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The Girls of Cuernavaca

A circle of friends has stayed together for more than half a century, united by love, food and gossip.

May 02, 1996|JUANA VAZQUEZ GOMEZ

After half a century of sharing joy, sadness and even the death of loved ones, my mother's friends have a bond with each other as strong as if they were united by blood. Their friendship and love for each other have endured and flourished through an idea that was hatched at a special gathering they christened the Tanda.

The Tanda began as a simple enough idea. In the early 1940s, my parents moved from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, 40 miles south of the capital. At the same time, several couples their age, all newlyweds, also moved to the town.

Cuernavaca was becoming a haven for young people starting their "careers" and family lives. Most of the men were professionals--doctors, lawyers, engineers and businessmen. All the women were homemakers. Because most of the couples were strangers to the town, friendships were easy to start.

The young women would find each other at their children's schools and at social gatherings at the Rotary Club and the Lion's Club. They would meet as volunteers for the Red Cross or on the tennis courts, meticulously cared for by Dona Maria and her husband, or at the majestic greens of the old Club de Golf de Cuernavaca. Finally, the group of women decided to organize a gathering for all the couples at someone's home.

Twenty-something years later, when fate had made many women widows or when marriages foundered, what had become a weekly party for a group of half a dozen couples became the fortnightly Tanda for 15 women.

In Spanish, "tanda" means to alternate or take turns. And turns still they take today, 50 years after they first got together, alternating homes for the party.

Traditional tandas are used throughout Mexico to save money in a peculiar way. Each guest invests a set number of pesos to a fund that will be disbursed in a lump sum to one person. At year's end in this Tanda, however, all the funds go to a charity that benefits the Trinity Convent and Hospice for abused girls in Cuernavaca.

Tandas are also a time for each woman to show off her cooking skills and impress the other women with the marvelous recipes she has conjured up.

The most popular recipes are appetizers because "the girls," as they call themselves, prefer lighter meals in the semitropical climate of Cuernavaca. Most of them like their appetizers with tequila, accompanied by a dash of lemon juice and salt.

Some of the women in the Tanda left Cuernavaca over the years. But they have returned, and today the group is intact with all the original members.

There are a few rules that Tanda members must follow. Initiation into the group, for instance, is extremely difficult. Only a few new women have made it in and that was many years ago. Members are allowed to bring the occasional guest--perhaps a relative who is visiting from out of town--but if that guest tries to work her way into the group permanently, she is discreetly told to please stay away the next time.

A designated member, one of the founders, makes sure these wannabes are not allowed into the group. She is fond of saying, "We like to guard our privacy and keep our secrets amongst ourselves." My stepfather calls the group "the Untouchables."

Tanda meetings are notoriously long. They last for hours without any of the women ever showing any signs of fatigue or hurry. Their enthusiasm for life is inexhaustible. Even today, "the girls"--now in their 60s, 70s and 80s--sit for hours telling jokes, exchanging stories about their grandchildren and great-grandchildren as the tequila flows, along with the food and music. Husbands are usually invited to join in only at the end of the Tanda--after all the gossip has been spilled.

To celebrate an anniversary of the Tanda, however, or on a few such special dates as Cinco de Mayo, the women invite a select group of friends and the husbands. They hire a mariachi band or a trio and they prepare the best botanas they can muster.

Here are some of the recipes of the Tandas, ready to be shared with Angelenos this Cinco de Mayo. I can think of no better way to celebrate the Mexican holiday.

ELODIA'S CACTUS SALAD

2 or 3 cactus paddles, trimmed, cleaned and cut in spears

1/2 onion, chopped

2 large tomatoes, chopped

3 or 4 serrano chiles

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup vinegar

Salt, pepper

1 (6-ounce) can tuna

Toss cactus, onion, tomatoes and chiles in salad bowl. In small bowl, mix olive oil and vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour dressing over cactus and toss to coat well. Add tuna and toss again.

Makes 8 servings.

117 calories; 124 mg sodium; 4 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.44 gram fiber.

MARGOT'S SHRIMPS AL AJILLO

1 head garlic, finely chopped

1/2 white onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup olive oil

1 pound small shrimp

1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Salt

Fry garlic and onion in olive oil over medium heat until soft and transparent, but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add shrimp and parsley and cook until shrimp are cooked through. Season to taste with salt.

Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

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