my grandmother. Talking had to get louder in order for her to be able to hear over the hub bub of cooking preparation sounds. Because it was loud, I always associated it with yelling—that everyone was angry with or because of her. With that wild and vacant look about her, coupled with not saying much directly to me, there was little to change my childhood perception of her.
Here I am now, a middle aged adult, and I think of how much I love cooking. It’s both a part of my art and informs my visual artmaking. It connects me to my own culture, as well as others I have an affinity with. So, it strikes me that I never cooked with my grandmother. Ceramic bowls, black on the outside with a slip of sky blue on the inside, held guacamole, while smaller bowls of cut glass had the very hot salsa. They would emerge from the din of the kitchen to be delivered to wherever the men were conversing. I loved that guacamole, and would’ve devoured a whole bowl if I’d been allowed. The salsa was intense for an unaccustomed stomach to handle. I had to encase it in the absorbing coolness of the fatty avocado in order to appreciate its heat and flavor. Trip after trip was made back and forth to that blue and black bowl as I surreptitiously gobbled up my grandmother’s guacamole with tortilla chips. It’s notable because that was the only way I would eat avocado as a child, despite two giant, productive trees that grew in my parent’s backyard.
With this strong visceral recollection of the one food I associate with my grandmother, I realize that I never knew her. Those moments in the kitchen, I wasn’t encouraged to join in. It wasn’t an opportunity for connection with her via food. It was made implicit the time was for my mother to spend with her mother, or her mother and sister. The common language spoken between them, Spanish, was just another way to keep them insulated, and me, out. So, my association with my grandmother was that she was my mother’s mother, and that was made very clear to me when it was announced by my mother that “my parents are coming to visit” or “we’re going to visit my parents today.”
As a result, I never looked upon her as my grandmother. The thought of trying to forge connections never crossed my mind given the foundation I’d received. Instead, I grew up seeing her as two distant and distinct things, and both were someone you didn’t approach. One was as a historical figure—the woman from her past in Mexico, via old photos. The second was as an honorary figure whom I needed to respect, because she was my maternal matriarch who belonged to my mother. But, in each, a heartfelt and personal connection, was not fostered.
Until now, I’d never given much thought to the explanation of her hearing loss, or the language barrier. As an adult whose spent years in the classroom with both deaf and English as a Second Language students, one of the most important things I’ve learned is the relevance of the universal language of food. I use it in order to build community across seemingly impenetrable lines of difference in education. It’s generally been food and the sharing of it that consistently has the power to connect students across words, generations, and cultures.
This makes me wonder what would have happened if I had been taught to foster this type of connection with my grandmother. I understand that my mother may not have known how to facilitate the process. What if I had shared a bowl of guacamole and chips with my grandmother, instead of eating them alone? She’s been gone for almost twenty years now and I’m left to intuit my grandmother’s recipe by taste alone.
My memory is always slightly off and will forever remain so.
-salsa making from last summer's bumper crop of cherry tomatoes.
1 ripe avocado, mashed
1 tsp. ground cumin
0.5 tsp. Lawry's garlic salt (if it's not this Brand, omit)
chopped fresh cilantro to taste
diced spring/green onion to taste
fresh lemon or lime juice to taste
salt to taste
--you can also add ready made salsa to mashed avocado, but that’s sort of like cheating.
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