When she first married my grandfather, Guadalupe Ocampo rose every morning before 5 a.m. to cook for him.
She'd just turned 18; he was in his early 30s. "Everybody used to think he was my dad," Grandma now jokingly says. "They'd ask me, 'Where's your father?' "
If she'd had her way back then, she would have never gotten married so young. But her father insisted. Her father and my grandfather were friends--her father liked the fact that Grandpa had a good job and that he could keep my grandmother away from other boys.
"I remember the day I got married," she says. "I told myself, 'Well, just remember you had no choice in the matter--this is something you had to do.' I wanted to engrave that in my mind so I wouldn't have any regrets about what I'd done."
What my grandmother's father seemed to like most about Grandpa is that he was willing to help out at the family blacksmith shop. Her father would save up most of the day's jobs, and then, a few minutes before Grandpa was supposed to come home from work, he'd build the fire and pretend he'd been working for hours and needed a break. Grandpa was an easy mark for him.
Every morning, my grandfather would leave the house in East L.A. at 5:30 a.m. to work at a foundry in Vernon. It was Grandma's job to feed him breakfast and pack a lunch before he got out the door, and she had to work fast. "I used to get up at the last minute," she says. "A quarter to 5." She'd make tortillas, fry some beans, some eggs.
Often, she'd fill a tortilla with chorizo and potatoes. But he didn't always take tacos to work; sometimes his lunch would be leftovers from dinner. She'd pack the food in Pyrex bowls and he'd warm the food by setting the dishes on the huge furnace at work.
"I was always making something different," she says. "I used to spend three or four hours a day cooking, which I liked. I'd listen to Elena Salinas on the radio--she had a Mexican program and used to give the best recipes."
Not long after they were married, my grandparents started a family and moved to a tiny, but brand-new home in Pico Rivera. "For $50, we got a small house and a big lot," she says.
By this time, she was faster in the kitchen. Her reward: She got to sleep an extra 15 minutes every morning.
After she'd send my grandfather off to work, she'd wrap some of the food she'd just made into a tortilla for each of the kids and bring them a pre-breakfast snack in bed.
"We'd always wake up to the smell of tortillas," my mother remembers. It's a ritual she loved--and passed down. Even as a single working mom, she'd occasionally awaken me and my sister with an egg-and-bacon burrito, the aroma of frying bacon forever a part of my waking-hour dreams.
These days, when my family gets together, it's almost always for breakfast. Grandpa has passed away, but I always imagine that with our huge late-morning meals we're paying homage to his appetite--he was a rail-thin man capable of eating a breakfast for three.
Every Christmas morning we have eggs, tamales, Mexican sweet bread, chorizo, bacon or ham, beans, rice and often a batch of my grandmother's \o7 nopales \f7 (strips of cactus stewed with pork and red chile). This past Easter Grandma showed up with a new dish: beans fried with bacon and topped with green salsa, melted cheese and bits of \o7 chicharrones \f7 (pork skins). It's the base for the breakfast menu that follows.
"Oh," my grandmother says every time we get together, "I just don't cook the way I used to anymore." It's true, she doesn't cook as often as she once did. And for herself, she uses canola oil instead of lard and keeps her meals light.
"But when we get together," she whispers in my ear so no one hears, "that's when I splurge."
\o7 Watermelon Agua Fresca
Eggs With Rajas
Spicy Beans With Chicharrones
Oven-Baked Tortilla Chips
In the summer, few things could be easier to make than Watermelon Agua Fresca. During the height of the season, when watermelons are at their sweetest, you really only have to puree the fruit and pour it over ice. Of course, you can't always depend on the sweetness of watermelons. Sometimes a little sugar is required--but taste first and add slowly.
WATERMELON AGUA FRESCA
8 cups watermelon, without rind, seeded (if not seedless), cut into chunks
Puree watermelon in blender until smooth. Strain through sieve. Taste for sweetness. If needed, add 6 tablespoons Simple Syrup, 1 tablespoon per serving. Taste again. If needed, add remaining syrup.
Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve over ice. Makes about 6 cups, or 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
132 calories; 4 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 32 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.64 gram fiber.
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
Bring sugar and water to boil in small saucepan, then simmer 5 more minutes. Makes about 1/2 cup.